Overview of Online Bachelor's Degrees in Social Work
Faculty design bachelor's degrees in social work to introduce students to the fundamental knowledge and practices of the discipline. Most programs aim to create generalists who can work for government agencies, non-profits, healthcare employers, or correctional facilities. Programs usually take 120 credit hours and about four years of full-time study to complete. Some schools offer part-time degrees that let enrollees study at a slower pace as they balance other responsibilities.
Because online education is more popular than ever, many schools provide social work bachelor's degrees through distance learning platforms. Online learners usually take asynchronous classes with no set meeting times. They can sign in to a learning management platform at their convenience to submit assignments, watch recorded lectures, and discuss topics with classmates. Degree programs in social work culminate in an internship or practicum, where students can gain up to 400 hours of supervised real-world experience. Even online students need to complete their practicum hours in an approved field setting.
A bachelor's degree in social work can go by three names: A Bachelor’s of Social Work (BSW) is the most common, but you can also acquire an online degree in social work through a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) or a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.). The differences among these tend to be minor, and all three degree types have received accreditation. Many social workers and professional associations refer to all undergraduate social work degrees as BSWs, regardless of what they're actually called.
The Importance of Accreditation
To earn institutional accreditation, a college must pass a thorough, independent evaluation of its curricula, faculty, and services. Schools can earn either national or regional accreditation, with regional being the most prestigious. Students who choose a regionally accredited school can receive federal financial aid and transfer credits to a college or graduate school with the same type of accreditation.
At the program level, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredits social work degrees. This group certifies the educational quality and comprehensiveness of individual degrees and runs a searchable database of accredited programs, including those with online delivery formats.
Graduates typically need a CSWE-accredited degree to earn social worker licenses. Graduating from an unaccredited program can negatively impact a person's future academic prospects and employment opportunities in the field. These graduates would be unable to enroll in a Master of Social Work (MSW) transfer program because the college wouldn't recognize their undergraduate credits, and they wouldn't be allowed to take a state licensing exam. Most employers will not hire an unlicensed social worker. Graduates typically need a CSWE-accredited degree to earn social worker licenses.
Social work departments often have separate admissions processes from their respective colleges. In other words, applicants must be accepted to a school before applying to join a bachelor's program in social work. Requirements vary by college, but the examples below are some common items requested with a degree application:
- A high school diploma or equivalent, often with a minimum cumulative GPA of 2.5
- A record of volunteer experience demonstrating the applicant's dedication to helping others
- Prerequisite coursework that typically includes introductory classes in sociology, psychology, and social work, with grades of C or above
- A personal statement testifying to the student's interest in the field
- Two letters of recommendation
Curriculum and Common Courses for an Online Bachelor's in Social Work
Undergraduates in social work take courses on human psychology and behavior, social policy, research methods, and cultural sensitivity. The curriculum’s goal is to prepare graduates for a career helping a diverse range of clients solve or mitigate ongoing problems, such as those brought on by family issues, drug or alcohol dependency, injury, or mental health.
Depending on their online social work program, bachelor's students may be able to add a concentration to their degree, such as children and adolescents, medical social work, or public health. However, most bachelor's degree programs in social work feature a core group of classes that meet CSWE standards. We've shared a few of these courses below.
This survey course typically comes early on in an enrollee's studies. Enrollees study the psychology of group formation and leadership, the dynamics of various social units, and communication within and across cultures. Some colleges offer a Human Social Behavior course sequence that moves through the lifespan, from infancy to adulthood.
One of the key job functions in social work is finding and implementing solutions to clients' problems, which is the main theme of this course. Faculty generally promote the strengths approach to interventions, which focuses on people's positive characteristics and plays down their weaknesses. Individual lessons discuss how to tailor interventions for different issues, individuals, and groups.
Research Methods and Practices
Future social workers need to know which solutions have proven most helpful in certain situations. They learn how to analyze and design research projects and find value in statistics while avoiding potential pitfalls. Students carry out a term-length research project and may even present it to the class.
This course covers the history of organizational and governmental efforts to improve citizens' lives, including current state and federal social policies in the U.S. Professors emphasize the durability of institutions, bureaucratic norms and processes, and social workers' legal and ethical responsibilities.
Substance Use and Addiction
Students learn how they can identify and intervene to mitigate harmful addictive behaviors. Professors emphasize a team-based approach to treatment that includes addiction counselors, physicians, and families. They also cover the neurophysiological effects of various substances and the harmful impacts that substance use disorder can have on families and other social groups.
Licensure and Certification Requirements
Bachelor's-qualified social workers may still need to earn a license in order to practice, but the requirements differ by state. The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) has a search tool on its website that provides links to helpful information about each state's licensing board. The ASWB also administers licensing exams for interested alumni.
Whether they're licensed or not, bachelor's graduates can only work as direct-service or macro social workers who help clients work through everyday problems or achieve a particular goal. They might find low-cost childcare for a single parent, monitor a child's progress at a new school, or help register a family for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. On the other hand, students interested in clinical social work must get an MSW degree and pass a clinical licensing exam. With these credentials, they can work in mental health assessment, diagnosis, and treatment.
