Master of Social Work (MSW) Degree Programs

Word cloud for social work with important terms

The Master of Social Work (MSW) is a graduate degree for professionals who wish to assume advanced roles in social work, social services, and social justice. Social work is an incredibly broad and diverse field, encompassing not only clinical practice with different patient populations, but also political advocacy, community program development, and research that focuses on helping populations in need and addressing social injustices. Master’s trained social workers can work in a variety of settings including hospitals, child welfare agencies and family services, community organizations and clinics, government agencies, private practices, think tanks, prisons and other correctional facilities, schools, military facilities including VA clinics and hospitals, child protective services, rehabilitation and substance abuse clinics, hospice and palliative care facilities, inpatient psychiatric wards and outpatient psychiatric clinics, and much more.

The majority of master’s in social work programs are MSW programs. However, some schools refer to their master’s in social work programs by slightly different names. As such, there are also Master of Science in Social Work (MSSW), Master of Science in Social Administration (MSSA), and Master of Social Service (MSS) programs. While there might be historical reasons why these programs use slightly different naming conventions, for all practical purposes, students can think of these degrees as being equivalent. They are all accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and train students for advanced positions in social work.

The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and the Importance of CSWE Accreditation

As a discipline that is committed to improving social welfare and supporting individuals and communities in need, social work education and social work licensure are both highly regulated. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is the only accrediting body for all undergraduate and master’s-level social work programs in the United States. (Note: Currently the CSWE does not accredit Doctor of Social Work (DSW) programs; however, they are in the process of drafting proposed accreditation standards for DSW programs that may be implemented in the future.) It is imperative that students who want to become social workers select a master’s in social work program that has been accredited by the CSWE, as doing so ensures that their program has met the CSWE’s rigorous standards for learning outcomes. Moreover, for social work students who wish to become licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs), completion of a CSWE-accredited MSW program is a key requirement.

female student taking notes in class

Information for BSW Graduates

Students who graduated from CSWE accredited BSW programs may be eligible to earn their MSW in as little as one year by applying to programs that offer an advanced standing track. Learn more about Advanced Standing MSW programs.

There are currently 309 schools that offer master’s programs accredited by the CSWE in the United States and Puerto Rico. Of these schools, 282 offer programs that are fully accredited, while the other 27 schools are in the candidacy phase of accreditation (see below for more information on the candidacy process and what it means for students). The CSWE conducts an annual survey of the programs it accredits and the data from these surveys can be found on the CSWE website. At this time, the CSWE has reports for surveys conducted between 2007 and 2017. (Note: The 2018 survey has been delayed as the CSWE reworks the survey process.)

Summary of CSWE Accredited MSW Programs

  • Total Schools: 309
  • Fully Accredited: 282
  • In Candidacy: 27

The Growth of Social Work Education

From the annual survey data, it is possible to look at both the increase in the number of schools offering CSWE accredited MSW programs and the number of students enrolled in those programs. In 2017, the CSWE sent out surveys to 255 programs. This is compared to 203 programs that were sent surveys in 2010, which equates to a 26% increase in programs during that timeframe (there were 186 programs in 2007). Between the 2017 survey and March of 2019, there has been an additional 17% increase as the number of schools offering programs has jumped from 255 to 299.

In addition to the increase in the number of schools offering master’s in social work programs, the total number of students enrolled in these programs has also grown steadily over the past eight annual surveys. There were slightly over 47K students enrolled in programs in 2010, while there were ~63.5K enrolled in programs in 2017, which equates to a 34% increase in students enrolled in MSW programs. Based on data from the United States Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, the growth of jobs for trained social workers continues to be “much faster than average” compared to all of the occupations they survey. The bls.gov job outlook shows a 16% increase in social work jobs between 2016 and 2026 (current available data). Schools are clearly working to help meet this demand as more programs seek CSWE accreditation.

To help students research CSWE-accredited programs, and to answer important questions about accreditation, field education, distance education, and more, MasterofSocialWork.com provides a comprehensive directory of all CSWE-accredited master of social work programs in the nation. Our directory offers information about tuition, online/hybrid options, part-time and full-time study tracks, and field education requirements. We also feature informational articles about social work careers, advice for succeeding in graduate school, and interviews with social workers and professors of social work.

Growth of Social Work Education

Field Education: Translating Pedagogy into Practice

Field education is a required and essential element of all CSWE-accredited MSW programs, and the signature pedagogy of the discipline. To learn more, visit our page dedicated to information about Field Education.

