Online Bachelor's in Social Work (BSW) Degree Programs

Training for professional social workers may begin at the bachelor’s degree level, where there are schools that offer an undergraduate curriculum in social work. For students interested in social work, especially students who think they might want to pursue a Master’s in Social Work (MSW), designated Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree programs, as well as largely equivalent Bachelor of Arts (BA) and Bachelor of Science (BS) in Social Work programs, offer several advantages compared to undergraduate programs in psychology, sociology, and other related behavioral science fields.

Students in BSW programs receive introductory training and instruction in the theories and practices of social work, complete several hundred hours of field education placements, and graduate with knowledge and skills that may allow them to begin a career in social work without a master’s degree. Additionally, graduates from social work bachelor’s programs accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) may be eligible for admission to Advanced Standing MSW programs, depending on a program’s admissions criteria. Advanced Standing MSW programs provide qualified students with a pathway to earning an MSW degree in less time than it typically takes to complete a traditional, full-length MSW program by reducing the number of courses and field education hours required for graduation.

What Is a BSW Degree?

BSW is the designation for a college or university degree program that offers undergraduate training in the theories and practices of social work, preparing students for entry-level jobs in social work/social services and/or further advanced training at the master’s level. BSW programs are equivalent to four-year undergraduate programs with a major in social work. Accredited BSW programs provide students with a curriculum that aligns with guidelines outlined by the CSWE in its 2015 Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards for Baccalaureate and Master’s Social Work Programs. This includes didactic instruction in social and behavioral sciences, the history of social welfare policies, the structure of social welfare programs, and the proper conduct of social science research for the evidence-based practice of social work. It also includes at least 400 hours of field education. In addition, students in a BSW program must complete a general education curriculum that varies by school and by program but that generally encompasses core and elective courses in English composition and literature, Western civilization and world history, physical and natural sciences, mathematics, and other arts, science, and humanities subjects.

Online BSW Programs

A BSW program that is offered online is a program that provides all or most of its coursework through distance learning technologies. Rather than commuting to a campus for classes, students in an online BSW program are able to access lectures and other course materials online through a school’s learning management system (LMS). An LMS is an Internet platform that facilitates the streaming of lectures, interactive class discussions, and other functional aspects of college instruction. Students typically submit assignments through a school’s LMS, take exams on the LMS, and contact instructors via email, text, or other messaging applications.

While some online BSW programs are designed to provide students with a full bachelor’s degree curriculum, including general education coursework and undergraduate social work courses and field education placements, other programs are set up primarily to offer a CSWE-accredited social work curriculum online. These programs are often referred to as online bachelor’s completion programs and they are designed to allow students who have already earned the equivalent of one or two years of undergraduate general education credits with a pathway to earn a bachelor’s in social work degree without having to repeat classes or earn a significant number of credits outside of the social work major.

How OnlineEducation.com Identifies and Classifies Online BSW Programs

OnlineEducation.com researches online bachelor’s degree programs and classifies them based on several criteria. To qualify as an online bachelor’s program, a program must lead to the conferral of a bachelor’s degree and offer all or most of its coursework online. The online BSW programs listed on this site are offered by regionally accredited, non-profit colleges and universities. These programs must also be CSWE-accredited, or be in the candidacy phase of CSWE accreditation. They must provide this curriculum without requiring students to attend more than two on-campus sessions per year. This includes programs with the following designations: Bachelor of Social Work; Bachelor of Arts in Social Work; and Bachelor of Science in Social Work.

It is important to note that the CSWE requires BSW programs to provide students with a minimum of 400 hours of field education as a condition of accreditation. Students in an online BSW program receive all or most of their didactic instruction online, but the field education component of an online BSW program must be completed in-person at an approved social service agency or social work organization.

Online Bachelor of Social Work Program Coursework

An online BSW program curriculum can be broken down into several constituent parts: general education classes; core social work courses; and field education placements. General education coursework typically comprises half or more of the credits required for the conferral of a bachelor’s degree. A general education curriculum may consist of introductory and intermediate-level classes in a broad range of subject areas, including but not limited to physical and behavioral sciences, mathematics, English composition and literature, and history and other humanities. General education requirements vary by school and by program, and many online BSW programs allow students to transfer a certain number of general education credits from prior college-level coursework.

The core bachelor’s-level social work curriculum is designed to provide students with a functional knowledge of behavioral science research and theory and their application in the formation of social policy, as well as a practical understanding of the social worker’s role in helping individuals, families, and communities overcome social barriers and obtain social services. Students in an online BSW program typically take courses that cover the history and evolution of social policy programs and initiatives, the behavioral psychology and psycho-social theories that inform the crafting of social policy and practice of social work, and the ethical conduct of research in the field of social work. Some online BSW programs may give students the opportunity to take elective courses in substance abuse and addiction, mental health and psychopathology, school social work, childhood and adolescent development, and/or adulthood and aging. And most online BSW programs require courses in the practice of social work with individuals, families, groups, and community organizations.

The third component of an online BSW program curriculum is field education, which is a principal pedagogy of social work education and training. While formats for field education differ by program, it is common for online BSW programs to divide field education hours into two or three practicums or internships that do not begin until students have successfully completed introductory coursework in the social work major. This typically means that students engage in field education training during the equivalent of their junior and senior years of a bachelor’s program.

