Home > Top 10 Online Social Work Degree Programs for 2017

Top 10 Online Social Work Degree Programs for 2017

The field of social work offers substantial rewards to the professionals who choose it as a career. Though challenging, social work professionals are able to improve the quality of life for the most vulnerable and needy populations. Those who graduate with a degree in social work can find jobs with a wide range of human service agencies identifying individuals, families, and groups in need, determining appropriate intervention actions and providing support services. Social workers practice in hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and government agencies. Some specialize in specific populations such as pediatrics, families, or geriatrics. They might also specialize in a specific at-risk group such as abused children, drug or alcohol addicted individuals, or pregnant teens. There is a substantial need for qualified, educated social workers in all urban, suburban, and even rural areas spanning the U.S.

To pursue a career in social work, education is essential, and salary ranges increase with advanced studies. Professionals with advanced degrees receive much higher salaries than those with an associate or bachelor’s degree, however, individuals trying to pursue additional educational accomplishments while working may face significant challenges and difficulties. Online degree options provide students with the flexibility necessary to allow them to successfully complete their educational goals without interfering with other responsibilities.

Below is a list of the top ranked online programs for 2017, offering the highest quality educational programs at a range of degree levels from undergraduate to graduate and post-graduate certificate programs. Each one is uniquely designed to increase the skills and knowledge of the students while providing the education necessary to advance their careers and increase their salary.

What Are The Best Online Social Work Programs?

What Degree is Needed to Become a Licensed Social Worker?

Every state in the U.S. requires social workers who plan to open independent practices to earn professional licensure, and the level of licensure that you’re eligible for depends on your level of education. At a minimum, you must have a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) approved by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Graduates with this online social work degree are qualified for entry-level positions, including jobs as a case management aid, juvenile court liaison, or community outreach worker.

Some states and employers also require that social workers hold a master’s in social work (MSW) degree. The MSW prepares graduates for a wide variety of careers, including marriage and family therapist, mental health professional, child welfare specialist, and licensed clinical social workers. As a result, many BSW graduates decide to continue their studies and enroll in online MSW programs, which allows them to secure management-level positions immediately after graduation.

Accreditation for Online Social Work Programs

Academic accreditation is important for any degree program, but this is especially true for an online social work degree. First, regionally accredited programs are guaranteed to meet extensive standards for quality and credibility. For example, an accredited master’s curriculum will cover core social work competencies and include a requirement of at least 900 hours of field experience. More importantly, only accredited online MSW programs will meet state licensure requirements. Earning a degree from an unaccredited program will limit your eligibility for advanced placement opportunities.

Many programs hold at least two types of accreditation: one from a regional accrediting agency and the other from the CSWE, the only accrediting body for social work in the United States. The CSWE provides programmatic accreditation, which guarantees that graduates are adequately prepared to become professionals in the field. Determining whether a school has achieved accreditation can be confusing, as some are more transparent than others. Thankfully, the CSWE offers a helpful directory of all accredited online social work degrees on its website.

What Can You Do With a Social Work Degree?

In the field of human services, few degrees open as many doors as a degree in social work. Earning an online social work degree will prepare you for a variety of careers in social work, as well as in other disciplines like administration, clinical practice, and advocacy roles in the government and nonprofit sectors. An online social work degree is also the perfect choice for those who want to become therapists in any field, or who want to manage social responsibility or community engagement programs in corporate settings. Below are a few examples of some of the most common roles pursued by graduates with an online social work degree:

Salary Expectations for Social Workers

While not widely considered a lucrative career, social work is a thriving profession with extensive opportunities for salary growth. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the field will grow 19% by 2020, which is well above the national average. Your salary depends largely on experience, but social workers in the top 10% of earners take home considerably more than the average American. The below career paths are only a few of many that you can pursue after graduating with an online social work degree:

Licensing for Social Work Graduates

When evaluating your options, you should keep in mind that licensing and certification requirements vary from state to state. Some graduates obtain a social work license in the state where they earned their degree, while others choose to go elsewhere. This is an important choice because you will only be able to practice where you have your license. Be sure to check with your state’s licensing agency to find out the requirements, which typically include supervised work experience or continuing education. Below you’ll find a quick overview of licenses you can pursue after earning your social work degree online.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

This is the full professional license to become an LCSW, which is a subdivision of social work. The possible career paths are varied, but LCSW licensure is best suited for those who wish to open a private practice, work in research or policy making, or take up an administrative role.

Requirements: For an LCSW, you’ll want to look at online MSW programs. You must have a graduate degree from an accredited institution and several thousand hours of paid professional experience to qualify. State-specific benchmarks will also apply, with virtually every state requiring a passing grade on the Association on Social Work Boards (ASWB) exam.

Certified Advanced Practice Social Worker (CAPSW)

This is another good option for graduates of online MSW programs pursuing a career in clinical social work. The CAPSW is an advanced-level licensure that prepares professionals for careers in specialized areas such as therapeutic emotional counseling.

Requirements: You will need:

  • An accredited MSW or doctorate degree
  • Several thousand hours of supervised clinical social work experience. These don’t necessarily have to be paid.
  • To pass a master’s level ASWB exam
Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW)

In some states, the LAPSW is the highest level of licensure. Your subsequent career outlook will depend on which level of credential the state board regulates: either advanced generalist or clinical. The former prepares you to perform administrative or “generalist” services such as case management or community organization, while the latter prepares you to become a mental health worker who provides services such as counseling, therapy, and diagnosis or treatment of illness.

Requirements: LAPSW requirements are rather rigorous. In addition to state-specific requirements, you’ll need:

  • An accredited MSW or doctorate degree
  • Extensive supervised clinical experience, usually 3,000 hours over two years. These include 100 hours of face-to-face supervision
  • To pass the Advanced Generalist or Clinical level ASWB exam
  • To pass a criminal background check

Financing Your Online Social Work Degree

An online degree in social work is clearly a worthy investment, and to cover the cost, there are many different types of financial aid available. The first step is filling out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which will qualify you for financial aid from the federal government. The most popular option is to take out federal student loans, which offer deferred interest and payments while you are earning your degree.

There are also no-cost grants or scholarships, which are awarded for commitment to special projects or based on academic merits or financial need. Finally, you can explore resources such as employer tuition assistance (if you currently work full-time), private aid from religious or service organizations, campus employment, and Federal Work-Study or graduate assistantships. U.S. Army veterans are also eligible for funding under the Yellow Ribbon Program.

Repayment costs on student loans can add up quickly. In fact, the average cost of online MSW programs is over $20,000. This is where loan forgiveness programs come in. Depending on your eligibility, you may want to consider a few options for reducing your debt. The National Health Service Corps Loan Repayment Program offers up to $50,000 in exchange for two years of service in a high-need Health Professional Shortage Area. There’s also the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which forgives the remaining balance on your loan after you’ve made 120 monthly payments while in full-time employment.


To determine the best online social work programs, we looked at the most important factors prospective students, mainly common predictors of future success and a school’s commitment to online programs. This boils down to admissions rate, student loan default rate, retention rate, graduation rate, and the percent of students enrolled in online classes. All data points are taken from information provided by colleges and universities to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Each factor is weighted evenly in order to give an objective view and determine the 10 best online Social Work programs. To calculate our rankings, we looked at a school’s ranking when organized by a single factor, and then averaged each category’s ranking to find an overall score: Admissions Rate (20%) + Default Rate (20%) + Retention Rate (20%) + Graduation Rate (20%) + Percent of Students Enrolled in Online Classes (20%) = Final score.

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