The CSWE Accreditation Process

As the sole accrediting agency for social work education in the nation, the CSWE establishes key standards and benchmarks that both baccalaureate and graduate social work programs must meet, which are known as the Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards (EPAS). These standards are comprised of detailed Core Competencies, Educational Policies, and Accreditation Standards. The EPAS are revisited every seven years and revised as necessary to reflect new developments in the field; the most recent EPAS were developed and published in 2015, and can be found here.

To earn accreditation, a school of social work must apply to the CSWE for Candidacy Status, which is an intermediate status certifying that a social work program is working towards accreditation. The Candidacy process is highly rigorous and typically takes about three years to complete. During a program’s Candidacy, the CSWE evaluates the program’s curricula, faculty, student support systems, field education, and assessment methods to determine whether they meet certain key benchmarks. CSWE Commissioners also visit the program to evaluate the quality of the program’s instruction. At the end of the Candidacy process, if the program consistently meets all of the CSWE’s benchmarks, it is awarded with accreditation. To maintain accreditation, schools of social work are periodically required to submit their curricula for re-evaluation.

CSWE Candidacy: What Does It Mean for Students? It is important that students choose a MSW program that has achieved either accreditation or Candidacy Status with the CSWE. To learn more about the candidacy process and what it means for students, refer to our Candidacy Status FAQ.

The Standards for CSWE Accreditation

According to the nine Core Competencies outlined in the EPAS, social work programs are expected to teach their students to fully understand the ethical and legal systems governing social work in the arenas of practice, research, and policy. They must also prepare students to promote diversity, protect and advance fundamental human rights, engage with and even develop policies for social welfare, and design effective interventions. In addition, accredited programs must provide students with training in relevant quantitative and qualitative research methods as they relate to enhancing social work practice and the mission of social justice.

The Nine Core Competencies:

  • Competency 1: Demonstrate Ethical and Professional Behavior
  • Competency 2: Engage Diversity and Difference in Practice
  • Competency 3: Advance Human Rights and Social, Economic, and Environmental Justice
  • Competency 4: Engage in Practice-Informed Research and Research-Informed Practice
  • Competency 5: Engage in Policy Practice
  • Competency 6: Engage with Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities
  • Competency 7: Assess Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities
  • Competency 8: Intervene with Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities
  • Competency 9: Evaluate Practice with Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities

Source: “2015 Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards for Baccalaureate and Master’s Social Work Programs,” The Council on Social Work Education, 2015.

Educational Policies for MSW Programs

A CSWE-accredited program must also meet several key Educational Policies, which outline standards for the program’s explicit curriculum (the structure and content of the courses), implicit curriculum (the learning environment in which students immerse themselves within the program), and assessment methods. Accredited MSW programs must have a curriculum that is rooted in the core values of social justice, social service, and productive human relationships. They must also utilize a person-in-environment framework and give students the specialized training to engage with, assess, support, intervene, and evaluate different populations according to the student’s chosen area of specialization within the discipline.

By adhering to the CSWE’s EPAS, accredited MSW programs ensure that they prepare their students to integrate social work theory and research, clinical practice principles, knowledge of human behavior and psychology, and an understanding of how policy affects health to design, improve, and research interventions at the individual, group, community, national, and global levels.

Master of Social Work Specializations

The majority of master’s in social work programs fall into one of three categories: clinical or direct practice, macro social work, and advanced generalist. Clinical and direct practice social work involves working directly with patients at the individual and small group levels. Clinical social workers provide counseling and support to members of vulnerable populations using advanced therapeutic modalities. Macro-level social work focuses on studying and addressing social problems at the population level, through such measures as policy development, advocacy, and social justice program development, management and administration. Finally, advanced generalist programs provide students with training in both direct practice and macro-level social work, with the aim of empowering students to design and implement interventions at a variety of levels, from individual and small group to community-wide and national programs.

Types of Master of Social Work Programs

Are you Interested in:

Clinical

MSW programs in clinical social work provide students with the knowledge and skills to evaluate, diagnose, and treat mental and behavioral health issues at the individual and small group levels, using a variety of therapeutic modalities.

Advanced Generalist

MSW programs with an advanced generalist specialization include courses in both clinical and macro-level social work and allow students to tailor their studies and field education based on their desired career path and professional goals.

Macro

MSW programs in macro-level social work provide students with the research and program development skills to design, implement, and evaluate interventions that address broad social problems affecting communities at the local, state, and national levels.