Common Online Bachelor’s in Social Work Courses

A typical online BSW program curriculum includes ten or more core courses comprising the social work major. The table below provides an overview of the types of courses that may be part of this core curriculum.

Course TitleCourse Description
History & Methodology of Social WorkAn introduction to the field of social work, its history, and how the practice of social work has evolved to meet the needs of at-risk and underserved populations.
Human Behavior & Social EnvironmentsA survey of human biological, psychological, and societal factors that contribute to our understanding of social work, social policy, and the evolution of social systems, including families, communities, and political and economic structures.
Societal Issues & Social PolicyAn overview of contemporary and historical social issues that have been and are being impacted by government policies, economic forces, and other factors that are relevant in the field of social work.
Community Social WorkAn introduction to the macro practice of social work, social service administration, and the function of social welfare organizations in communities.
Social Science Research MethodsAn examination of how research that informs the evidence-based practice of social work is conducted, including experimental design, data collection and analysis, and ethical considerations.
Social Work Practice: Individuals & FamiliesThe application of social work theory to the practice of social work with individuals and families in need of social services.
Social Work Practice: GroupsThe application of social work theory to the practice of social work with groups of individuals in need of social services.
Social Work Practice: Communities & OrganizationsThe implementation of social welfare and social service policy programs through the practice of social work with community groups and organizations.
Diversity and Social JusticeAn overview of social and economic justice in the context of social work, and an examination of how social workers approach serving diverse populations.
Addiction, Trauma, & PsychopathologyA survey of methodologies for the identification, assessment, and treatment of individuals suffering from addiction, psychological trauma, and other conditions that may require clinical interventions.

Online BSW Program Admissions

The baseline eligibility requirement for admission to an online BSW program is a high school diploma or the equivalent. In addition, schools may require applicants to submit one or more of the following: two to three letters of recommendation; a written statement of purpose or personal essay; answers to one or more essay questions; standardized admissions test scores from the SAT or ACT; and/or transcripts from any prior college-level coursework. As noted above, many online BSW programs are designed for students who have already completed some college-level coursework. Some programs require students to have a specific number of transferable college credits, from as few as 12 credits (typically four courses), to as many 70 to 80 credits (the equivalent of two years of college coursework).

In addition, some bachelor’s completion programs only extend admissions eligibility to students who hold an associate’s degree in social work or human studies, although programs may waive this requirement for applicants who hold an associates degree in another field and who have completed college-level coursework in sociology, psychology, biology, and mathematics. Potential applicants should also be aware that the field education component of an online BSW program may lead some programs to restrict admissions based on an applicant’s state of residence. Prior to submitting an application to an out-of-state online BSW program, students should check with a program administrator to determine whether or not the program has any state restrictions for admissions.

Online Bachelor’s in Social Work Program Formats

While online BSW programs are generally designed to accommodate students who cannot or would prefer not to attend a traditional, campus-based BSW program, there are several factors that can impact the relative convenience and flexibility of the online learning experience. These factors fall into three primary categories: instructional methods (synchronous vs. asynchronous instruction); enrollment options (part-time vs. full-time enrollment); and whether or not the program requires students to attend on-campus sessions. These factors are addressed in the sections below.

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Instruction: The primary difference between the two methods for delivering online courses involves scheduled activities that take place in real time. Synchronous instruction describes the type of learning that takes place in a traditional classroom, where students must be present at scheduled times in order to receive instruction, participate in discussions, and complete other educational activities. Synchronous online instruction takes place in the same manner through a program’s LMS, requiring students to log on to a program’s LMS for lectures, discussions, and other class activities at regularly designated times when classes are in session.

Asynchronous instruction does not have a real-time component. Online courses that utilize asynchronous instruction provide students with due dates for the completion of assignments and a general plan of study, but allow students to access lectures and other instructional activities at their own convenience, 24-7. Synchronous instruction typically provides more structure and may be preferable for students who want an online learning experience that is similar to attending in-person classes. Asynchronous instruction offers more flexibility and may be preferable for students who are working full-time or have other commitments that may conflict with class meetings. However, courses that utilize asynchronous instruction may require more self-motivation and self-discipline to keep up with course materials.

Part-Time vs. Full-Time Enrollment: Many online BSW programs provide students with a certain amount of flexibility regarding the number of courses they must complete per semester or term. This affects the number of hours per week a student typically spends on schoolwork, as well as the amount of time it takes to earn a degree online. Full-time students can generally complete a full bachelor’s degree program in eight semesters or four academic years by taking four or five courses per semester. Part-time enrollment in a bachelor’s program might mean taking two or three courses per term, which reduces the number of hours spent per week on school activities while extending the time to completion by a year or more. Students should examine program enrollment options carefully prior to submitting an application to an online BSW program in order to determine how many courses the program requires students to enroll in per term and whether or not the program offers a choice of enrollment options.

Campus Visits: The majority of online BSW programs do not require students to attend campus-based sessions, and OnlineEducation.com currently does not list BSW programs that require more than two campus visits per year. However, a limited number of online BSW programs may require students to attend campus orientation sessions and/or other types of on-campus instructional activities. This may be an important consideration for students who do not live near the school’s campus, and for students who have scheduling conflicts or financial constraints that make traveling to a campus difficult. Potential applicants to online BSW programs should inquire with the program to determine whether or not the program requires students to attend on-campus sessions, and should do so prior to submitting an application.