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2023 Online Master's in Social Work (MSW) Programs

By OnlineU Staff Writers | Updated 10/17/2023
2023 Best Online Master's Degrees in MSW Badge

An online master's degree in social work (MSW) opens a range of careers in social work. Since MSWs are often designed to earn programmatic accreditation from the Council on Social Work Education, many have similar courses on mental health assessment and intervention, social policy analysis, and cultural sensitivity. A period of clinical placement in a real-world practice setting is also required for licensure in every U.S. state. While a bachelor's in social work is not needed to apply, it might qualify students for advanced standing and help shorten the time needed to finish their master's. 

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Liberty University

  • Annual Tuition: $11,700
  • Locations: Lynchburg (VA)
  • Accreditation: SACS COC

Liberty University, a private Baptist institution, features two online degree paths for graduate social work students. The Master of Social Work - Advanced Generalist: General Cognate program provides flexibility for students who might want to work in several areas of social work practice. The Master of Social Work - Advanced Generalist: Individual and Family Clinical Cognate option is for those who want to provide therapy to families and individuals. Both degrees require 60 credit hours and 1,000 field practice hours, which may take as little as two years with a full-time courseload.

Liberty's online learners use the Canvas digital learning system to complete coursework. Both degrees share a common core of classes that include Social Policy, Justice, and Advocacy and Applied Research and Ethics.

Capella University

  • Annual Tuition: $14,148
  • Locations: Minneapolis (MN)
  • Accreditation: HLC

Capella University is a private, fully online school that offers a Master of Social Work degree for both beginner and advanced-standing students. Each holds CSWE accreditation, but the regular degree has 15 required courses and five practicum placements, while the advanced-standing version only calls for eight courses and three practicum placements.

Capella uses the Blackboard platform to deliver courses to online learners. The university's social work faculty teach an advanced generalist curriculum that includes lessons on human behavior, case management, and technology for social workers. Students in both pathways must take classes such as Mental Health Practice and Advanced Interventions: Theory and Practice and Clinical Supervision and Leadership in Social Work Practice.

Arizona State University

  • Annual Tuition: $29,438
  • Locations: Tempe (AZ) (and 4 others)
  • Accreditation: HLC

Arizona State University (ASU), a public university, has an online Master of Social Work degree requiring 60 credit hours of coursework. This degree program is intended for students without previous education in the major. It may take full-time students three years to complete this MSW program.

The university's online students sign in to Canvas to view course materials and complete assignments. This includes two seminar courses that have synchronous online class meetings to allow for discussion. The curriculum is comprehensive, covering everything from macro and micro social work to advanced clinical mental health interventions. Some of the requirements include Diversity and Oppression in a Social Work Context, Foundational Practice I and II, and two year-long practicum experiences.

Chamberlain University

  • Annual Tuition: $19,860
  • Locations: Multiple Locations
  • Accreditation: HLC

The private Chamberlain University features an online Master of Social Work degree. This program contains 60 credit hours for traditional students and 36 credit hours for advanced-standing enrollees. This may take two years to finish for traditional full-time students or one year for full-time advanced-standing students.

Chamberlain uses Canvas as its learning management system to deliver online course materials to students. The MSW curriculum highlights human behavior in different social contexts, such as families, schools, and workplaces. All students take courses that include Social Work in a Multicultural Society and Advanced Social Work Theory Across Systems, plus at least a semester of practicum work in the field.

National University

  • Annual Tuition: $13,320
  • Locations: La Jolla (CA)
  • Accreditation: WSCUC

National University is a private institution featuring an online Master of Social Work degree for either beginner or advanced-standing students. The traditional path requires 60 credit hours and takes a recommended period of 38 months to finish, whereas the advanced-standing version takes 36 credit hours and 24 months.

National uses the Brightspace digital learning platform to deliver online courses. Faculty for this program aim to educate ethical, compassionate social workers who use evidence-based practice in their work. Foundation courses include Social Work in Behavioral Health and Research Methods in Social Work, while advanced classes include Forensic Clinical Social Work Practice and Advanced Social Work Practice with Marginalized Populations.