Careers with an Online Bachelor's in Social Work
The goal of earning a social work degree is to help caring, community-minded individuals develop the competence and attributes they need to support others. During their studies, students work to develop their aptitude with organization, advocacy, and data-driven research while practicing empathy and cultural sensitivity. Social work graduates can pursue a range of opportunities within the field as well as other careers in community service. Read on for several examples of jobs that alumni can land once they earn a bachelor's degree in social work.
Direct-service social worker
Median Annual Salary: $40,500
Job Growth Rate: 12%
Social and community service manager
Median Annual Salary: $69,600
Job Growth Rate: 15%
These workers organize and promote social service programs, initiatives, and projects for their employers. Community service managers can work at non-profit organizations, businesses with charitable interests, or government agencies, and their initiatives can range from career mentorship for unhoused people to fundraisers for mental health clinics.
Health education specialist
Median Annual Salary: $56,500
Job Growth Rate: 17%
Government bureaus, hospitals, and non-profits hire health education specialists to promote community well-being. They create educational materials, speak to groups about health topics, and collect data on their community's needs so they can advocate for improvements more authoritatively. The fast growth in these jobs is partly driven by health organizations learning lessons from COVID-19.
Medical and health services manager
Median Annual Salary: $104,280
Job Growth Rate: 32%
Social work alumni can secure administrative work at hospitals and clinical care facilities. A degree concentration in medical social work or public health might bolster their chances of getting these types of jobs. Although medical and health services managers are the highest-paid employees on this list, the median wage may be skewed by the fact that many hold master's degrees in fields like healthcare administration.
Social work is a constantly evolving field, with new research and emerging advocacy in response to legal and policy changes. To maintain a license, social workers must document a certain number of continuing education (CE) hours during a set period. Even unlicensed social workers might be required to complete CE by their employers or the professional groups they belong to, all of which have an interest in maintaining high standards for the field.
To maintain a license, social workers must document a certain number of continuing education (CE) hours during a set period.
Qualifying CE can include graduate-level college courses, seminars by licensed practitioners, or online modules offered by professional organizations. Social workers may need to travel to some CE events but might be able to access training modules and lectures at home. Social workers who want a further credential can pursue an MSW, which often leads to improved job prospects and higher wages. Students who want to be professors and researchers might choose a doctoral degree in social work.
In the social work field, professional organizations united by this common vocation strive to increase public understanding of their work and advance the discipline. Once members pay their dues to join an organization, they generally have access to the group's networking events, job boards, and proprietary research and surveys. Many employers prefer to hire candidates who belong to at least one major professional group.
The largest organization for social workers is the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), which provides career resources to its members, along with CE modules and legal/ethics advice. Many NASW members join additional, more specialized groups, including the organizations below.
This group seeks to increase Black representation in the social work profession. Individuals can join local chapters and contribute to one of the association's committees, which work on issues that include health and aging, disaster preparedness, and family preservation in Black communities.
Medical and health professionals might consider joining this organization, which offers career postings, annual conferences, and frequent articles of interest to healthcare social workers. Members can also apply for a mentoring program that pairs them with experienced professionals who can give career advice.
This group features many local chapters and gives advice on how to create a chapter in any state. Members can access professional development services that include conferences and CE materials. They highlight school social workers who make media appearances, especially those who advocate for the group's policy preferences.
Is an Online BSW Program Worth It?
A bachelor's degree is a major commitment of time, money, and effort, so it's natural to wonder whether the outcome will be worth the cost. No answer suits everybody's financial, family, and work circumstances. Some social work alumni have fulfilling careers in the field while others have had difficulty finding satisfying jobs. You might consider the following factors as you weigh the decision to enroll.
- A bachelor's in social work is a potentially versatile degree. According to CSWE's most recent survey of bachelor's degree graduates, alumni in this field have discussed the ease of switching between client populations and the fact that employers in other social service and community care fields appreciate their skills and dedication.
- Most community and social service occupations are growing faster than the average rate. The BLS expects this field to expand 12% by 2030 for a gain of 346,900 jobs.
- One-quarter of bachelor's graduates in social work are Black, and 17% identify as Hispanic or Latino, according to the CSWE survey. These numbers are higher than the respective percentages of employees from these groups in the U.S. workforce. People with diverse backgrounds are better represented in this sector than in many other health services fields, which is especially important because social workers should reflect the socioeconomic diversity of the country to gain their clients' trust and understand their cultural context.
- BSW graduates often have difficulty finding jobs as social workers. According to the CSWE survey cited above, only 59% of bachelor's-level respondents found a job within a year of graduating, and nearly one-third of those jobs were in fields other than social work.
- Social workers without master's degrees tend to earn incomes that are on the lower end of the field. In the same CSWE survey, 82% of BSW alumni reported wages under the $40,500 median for social workers. This indicates that social workers without master's degrees tend to earn incomes that are on the lower end of the field.
- Online learning usually results in fewer chances to network and less social interaction, debate, and discussion.
Online learning is not for everyone, but it's worth noting that there are no special benefits or drawbacks to studying social work online compared to other subjects. Many students enjoy the convenience of asynchronous classwork, but others thrive in a traditional classroom setting. Although distance learners have fewer options for networking, they still have opportunities to meet people during their clinical placement in the later stages of the degree.