Best Master of Social Work Degrees

Those passionate about social work can advocate for the oppressed and fight for change. Check out our ranking of the best master of social work (MSW) programs.

Best Master of Social Work Degrees

Are you ready to find your fit?

Learners often pursue master's in social work degrees to prepare for careers as licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs). Graduates can also work as family therapists and career counselors. Applicants to social work programs typically need a bachelor's degree from an accredited school. Application materials may also include recommendation letters, a resume, and test scores.

Students earning a degree in social work commonly take classes in human behavior and the social environment. They also take mental health practice and integrative technology courses. Degree-seekers work with clients during a practicum and internship.

This guide covers typical costs and classes for social work degree-seekers. The following sections also detail earning potential and licensure requirements for graduates.

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Questions About Social Work Degrees

Q. Can I get a social work degree online?

Yes. Many online social work degrees do not require any campus visits. However, learners generally complete in-person internship and practicum experiences.

Q. Do social workers need a license?

LCSWs need a degree in social work and a license. Depending on their employer and job title, other professionals in the field may not need a license.

Q. What type of social worker gets paid the most?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the highest-paid professionals in the field include social and community service managers, school and career counselors, and marriage and family therapists.

Why Get a Degree in Social Work?

People can earn a master's in social work degree to enter the growing field. The BLS projects employment for social workers to increase 12% from 2020-2030, faster than the average for all occupations. Additionally, master's degree-holders often earn higher salaries than professionals without a graduate degree.

Online education appeals to many working professionals. Students pursuing master's in social work degrees online often take classes asynchronously. These learners can schedule coursework around other responsibilities. Online learning also allows students to attend out-of-state programs without commuting or relocating.

How Much Does a Social Work Degree Cost?

Some of the best online social work degrees offer competitive tuition rates. However, graduate tuition usually costs more than undergraduate tuition. The average cost of a master's degree was $66,340 in 2021, according to the Education Data Initiative. In-state public schools generally offer the lowest tuition rates.

Working students can pursue tuition-reimbursement programs through their employer to save on costs. Students can also submit the FAFSA to apply for federal financial aid. The federal government provides grants and low-interest loans to qualifying students.

How Much Do Social Work Graduates Make?

According to the BLS, social workers earn a median salary of $51,760 per year. This figure includes licensed and unlicensed professionals. Local governments and ambulatory healthcare services offer the highest median salaries. Social workers in Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Nevada earn more than social workers in other states.

LCSWs with a master's degree often qualify for higher salaries than bachelor's degree-holders. This increased earning potential can make a graduate degree a wise investment. A master's degree in social work may also qualify graduates for management positions.

Courses in a Master's in Social Work Program

Social work degrees feature foundational coursework in topics such as human behavior and social policy and services. Most master's in social work degrees also require professional experiences classes. Students must complete up to 1,000 internship hours.

The sample curriculum below introduces three classes students often take before a practicum or internship. Available classes vary by program and can impact a student's academic experience and career options. Learners should compare prospective programs' curricula.

  • Foundations of Social Work

    This class introduces social work's impact on society. Coursework explores social workers' responsibilities, social justice, diverse communities, and ethics. Learners examine challenges that social workers face. This course prepares students for upper-division requirements.
  • Human Behavior and the Social Environment

    Social workers must understand how people develop mentally and physically throughout their lives. Students in this class examine human development from various perspectives. Coursework explores social, psychosocial, and cognitive development theories.
  • Social Welfare Policy

    Social workers use local, state, and federal social welfare programs to help clients. Degree-seekers in this course research agencies and discuss welfare policy challenges. They also analyze social workers' role in the welfare system. Learners consider how social workers advance social justice.

How to Become a Social Worker

Bachelor's degree-holders can pursue administrative social work positions. These professionals often hold an undergraduate degree in social services or psychology. However, many careers in the field require a master's degree. Master's degree-seekers develop the clinical and management skills necessary to help clients. Graduate students complete a supervised practicum and internship to meet licensure requirements.

Social workers' responsibilities vary by employer and job title. However, these professionals typically interview clients, research resources, and complete paperwork. Professionals work with clients for extended periods and track each client's progress. Social workers can specialize in an area such as families, children, schools, or healthcare.

Best Master of Social Work Degrees

  1. University of California-Los Angeles

    Los Angeles, CA




    AU.S. News World Reporttop-ranked program, UCLAs Masters of Social Work program is offered through the highly reputable Luskin School of Public Affairs and it blends several topicsadolescent issues, aging, child welfare, immigration, mental health, and povertyto best train the future leaders of social welfare. Students are immersed in theory, research, and social policy while learning how to enact serious change and reform in the communities they will serve.

