Online Master of Social Work (MSW) Degree Programs

A Master of Social Work (MSW) is a professional practice-oriented degree that provides students with formal training and instruction in the field of social work. Social workers, like other clinical health and human services professionals, offer various types of assistance to underserved populations through direct client interventions, through the coordination and administration of social services programs, and through the design and implementation of social policy initiatives. Some social workers specialize in providing direct counseling services to individuals and families in need, while others focus at the macro level to organize, advocate for, and manage health and human services programs.

Social work requires a deep understanding of social processes, mental and physical health problems, and the causes and effects of poverty, inequality, joblessness, domestic violence, substance abuse, and other social ills. It also entails learning to navigate the healthcare system and networks of human services programs administered by government agencies, non-profit organizations, and private groups. MSW programs offer a curriculum that covers knowledge and proficiencies in these and other areas that are integral to the professional practice of social work.

What is an MSW Degree Program?

An MSW degree is a professional master’s degree that prepares students for careers in various areas of clinical and community practice social work. Students in an MSW program learn about human behavior in relation to social environments and study theories of psychology, sociology, and behavioral development across the lifespan. They examine social science research, learn the accepted methodologies for conducting ethical research in the field, and study social welfare policies and programs created to address and alleviate social ills. Students then learn to apply this knowledge in the professional practice of social work, whether that involves direct client counseling, administering social welfare programs, or intervening at the community, state, or national level to bring necessary services to people in need. MSW programs also incorporate field education, which gives students the opportunity to acquire supervised work experience at social work agencies and organizations. This is a key component of master’s-level instruction in social work.

While there is some uniformity in MSW program curricula, there are also important variations. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), which is the only body that accredits master’s in social work programs, maintains guidelines for core MSW proficiencies that all programs must meet for accreditation. This includes MSW programs with a focus on macro social work, MSW programs with a specialization in clinical social work (advanced clinical practice), and MSW programs with an advanced generalist curriculum, which combine instruction in clinical and macro social work.

For students who want to become Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW), choosing the right type of program is an important consideration. LCSW licensure is a requirement for social workers who wish to set up their own private practice providing clinical counseling services in all 50 states. While each state has its own licensure requirements, completing an MSW program with coursework in clinical social work, either through an advanced generalist or a clinical social work program, is generally considered to be the most direct route to meeting the requirements for licensure. It is important to note that macro social work programs may not provide the coursework or field education necessary for licensure.

Online MSW Programs

Online MSW programs utilize distance-learning technologies to provide the same training and instruction offered by campus-based MSW programs. Students in these programs receive all or most of their instruction through a learning management system (LMS), which provides access to lectures and other course materials and allows students to interact with instructors and classmates. In addition, some online MSW programs hold a limited number of on-campus sessions, which students are required to attend. OnlineEducation.com does not currently include any MSW programs that require more than two campus visits per year.

How OnlineEducation.com Identifies and Classifies Online MSW Programs

OnlineEducation.com only includes master’s in social work programs offered by regionally accredited, non-profit schools that have received programmatic accreditation from the CSWE. CSWE accreditation indicates that an MSW program offers instruction consistent with professional standards in the field of social work, and that the program includes at least 900 hours of field work experience. Programs that are in the candidacy phase of CSWE accreditation are also included on the site. Students who are interested in a program that is in the candidacy phase of accreditation should speak with an admissions advisor about the accreditation process and what happens if the school fails to achieve accreditation.

There are several formal designations for master’s in social work degree programs that are accredited by the CSWE. These include:

  • Master of Social Work (MSW)
  • Master of Science in Social Work (MSSW)
  • Master of Science in Social Administration (MSSA)

Types of Online MSW Degree Programs

The practice of social work is generally broken down into three main areas: micro, mezzo, and macro. Micro refers to clinical or direct practice social work, which involves providing counseling services and other types of assistance directly to individuals, families and groups. Macro social work takes place in communities and organizations and can involve intervening at the local, state, and/or national level to lobby for social change, manage and administer health and social service programs, and promote initiatives designed to bring assistance to underserved populations. Mezzo social work involves working in schools and other community-based organizations and institutions to bring services and assistance to specific groups at the local level.

