Social Work and Human Services Degree Programs

Social work is a practice-based field that encompasses a broad range of activities and functions within the health and human services sector. One of the primary goals in social work is to help individuals and families in need overcome hardships by providing practical support, counseling, and access to programs that offer additional assistance. Social work also encompasses research, advocacy, and the creation and implementation of policies that address societal problems, empower communities, and deliver services to those in need. The populations targeted for assistance in social work include communities affected by socio-economic stress, joblessness, alcohol and drug abuse, and various kinds of trauma. Social work also has a strong presence in schools, hospitals, correctional facilities, and institutions that provide assistance to veterans, senior citizens, children at risk, and other demographic groups facing acute and/or persistent challenges.

What is Social Work?

The practice of social work is built on foundational knowledge in the social and behavioral sciences, including psychology and sociology. Social workers learn to apply theories of human behavior and social development to the process of helping people cope with and overcome various challenges, including mental and physical illnesses, poverty, joblessness, and racial and gender discrimination. Students in social work degree programs study social welfare policies, social science research, and the social service initiatives that emerge from this body of knowledge. In addition, clinical social workers receive specialized training in counseling individuals, families, groups, and other targeted populations, including children, military veterans, and the elderly.

Types of Online Social Work Degree Programs

Instruction and training in social work takes places at different levels of higher education, in bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree programs. Many of these programs are offered online using distance learning technologies that allow students to receive all or most of their classroom instruction through a computer with an Internet connection. OnlineEducation.com conducts independent research and evaluates online social work degree programs based on clear criteria to ensure that programs are offered by regionally accredited, non-profit colleges and universities; that they have programmatic accreditation from the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) (where applicable); and that they offer training in social work primarily through online instruction.

CSWE accreditation is particularly important for clinical social workers seeking eventual state licensure. In most states, those wishing to become Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs) must graduate from a CSWE-accredited master’s in social work program. At the bachelor’s and master’s level, the CSWE is the only body that accredits social work programs.

OnlineEducation.com categorizes social work programs based on degree level, area of curricular focus, and other factors, such as entry requirements. Currently, OnlineEducation.com includes master’s-level and Doctor of Social Work (DSW) degree programs. Programs are grouped into the following categories:

  • Online Master of Social Work (MSW) Programs: This category includes all types of master’s in social work programs accredited by the CSWE, including clinical, macro, and advanced generalist MSW programs. They may be formally designated as Master of Social Work (MSW), Master of Science in Social Work (MSSW), or Master of Science in Social Administration (MSSA) programs.
  • Online Master’s in Clinical Social Work Programs: MSW programs with a clinical/direct practice focus provide training and instruction in clinical counseling and direct interventions with individuals, families, and groups. These programs are designed to prepare students for LCSW licensure. Clinical MSW programs may target one or more of the following social work specializations: mental health, substance abuse, child and family, adult/gerontology, school, and trauma.
  • Online Master’s in Macro Social Work Programs: MSW programs with a macro/community practice focus provide students with the knowledge and skills necessary to work at the community, state, and/or national levels, assessing, implementing, and administering programs designed to affect social change. Students should note that these programs typically do not include the clinical training, both in terms of curriculum and field education, necessary for state licensure as an LCSW.
  • Online Advanced Standing MSW Programs: Advanced standing MSW programs are designed for students who have graduated from a CSWE-accredited Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) program. Advanced standing programs allow BSW graduates to effectively skip the first year of an MSW program in terms of both coursework and field education. However, they typically have highly selective admission criteria with a minimum GPA requirement and a maximum length of time between completion of a BSW program and the start of the MSW program (usually students need to have completed their BSW within five to seven years depending on the program). Advanced standing programs may offer a clinical practice, community practice, or advanced generalist curriculum.
  • Online MSW Programs with a Military Social Work Focus: These programs offer advanced training in clinical social work with a focus on counseling, advocacy, and crisis intervention among active-duty service members and their families, as well as with military veterans and their families. A military social work MSW program provides specialized instruction in the unique features of military culture and military institutions, and well as in the acute and long-term mental health issues faced by current and former service members. These programs also typically provide sufficient clinical training to satisfy state requirements for licensure as an LCSW.
  • Online Master’s in Human Services Programs: Master’s in human services programs focus on the administrative side of social programs and the organizations that engage in social work. These programs offer training in management, leadership, communication, and other skills related to running human services programs. While some master’s in human services programs may provide clinical training and field experience, they are not designed to prepare students for licensure as an LCSW, and they are not accredited by the CSWE.
  • Online Doctorate of Social Work (DSW) Programs: DSW programs provide practicing social workers with advanced training and preparation for leadership roles in social work agencies and organizations, and for teaching social work at colleges and universities. They are designed for students who hold an MSW and have experience working in the field, although some DSW programs may accept students with a master’s degree in a field closely related to social work, such as human services. It is important to note that the CSWE does not currently provide accreditation for social work programs at the doctoral level.

Programmatic Accreditation for Online Social Work Programs

Programmatic accreditation is an important factor to consider when researching online degree programs in social work, particularly at the bachelor’s and master’s degree levels. Students who attend a bachelor’s program in human services or social work that is not accredited by the CSWE may not be eligible to apply to Advanced Standing MSW programs. Similarly, students who graduate from non-accredited MSW programs may not be eligible for licensure in many states. CSWE accreditation ensures that a program meets certain curricular standards, including provisions for a minimum number of field education hours – 400 hours in BSW programs; 900 hours in MSW programs.

The CSWE does not accredit DSW programs or master’s in human services programs. However, there is a separate body that assesses and offers voluntary accreditation to human services programs: the Council of Standards for Human Services Education (CSHSE).

Additional Resources for Online Social Work Programs on OnlineEducation.com

In addition to researching and classifying online programs, OnlineEducation.com offers a range of other resources for students interested in pursuing an online degree. Our social work and human services section includes detailed information about different types of programs and various social work specializations. We also provide information about online instructional methods and online program formats, and offer detailed answers to commonly asked questions about education, training, and careers in social work and human services in our FAQ section.


Online Advanced Standing MSW Programs

A guide to online Advanced Standing MSW programs, which admit graduates from CSWE-accredited BSW programs and offer a shortened path to earning an MSW degree, with fewer required course and less field instruction than a traditional, two-year MSW degree program.

Online Clinical Social Work MSW Programs

A guide to online clinical social work MSW programs, including clinical social work coursework, field education requirements, admissions policies, and online instructional formats.

Online Doctor of Social Work Programs

An overview of online DSW degree programs, the coursework associated with a doctorate in social work, and other program details, including admissions criteria, online instructional methods, and program format options.

Online Macro Social Work MSW Programs

A guide to online macro and community practice MSW programs, the typical coursework in a macro/community practice MSW curriculum, and field instruction requirements and admissions criteria for these programs.

Online Master’s in Human Services Programs

A guide to online master’s in human services degree programs with a focus on typical master’s level coursework, online instructional methods, enrollment options, and admissions requirements.

Online Military Social Work MSW Programs

An overview of online MSW programs with a military social work concentration or specialization, with details concerning typical coursework, field instruction requirements, admissions policies, and online instructional methods.

Online MSW Programs

A guide to Master of Social Work (MSW) degree programs, including detailed information about master’s level coursework, field education, admissions requirements, licensure eligibility, and online instructional formats.