Within these general categories of social work programs are a diversity of program specializations, ranging from child and family social work to program management, criminal justice social work, and human rights advocacy. Below are examples of master of social work specializations that fall into the aforementioned categories of clinical/direct practice, and macro social work.

Clinical/Direct Practice:

  • Family Social Work Practice
  • Trauma and Violence Counseling
  • Mental Health and Substance Abuse
  • Geriatric Social Work Practice
  • Child Welfare
  • Criminal Justice Social Work
  • Psychiatric Social Work
  • Disabilities

Macro Practice:

  • Administrative Leadership
  • Program Planning and Management
  • Human Rights and Policy Advocacy
  • Social Justice Entrepreneurship

Note: While some Advanced Generalist programs also offer specializations, typically students in these programs tailor their course of study through a combination of elective courses and field education experiences.

Clinical Social Work Licensure

While not all individuals who pursue an MSW seek licensure, it is an important goal for many in the field. Becoming a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) allows practitioners to advance in their careers, gain more professional autonomy, engage in patient care management, and even establish their own therapy practices. The process for becoming a LCSW differs slightly from state to state; however, all states require a social worker to have earned a MSW from a CSWE-accredited program. (Note: Some states may accept a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) degree in lieu of an MSW.)

After receiving their MSW, social workers must take and pass a national licensure exam administered by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB), and might also be required to take an exam specific to their chosen specialization or their state or residence. To learn more about how to become a LCSW, social work students should consult their state’s social work licensing board.

Online, Hybrid, and Campus-Based Master’s in Social Work Programs

With the advent of online learning technologies that enable interactive activities and remote classroom discussions, more master’s in social work programs have been leveraging these technologies to increase the flexibility of their curriculum for students who are balancing professional and personal obligations. Below is a summary of online, hybrid, and campus master’s in social work programs.

Campus

Campus Programs

Campus-based master’s in social work programs, require students to attend classes on a physical campus. This type of program is generally ideal for students who learn best from face-to-face interactions with instructors and peers, and who want to be able to frequently use campus-based resources such as libraries, academic tutoring, and career counseling. In addition, the structure that on campus programs provide through weekly lectures and other class activities can help some students stay organized and on track.

While the majority of MSW programs are offered on-campus, these programs may not be ideal for all students. This is especially true for students who do not live near a campus-based program and who do not or cannot relocate to attend graduate school. In addition, on campus programs may not be ideal for students with professional or personal obligations that make it difficult to commute to campus at set times for weekly classes.

Online

Online Programs

In contrast to campus-based programs, online programs do not require students to travel to a campus to attend weekly classes, and therefore provide greater scheduling flexibility and eliminate the time needed to commute to and from campus. Online master’s in social work programs facilitate interactions between students and program faculty through the use of various online learning platforms that enable video lectures (either live and/or pre-recorded), interactive learning activities (e.g. discussion forums, voice over PowerPoint presentations, webinars), and online office hours.

Students who are interested in online MSW programs should note that there is no set definition that schools use to classify their programs as online. Consequently, there are online master’s in social work programs that have 100% online instruction (with the exception of field education which must be completed in person), and there are programs that require students to attend one or more instructional events on-campus during their enrollment. MasterofSocialWork.com currently classifies programs that utilize online instruction into one of three categories:

  • online program imgOnline Programs: To be classified as an online program on the site, a program must require two or fewer campus visits per year. Therefore, programs that are 100% online or require a limited number of campus visits (1-2 per year) are marked as online programs. This is designed to help students who are researching online programs better understand any travel requirements. These programs are ideal for students who do not live near a campus-based program and/or who do not want to attend multiple on-campus sessions per year.
  • hybrid online program imgHybrid-Online Programs: These programs utilize a combination of campus-based and online instruction, with the majority of the curriculum being delivered online. Programs that require between 3 to ~5 campus visits per year are classified as hybrid-online programs. For these types of programs, it is not uncommon for students to come to campus once per semester. These programs are a good option for students who are interested in earning their degree online, but who would like more face-to-face interactions with professors and classmates. These types of programs are also typically a better option for students who live within driving distance to campus.
  • campus program imghybrid online program imgHybrid Programs: In general, hybrid or blended master’s in social work programs are campus-based programs that incorporate various amounts of online instruction. For example, programs that offer courses which combine online instruction with several on-campus meetings (e.g. once a month or two to three times per semester) are classified as hybrid programs. In addition, programs that combine fully on-campus courses with fully online courses are also classified as hybrid programs. These programs are ideal for students who live near a campus-based program (or who plan to relocate near a campus-based program) and would like to flexibility to take some courses online.