The focus of an MSW program can differ significantly depending on the type of program. OnlineEducation.com currently includes the following types of MSW programs:

  • Advanced Generalist MSW Programs: Advanced Generalist or general MSW programs offer a curriculum that covers both clinical practice and principles of macro social work. These programs typically offer sufficient coursework and training to pursue clinical licensure post-graduation, but this is contingent upon whether or not the curriculum meets state licensing requirements. In a state that requires MSW field education in clinical practice for licensure as an LCSW, students in an advanced generalist program should check to ensure that their field education meets this requirement. Students who intend to apply for licensure should examine these programs closely to determine whether or not post-graduate training will be required in order to qualify for licensure.
  • Clinical/Direct Practice MSW Programs: Clinical/Direct Practice programs provide instruction and training in client health assessment protocols and the delivery of counseling services and psychotherapy to individuals, families, and other social groups. These programs are designed to prepare students for eventual state licensure as an LCSW. Check out our Online Clinical Social Work Programs page for more information.
  • Macro/Community Practice MSW Programs: Macro/Community Practice/Social Administration programs offer a curriculum designed for students aiming to work at the organizational level and in administrative and managerial areas of social work. These programs typically do not include the clinical training required for state licensure and are not ideal for students who intend to go into clinical practice post-graduation. Check out our Online Macro Social Work Programs page for more information.

In addition to the programmatic specializations detailed above, there are also areas of sub-specialization within clinical social work and corresponding programs that address these areas, which include: adult/gerontology; alcohol and drug counseling; child and family; healthcare; mental health counseling; military, school; and trauma.

Did you graduate from a CSWE-accredited Bachelor of Social Work program?
Students with a BSW degree may qualify for admission to an online Advanced Standing MSW program. These programs only accept graduates from CSWE accredited BSW programs and allow BSW graduates to skip the first year of a traditional MSW program.

The MSW Curriculum

There are three primary components of an MSW curriculum, two of which depend upon the program’s area of specialization. The largest component is core coursework in areas outlined by the CSWE most recently in its 2015 Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards for Baccalaureate and Master’s Social Work Programs. This includes courses in theories of social work; the professional and ethical practice of social work; social work research; and engagement and intervention with individuals, families, groups, communities, and organizations for the advancement of social, economic, and environmental justice. The second curricular component encompasses required and elective coursework in clinical or community practice. For example, clinical social workers learn about the counseling process, while students in a macro social work program study community outreach programs and social service program development. An advanced generalist curriculum would include coursework in both of these areas.

The final component of an MSW program involves field education, which may be clinical or community-based, depending on the program’s area of focus. Field placements, which must be approved by the MSW program and meet CSWE standards for field education, are a core element of master’s-level training in social work. As noted above, the CSWE requires accredited MSW programs to offer a minimum of 900 hours of field education, which is commonly broken down into two 450-hour placements, although this varies by program and some programs include up to 1,200 hours of field education.

Field education may take place in social and human services agencies, hospitals and counseling centers, correctional facilities, residential care facilities, addiction and mental health clinics, and community organizations. It is similar to a professional internship in that it involves experiential learning in a real-world setting, and students are typically not paid for this work. Students work under the supervision of a field instructor and different programs handle the field placement process differently. Some schools offer placement services that match students to field instructors, while others require students to find their own placements. Schools that require students to find their own placements typically have lists of field instructors who have already been approved by the program. Applicants to MSW programs should check with a program administrator or enrollment advisor to obtain details about how the program handles field placements.

Students should note that field education is a significant time commitment that often requires 16 to 24 hours per week depending on the program and on whether a student in enrolled full-time or part-time. This equates to two to three days per week of field work during semesters with field education. In addition, students are not typically paid for the time they spend completing their field education. Finally, most placements take place Monday through Friday during normal business hours, when agencies or facilities are open and field instructors are present. Night and weekend placements may be difficult to find for students who wish to still work full-time while pursuing their MSW. Therefore, students need to ensure they have the personal and professional bandwidth to complete field education before applying to an MSW program.