List Of Accredited Online MSW Schools

School Online Enrollment Annual Tuition
Liberty University 45,107 45,107 $11,700 $11,700
Capella University 26,333 $14,148
Arizona State University 15,537 $29,438
Chamberlain University 14,420 $19,860
University of Illinois Urbana - Champaign 10,320 $32,892
UMass Global 9,122 $12,480
Boston University 7,808 $59,816
USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work 7,471 $61,503
National University 7,159 $13,320
Saint Leo University Online 4,622 $26,050
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Overview of Online MSWs

A master of social work program (MSW) can help you prepare for a career in the social work field, empowering others to create positive change that improves emotional and physical well-being. You can complete an affordable online MSW program that is convenient, delivers a quality curriculum, and has accreditation from the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). 

Coursework in a traditional graduate school program includes the completion of approximately 62 credit hours and 900-1200 hours of fieldwork experience. These CSWE-accredited programs meet industry standards, so you can apply your licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) credentials to counsel others. Or, you may use your skills to work in a non-clinical setting with organizations committed to public policy change and social justice advocacy.

MSW students can complete online learning programs and expect the same rigor as on-campus programs. Courses are either asynchronous, and you can attend as your schedule allows, or synchronous, requiring login at specific times. Online MSW students may participate in a group cohort where all start and graduate together and often collaborate through web-based learning platforms and apps. All of the program options listed above are available through distance learning.

CSWE Accreditation

In addition to school accreditation, degrees may be programmatically accredited to ensure education is on par with industry standards. CSWE is recognized by the Council for Higher Education as the only accrediting agency in the U.S. for social work education, and most states require graduation from a CSWE-accredited program for licensure. CSWE awards accreditation to programs that meet rigorous academic standards. CSWE administers the accreditation process, which includes a self-evaluation, site visits, and a review. There are currently 309 on-campus accredited MSW programs throughout the U.S. However, it's important to note that online programs aren't always accredited. You can check CSWE's directory to find a program's accreditation status before enrolling.

MSW Admission Requirements

Requirements are similar across schools and programs, and enrollment generally includes the following:

  • A bachelor's degree from an accredited institution of higher education

  • A CSWE-accredited BSW if enrolling in an advanced standing program

  • College transcripts showing at least a 3.0 GPA

  • The completion of standardized tests, such as a GRE, though many schools are opting to waive this requirement

  • A minimum of 24 credit hours of undergraduate liberal arts coursework

  • Three letters of recommendation attesting to your skills and work ethic

  • A personal essay or letter of intent

  • A completed application and fee of approximately $75

CSWE-Accredited Online MSW Programs by State

MSW Curriculum

The curriculum of an MSW program includes advanced study of clinical social work practice and may help you differentiate your skills to work with specific populations. It also includes approximately two field education opportunities to give you work experience in various human services organizations. You'll also need to complete field placement hours to graduate. 

The overarching goal of a master's program in social work is to convey the importance of human dignity, compassion, human rights, and scientific inquiry when practicing social work. You'll study human behavior and apply various social work principles through electives and core coursework to prepare for a social work profession in a clinical and non-clinical career path.

Levels of Practice for MSWs

MSW curriculum is generally targeted to train students in the three levels of social work practice. 

  • Those practicing at the micro level counsel individuals, families, and small groups. 
  • Students interested in practicing at the mezzo level can become dually skilled in a specific topic to provide services to target populations struggling with addiction, behavioral disorders, or PTSD from past trauma. 
  • Other students would prefer to use their macro level social work skills to administer and manage public policies in community organizations rather than in clinical practice.

Common MSW Courses

Online classes within these tracks that support the curriculum and help develop competencies may have different titles across schools and programs but have similar learning outcomes. Below are some of the common courses found in MSWs:

Co-occurring Substance Use and Mental Health Disorders

This course is for students interested in becoming licensed addiction counselors. Lessons explore the particular strengths necessary for social workers in this practice and how they can identify patterns in behavior and potential triggers.

