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Online MSW Programs in California

By Michael McCarthy | Updated 12/7/2022

A career in social work provides people with the opportunity to help their community by making sure members have access to the resources they need to improve their quality of life. Unlike other states, California social workers do not need a license unless they plan to work in private practice without supervision. This makes it much easier to pursue a career in social work as there are no exams, applications or fieldwork hours that need to be completed. Those who choose social work as a career can provide counseling to people across a variety of fields, including job placement, substance abuse, and mental health.

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CSWE Accredited Online MSW Programs in California

School Annual Tuition Locations
# Alliant International University $24,615 San Diego
# California State University - Northridge $17,915 Northridge
# California State University-San Bernardino $17,890 San Bernardino
# Humboldt State University $18,802 Arcata
# Pacific Oaks College $21,057 Pasadena (and 1 other)
# University of Massachusetts Global $12,320 Multiple Locations
# University of Southern California $47,107 Los Angeles
# USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work $47,107 Los Angeles

MSW Programs in California

MSW degrees in California have similar structure and curricula to other MSW programs nationwide. Each degree features 40-60 credit hours of classes, which usually takes 2-3 years to complete at a full-time pace. To graduate, you also need to complete 1,000-1,200 supervised internship hours. These work placements can grant valuable experience in the field.

A typical curriculum covers human social behavior and groups, patient assessment, diagnosis, and social welfare policy. Some colleges offer concentrations for students who want to specialize in a particular type of social work. Common specializations include clinical, medical, school, and youth and family social work. 

Program costs vary by school. The average annual cost for graduate degree tuition and fees is $19,749 nationwide, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. 

Types of MSWs in California

There are several varieties of MSW degrees available in California, including the following:

Traditional degrees are full-time programs in which you take 3-4 classes per term. It may be possible, though challenging, to work while attending a traditional master's program.

Accelerated programs compress all the coursework and clinical experience into as little as 12 months, leaving little time to work while enrolled.

Advanced standing programs let you skip some introductory courses because you must already hold a bachelor's in social work (BSW) to enroll.

Part-time degrees are relatively common, because many graduate students prefer to keep working while taking one or two classes at a time.

If you're considering a part-time msw program, explore the pros and cons of being a part-time student.

Admissions Requirements for an MSW

You must have a bachelor's degree to apply to an MSW program. Because graduate school is competitive, you might need a GPA of 3.0 or above to be considered. You don't necessarily need an undergraduate social work degree, but having a BSW might let you enroll in an advanced standing program that takes less time to complete. 

To apply, you'll typically need to provide the following:

  • Official college transcripts
  • Official admissions test scores (GRE or GMAT)
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Professional resume

Online MSW Programs in California

Most online master's degrees contain asynchronous courses, which you complete at your own convenience and don't require live meetings. Some programs might have synchronous elements, such as live online discussions over video conferencing apps. You might also find hybrid degrees with a mixture of online and on-campus classwork.

In most cases, you must complete all internships in person at the assigned facility. This is true even for degree programs with completely asynchronous online courses.

How To Become a Social Worker in California

In this section, we describe the specifics of becoming a social worker in this state, broken out by the different fields of social work. 

Becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in California

As the name implies, you need a license from the California Board of Behavioral Sciences to be a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). Obtaining an LCSW license is the most arduous path for a social work student to take in California. The standards are so high because these professionals are given wide latitude to diagnose and treat serious mental illnesses. To get this credential, you must complete these steps: 

  1. Earn an MSW from a program that's currently accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)
  2. Register as an associate clinical social worker (ASW), a kind of LCSW-in-training
  3. Pass a background check 
  4. Take an ethics course and pass the associated exam 
  5. Obtain at least 3,000 hours of supervised work experience over a minimum period of two years
  6. Pass the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) licensing exam for California 
Becoming a Child and Family Social Worker in California

These social workers often work for state agencies, but there are no special licenses required to start down this career path in California. You will need a BSW at minimum, and some higher level positions might require an MSW. Your degree will most likely need to be accredited by the CSWE, and studying for a concentration in youth and family social work may prove beneficial in the job market.

Becoming a Medical Social Worker in California

You can practice medical social work — also called healthcare social work — in California with a BSW, though an MSW might improve your employability. Most employers prefer graduates from CSWE-accredited programs, and it might help you to highlight any healthcare social work classes you took during interviews. There are no licensure requirements in California for this kind of social work. 

Becoming a School Social Worker in California

There are no school social work licenses in California, but public schools typically require job candidates to hold the state's Pupil Personnel Services (PPS) Credential. This credential requires 45 post-bachelor's credits in school social work, which in practice means that you need a CSWE-accredited MSW with a school concentration. You must also complete a basic skills test.

To learn about online MSW programs and social worker requirements in other states, explore our list of CSWE-accredited online MSW programs by state below.

CSWE-Accredited Online MSW Programs by State

What Can I Do With an MSW in California?

MSW degrees qualify you for careers in social work. You can potentially work in a range of specialties within that broad category, such as medical or clinical social work. But faculty generally assume that master's students are dedicated to becoming or remaining social workers for their entire careers, so they teach from that perspective. However, you may choose to apply your education and skills to other fields, such as counseling or community health.

Social Work Salary in California

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists mean annual salaries for several types of social workers. For three of the following careers, California is among the top five highest paying states in the country.

  • Child, family, and school social workers: $64,940
  • Healthcare social workers: $84,690
  • Mental health and substance abuse social workers: $79,450
  • Social workers, all other: $68,540

Social Work Job Outlook in California

The BLS projects 9% growth in social worker positions for the 2021-2031 period, which is higher than the 5% average for all jobs combined. However, the BLS doesn't break down the outlook for California specifically. 

According to Lightcast data, California was by far the top state for social worker demand in the last 12 months.

For recent trends, we turn to the analytics company Lightcast. According to Lightcast data, California was by far the top state for social worker demand in the last 12 months: Employers in the state posted 29,026 social work positions in that time. The Los Angeles area featured the second-highest demand among U.S. cities, with 9,188 social work jobs posted. San Francisco was sixth with 5,160 job ads.

FAQs About Online MSW Programs in California

How Hard Is an MSW Degree?

As with most master's degrees, an MSW will probably be challenging. Professors expect better performance and insights from graduate students than from undergraduates, so you usually need to work harder in order to earn good grades. But you may have an easier time if you have previous social work education and experience, especially if you're passionate about the subject matter.

Are Online MSW Programs in California Respected?

Employers respect accredited California MSW degrees. The CSWE is a powerful force in the social work field, so it's usually best to make sure you attend a programmatically accredited program. This may help ensure the best career prospects after you graduate, and the sooner you start earning a salary, the sooner your degree can help you meet your career goals.

How Long Does It Take To Get a Master's in Social Work in California?

Faculty typically design MSWs to last two years with a full-time schedule. A few students enroll in accelerated degree programs that last about a year. However, many more students opt for part-time programs that can take 3-4 years to complete, depending on their course load each term.

Does California Have Social Work License Reciprocity?

You can typically get a clinical social work license in California if you've had an active license in another state for at least two years. The state will confirm that your MSW is CSWE accredited, and you'll need to pass the California ethics exam.

It's usually fairly easy to receive a reciprocal license in another state if you're already a California LCSW. This is because California requires its licensees to pass the exam administered by the ASWB, which sets national standards for social work practice.

California Social Work Resources

We've listed several resources below that may interest you as a social work master's student in California. These links can help you plot steps along your educational and career paths.

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