    UCLAs program takes two years to complete and includes a substantive field work requirementfirst year students engage in two full (eight-hour) days per week and in their second year they do three days of fieldwork a week. This work includes not only direct service work, but community outreach, advocacy, staff meetings, consultations, research activity, and staff development. Additionally, all students must choose between between two provided tracks: macro or micro. The former is for those interested in working on the administrative level or in policy while the latter is for those who specifically wish to serve individuals, families, or small communities.

    Not only is UCLA a great school, but it is affordable with a reputation for graduating students who go on to earn over 50k annually in the first years of their career. This MSW program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.

  2. Washington University in St. Louis

    St. Louis, MO




    Through the George Warren Brown School of Social Work, Washington University in St. Louis provides one of the best MSW programs in the entire country (it is ranked second byU.S. News World Report). This two-year degree emphasizes leadership and team building through a curriculum that covers research methods, human behavior, social justice and human diversity, social welfare policies and services, practice with individuals and groups, and social work practice with organizations and communities.

    Supplementing this core, students can uniquely design their academic experience and specialization through a range of offered concentrations. Social policy, practice methods, evaluation, leadership and management, and theory, problems, and issues are the five available areas of concentration. Further, Washington University provides the opportunity to earn certification in either affordable housing and mixed-income community management or in violence and injury prevention. Thus, this is not only one of the best MSW programs in the country, but one of the most flexible in terms of curricular focus.

    Washington Universitys MSW program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education, and the Brown School is home to a social work library, a communications lab, the Clark-Fox Policy Institute, and more.

  3. University of Maryland - Baltimore

    Baltimore, MD




    For those passionate about clinical social work, human services management, or community organizing, this Masters of Social Work degree from the University of Maryland Baltimore emphasizes hands-on learning through field practicum by placing first-year and second-year students in foundation and advanced field placements respectively. Students work with local Baltimore social services agencies two to three days a week (depending on how far along they are in the program), integrating theory with research to become prepared for professional practice. The university even allows students to find employment-based field practicums.

    In conjunction with the practicum, students take twenty-four core courses covering individual, group, and community services. They can then choose to concentrate in one of five areas: aging, behavioral health, community action and social policy, families and children, or health. And for those students seeking further specialization, the University of Maryland Baltimores MSW offers two sub-areas of focus: employee assistance and child, adolescent, and family health.

    Marylands low tuition cost and its history of graduates who earn above 55k annually in the first years of their career make this program a high return on investment. The University of Maryland Baltimores MSW program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.

  4. University of North Carolina

    Chapel Hill, NC




    Based in Chapel Hill, the University of North Carolina offers a MSW degree that is ranked among the top five in the country byU.S. News World Report. A blend of foundational courses that cover social welfare policy and services, human behavior in the social environment, social research, and social work practice, plus an advanced curriculum that allows students to opt between two concentrationsdirect practice or community, management, and policy practicethis MSW program is a traditional, solid place to earn your degree.

    The University of North Carolinas MSW program stresses, both through its curriculum and practicum, not only equal access to services, but respect for individual worth and human dignity, the right to self-determination, the importance of diversity, and a high standard for ethical conduct. Also unique to North Carolinas program is the number of opportunities made available to students. For example, MSW students can study abroad in the summer, with trips to Eastern Europe, China, Cuba, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, South Africa, Mexico, England, or Ireland. If you dont desire to study abroad but still want to pad your resume and gain extra experience, the University of North Carolina has five certificate programs that pair with the MSW. You can gain certification in global transmigration, non-profit leadership, substance abuse and addictions, international development and social change, or international peace and conflict resolution.

    UNCs MSW program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.

  5. University of Pennsylvania

    Philadelphia, PA




    Ivy League University of Pennsylvania offers a Master of Social Work program taught by a nationally renowned faculty in a small-classroom setting (on average, there are only twenty students to a class). Penns curriculum, which is rooted in social justice and change, is interdisciplinary in scope. In fact, students take classes from among Penns twelve graduate schools, they have international coursework and study abroad opportunities, there are eleven dual-degree programs, and even more certificate and specialization programs.

    There are several ways to complete your MSW through Penn. Students are allowed to study full-time and complete the degree within two years. They may study for three years, or part-time, or they may enroll in the advanced study program or the employed practitioners program. For those with a Bachelors in Social Work, the advanced study program allows them to complete the MSW in ten months. And the practitioners program is a three-year degree for working adults who study part-time and earn their field credit through their work experience. Whichever track you take, you can be assured that you will graduate fully prepared to enter a variety of systems and settings, to work with diverse client populations, and to be a leader for social change and development.

    This MSW program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.

  6. University of Washington

    Seattle, WA




    With three distinct tracks of study, students of all backgrounds, experiences, and responsibilities can earn a Masters of Social Work degree from the University of Washington. Foremost, the traditional program, referred to as the Day Program, takes two years of full-time study to complete. A combination of classroom learning and fieldwork, students learn social work history, professional identity, policy, and social justice. The Extended Degree program is similar in content, but takes three years of part-time study to complete. Finally, the Advanced Studies program is for those holding an undergraduate degree in social work. This program requires only ten months of study and features specialization.