Diversity and Difference

 An online class featuring diversity and difference explores diverse populations and perspectives to help students understand the motivations and limitations of those from different backgrounds and how these differences can implicate the social work practice.

Helping Troops Transition Back to their Families and Communities

Faculty teaching this course address the special needs of veterans returning from tours of duty or combat and assimilating back into civilian life. Students interested in working with this target population can study the resources available and policies in place to help individuals make this often difficult transition.

Public Child Welfare

This topic tackles issues from an advanced generalist perspective by familiarizing students with evidence-based, family-focused, and outcome-oriented child welfare practices. Students interested in careers in child welfare may find this course of interest.

Social Policy

Social Policy coursework can provide students with an overview of US social welfare policy and how policy is created to address social relationship issues and problems in vulnerable and oppressed populations.

MSW Concentrations

Choosing a concentration in an MSW program can help you meet your career goals through specialization. A concentration is different from a minor — a minor is usually completed in another discipline, but a concentration is within the same. You'll take approximately five courses on a particular topic to be able to specialize your skills to serve different populations in various areas of need.

Degree concentrations may include the following:

Adulthood and Aging

Sometimes referred to as a gerontology concentration, coursework helps prepare you to work with older adults, the aging, and their families by studying the aging process and the resulting biological, behavioral, and societal changes that occur.

Children, Youth, and Families

This path helps build skills in family dynamics and relationships and how societal issues impact children and teenagers.

Clinical Social Work Practice

This concentration helps students develop the ability to identify, assess, and treat various psychological, behavioral, and emotional problems.


Students have the opportunity to study the unique needs of clients experiencing serious healthcare events and how to apply advanced social work skills to address these challenges.

Military Social Work

Classes specifically focus on the challenges facing military personnel, veterans, and their families when integrating into civilian life and how to effectively manage these changes.

Organizations and Communities

Coursework is geared toward a macro practice that focuses on how social problems develop and perpetuate at the local, state, and national levels and how individuals can mobilize leaders, educate communities, and advocate for social change.

Policy Practice

This course of study enables students to use their social work skills to understand how public policy impacts communities and how to help implement change that is socially and economically sound.


Courses explore the unique needs of individuals experiencing trauma or suffering from PTSD and the process of developing targeted treatment plan options.

Social Work Licensure

The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) regulates social work across the U.S. They ensure that social workers receive adequate training to safely, competently, and ethically deliver services to the public. The ASWB administers licensure exams so MSWs can work in clinical practice to complete mental health assessments, diagnose patients, and treat them.

Licensure varies by state, but common licenses are listed below:

  • Certified Independent Practice Social Worker (CIPSW)
  • Independent Social Worker (ISW)
  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
  • Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)
  • Licensed Social Worker (LSW)
  • Licensed Social Worker-Administration (LSW-ADM)
  • Licensed Social Work Associate and Advanced (LSWAA)

The steps for applying for a license are outlined below:

  1. Completing a CSWE-accredited MSW program and a number of field experience hours, which varies by state
  2. Applying for licensure through your state board.
  3. Registering with ASWB and paying the exam fee which is approximately $230
  4. Scheduling your exam appointment through Pearson VUE
  5. Completing a criminal background check

Careers for MSW Graduates

MSW degree holders often become licensed social workers working in a direct practice. They assess clients' needs to create and implement changes to improve their quality of life as well as their emotional and physical well-being. They may work in a generalist practice or work with groups that have specific needs, such as children, the elderly, or those struggling with addiction. With an anticipated 7% job growth through 2032, social workers earn an annual median salary of $55,350, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Below are some other career paths MSW graduates may choose:

Health Education Specialists and Community Health Workers

Median Annual Salary: $59,990
Job Growth: 7%

Health education specialists and community health workers educate communities about behaviors that impact overall wellness. They advocate for community members' needs at healthcare and social service organizations.