Common MSW Core Coursework

The table below offers an overview of the core MSW curriculum drawn from actual online MSW programs.

Course Title
Course Description
Human Behavior in the Social EnvironmentTheories of social structures and how individuals and communities develop and interact, including the biopsychosocial and cultural factors that impact human development over the lifespan.
Social Work ResearchThe processes and methods by which qualitative and quantitative research in the field is conducted and applied to the practice of social work.
Communities & Organizations: Analysis & InterventionAn introduction to the macro or community-based practice of social work, including assessing policies and problem solving within the context of community intervention and outreach programs.
Diversity, Oppression, & Social JusticeAn examination of power relationships and biases based on gender, race, religion, ethnicity, disabilities, sexual orientation, and socio-economic status.
Social Work Practice with Individuals, Families, & GroupsThe foundations of the practice of social work, including analytic and assessment tools for counseling in various clinical settings.
Leadership in the Social Work Professions: Theory & PracticeTheories of organizational leadership and their application in the field of social work.
Mental Health & Social PolicyThe impact of mental health policy on the practice of social work in the current healthcare system.
Social Work EthicsEthical decision-making in the practice of clinical and community social work.
Field Education InternshipIndependent supervised practice of social work with individuals, families, groups, communities, and in social work organizations.

For more information on concentration specific courses, please see our Online Clinical Social Work Programs page and our Online Macro Social Work Programs page.

Admissions for Online MSW Programs

Admissions policies vary by school and by program. In most cases, the baseline requirement is a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university. MSW programs may also have a minimum cumulative GPA requirement of 2.5 or 3.0. Some programs require candidates to show that they have participated in a certain number of hours of volunteer community service prior to applying. Applicants are typically asked to furnish two or three letters of recommendation; a short statement of purpose; and/or scores from either the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) or the Miller Analogies Test (MAT). Finally, some programs have one or two undergraduate prerequisites, which may include courses in a statistics and/or sociology or psychology.

Online MSW Program Formats

Formats for online MSW programs vary. There are several structural components that may be important considerations for potential applicants. In general, these programs are designed to be convenient and flexible enough to accommodate students who are working or have significant commitments outside of school. However, some program formats may be more suitable for specific students than others, depending on three main factors: the method of online instruction; enrollment options; and campus visits.

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Instruction: There are two basic modes of online instruction. Synchronous instruction refers to lectures and courses that are held in real-time, requiring students to be logged on to a learning management system (LMS) at that time in order to participate. Asynchronous instruction does not incorporate scheduled class meetings, allowing students to access lectures and other course materials online, 24-7. While asynchronous instruction is inherently more flexible than synchronous instruction, it requires more self-discipline as assignments and other course requirements must be completed according to a course’s syllabus. Although synchronous instruction affords less flexibility, it may be preferable for students who are more comfortable in a structured learning environment that better mimics a traditional on-campus setting.

Part-Time vs. Full-Time Enrollment: Online MSW degree programs can be completed in approximately two years of year-round, full-time enrollment. Full-time students generally take four or five courses per semester. However, many online MSW programs offer part-time enrollment options that may be more convenient for students who are working while earning their degree or have other significant commitments outside of school. Part-time enrollment can equate to taking two or three courses per semester, which extends the time to completion by one-to-two years, depending on the flexibility a program allows. Students aiming to earn an MSW degree in two years should look into full-time programs; students who would prefer to take fewer courses per semester should look into programs with a part-time enrollment option.

Campus Visits: MSW programs listed on this site offer most of their instruction online through an LMS. However, some online MSW programs hold on-campus orientation and immersion sessions that are a required part of the curriculum. These campus-based sessions give students the opportunity to meet instructors and interact with other students, and they often include workshops, seminars, and other educational activities. They also require students to travel to a designated location and to be at that location for several days. Additional expenses may be incurred during these campus visits. For some students, traveling to a campus may not be a viable option. Students who cannot or would prefer not to travel as part of an online program should look for programs that do not require campus visits. For students who want to meet their classmates and instructors in person and who would like an online program that includes some face-to-face instruction, a program with campus-visits maybe ideal. Online MSW programs that require more than two campus visits per year are not currently included on this site.