    Though each track is differently structured, they each train students to become leaders for social development, to implement effective social interventions, and to cultivate a relationship with a diverse society. UWs program allows for concentration and specialization within the curriculum as well as offering three certifications, in gerontology, guardianship, and nonprofit management.

    The University of Washingtons MSW degree, ranked third best in the nation byU.S. News World Report, is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.

  7. University of California-Berkeley

    Berkeley, CA




    UC Berkeley is a globally recognized leader in education, in a number of disciplines, its social work department included. They offer a Master of Social Welfare degree that is highly flexible, meaning students are free to focus on their areas of interest and passion. Students can choose among four areas of formal concentration: aging, child and family services, community mental health, health, and management and planning. Students may also earn certification in Social Work with Latinos or School Social Work. Finally, if those options werent enough, Berkeley has two concurrent degree programs that pair with the MSW, one in public health (MSW plus a MPH) and one in public policy (MSW plus a MPP).

    With an emphasis on the importance of leadership, Berkeleys goals for its MSW program include leadership in service, leadership for social justice and change, and leadership for evidence-informed and competency-based practice. Students learn professional responsibility, how to advance social justice, how to use tested knowledge, and effective implementation of intervention method.

    Also considered the third best MSW program in the country (tied with Washington) byU.S. News World Report,Berkeleys Social Welfare MSW program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.

  8. University of Texas-Austin

    Austin, TX




    One of the most affordable MSW programs on our list, the University of Texas in Austin makes going back to school for advanced study (and thus advanced vocational placement) an option for most. This MSW program is flexibly structured, allowing students to finish between one year and three-and-a-half years (depending on past education experience). There are two concentrations available, clinical social work and administration and policy practice, and UT Austin requires over one thousand hours of field practicum.

    Like some of the other programs on our list, UT Austin seeks to provide its students with a number of diverse learning experiences. However, unlike a majority of programs on this list, UT Austin offers an international internship opportunity. Students integrate theory and practice, earn practicum hours, and learn how to navigate a different culture and its associated systems. International placement spans the globe, from South Africa to India to Costa Rica. At UT Austin you can also enroll in dual degrees, some of which are mostly unavailable elsewhere, such as the combined Master of Divinity and MSW program. Other dual degree options include MSW degrees paired with a Master of Public Health, Master of Public Affairs, a Doctor of Jurisprudence, or a Master of Arts in Latin American Studies degree.

    UT Austin is a great place to earn your Council on Social Work Education accredited MSW degree. World-renowned, affordable, and with graduates earning (on average) 53k annually in the early years of their career, you can expect a successful experience post UT Austin.

  9. University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign

    Champaign, IL




    The Master of Social Work degree at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign explicitly expresses the significance the program places on options, both academic and vocational. Thus, students first choose among three enrollment tracks: the traditional full-time or part-time program on campus, the outreach program (which is a hybrid of online and on-campus coursework), or the dual MSW/MBA program. The latter is for those who wish to supplement their social work study with one academic year of concentrated MBA classes. Furthermore, at UI Urbana Champaign MSW students choose among two concentrations: leadership and social change or advanced clinical. The latter includes four more specialization areas: mental health, health care, schools, and children, youth, and family services.

    Whichever enrollment track or concentration speaks to you and your situation, studying social work at UI Urbana Champaign guarantees you will be fully prepared to perform erudite research, effectively apply human behavior knowledge to real-world scenarios, engage diversity in practice, and overall advance human rights and social justice. Payscale also informs us that graduates from UI earn, on average, nearly 58k annually in the early years of their career.

    The University of Illinois School of Social Work is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.

  10. University of Southern California

    Los Angeles, CA




    At the University of Southern California you will take classes that explore unique issues, diverse populations, and innovative ideas such as social work in the military, enacting social change, the dimensions of spirituality, juvenile justice, mental health, school social work, and leadership. As a MSW student you will pair this distinctive course load with international study opportunities and field internships. This MSW program is comprised of three departments: adults and healthy aging; children, youth, and families; and community, organization, and business innovation.

    USC sets itself apart in a number of ways, by offering online classes in addition to on-campus coursework, so you can earn your degree in a flexible and efficient manner. They also provide classes on their Irvine (Orange County) campus. Summer and weekend classes are also made available so students who are working can still earn their degrees at the traditional two-year pace. Finally, USC, similar to some other schools on our list, offers dual degree programs. But unlike the other schools, USC offers eight different degrees! So, in addition to earning the MSW, you can earn a MBA, law degree, or masters in planning, public administration, public health, and much more.

    The University of Southern Californias MSW program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.

Feature Image: SDI Productions / E+ / GettyImages

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