Social and Community Service Managers

Median Annual Salary: $74,240
Job Growth: 9%

Managers in social work use their MSW skills in a non-clinical setting to organize community programs and activities that support well-being, often working with target populations. They assess programs and implement changes as needed to ensure they are effective.

Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors

Median Annual Salary: $49,710
Job Growth: 18%

These clinical social workers become licensed to work with those who suffer from the debilitating effects of alcoholism and drug misuse, eating disorders, or depression.

Other Types of Social Workers

  • Clinical Social Worker: A clinical social worker is a broad term referring to someone who offers counseling services to those in need. They assist their clients by offering group counseling and one-on-one therapy sessions that teach basic life skills, encourage the development of support systems, and promote community involvement. Some of the most common issues addressed by clinical social workers are poverty, medical problems, mental health, addiction, and learning disabilities. 
  • Child Welfare Social Worker: Child welfare social workers focus on the well-being of children and work to improve outcomes for at-risk children in vulnerable situations. A child welfare social worker typically works in a school, state agency, family service agency, or the federal government. Their clients are often children who are at risk of neglect or abuse and have a disability or behavioral issues. 
  • School Social Worker: Working within a school setting, school social workers assist teachers, parents, and students in addressing any issues that are interfering with a child’s schoolwork. They work with the general student population, as well as students with special needs, to resolve social, emotional, and behavioral issues. 
  • Medical/Healthcare Social Worker: A medical or healthcare social worker works in a medical setting such as a hospital, hospice, outpatient clinic, or long-term care facility assisting patients with health-related issues. They assess a patient’s emotional, environmental, and social needs, and work with members of a healthcare team to develop a continuing care plan. 
  • Administrative Social Worker: Administrative social workers are skilled at balancing support for workers and consumers with satisfying agency demands, and integrating legality, equity, and efficiency in the field of social work. They often have extensive knowledge in areas including, but not limited to, human resources, change leadership, financial management, resource development, and management and supervision. 
  • Community-Based Social Worker: Community-based social workers help to strengthen, empower, and advocate for those within marginalized communities, and they are committed to economic and social justice ideals, including equity and equality. Community-based social workers have extensive knowledge of the social and historical contexts of the communities they work with and are skilled at centering their communities, embracing flexibility, and changing political and social landscapes.

If you want to explore similar degrees and career paths, you can learn more about online master's degrees in counseling or master's in substance abuse counseling.

FAQs About Pursuing an MSW Degree

Which Bachelor's Degree is Best for Admission into MSW Programs?

It generally doesn't matter which undergraduate degree you have when enrolling in an MSW program. That said, it may be helpful to have a psychology bachelor's or a sociology degree because the fields closely align with social work. However, those in an advanced standing program are required to hold a bachelor's degree in social work (BSW).

Is it Difficult to Get Into an Online MSW Program?

There are certain challenges when it comes to getting accepted into any online master's level program, including an online MSW. However, being in good academic standing with a 3.0 GPA or higher and fulfilling all admission requirements, including an essay and recommendations, will help your chances.

Is an MSW Program Hard?

An MSW program can be rigorous because of its advanced curriculum. You'll also need to complete field experience or a practicum for real-world experience. In addition, the advanced standing and accelerated programs can be even more demanding because they require intensive study in a shorter amount of time. Programs can also feel more challenging if you work and have a busy schedule, but part-time options are available.

How Long Does it Take to Complete an MSW Program?

The length of time it takes to complete this degree depends on your educational background and the program option. For example, a traditional MSW program may take up to three years to complete if you are enrolled full-time, while an accelerated degree program may take as few as 18 months.

Is a Master of Social Work Worth It?

An MSW's worth ultimately comes down to your interests, budget, and your financial and professional goals. It also depends on the industry, job opportunities, and salary requirements. For instance, the BLS anticipates a 7% job outlook for social workers, faster than the 3% U.S. average. However, while the $55,350 annual median wage is higher than the  $46,310 national average, the return on investment may be low if your tuition expenses are high.

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