Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) Degree Programs and Majors
The core mission of social work is to enhance human well-being and social justice, particularly for vulnerable communities. Bachelor of social work (BSW) degree programs prepare students for impactful work in the fulfillment of this mission, through classes in social work methods, social work policy and advocacy, human behavioral health, and social work research. BSW programs typically require four years of study and combine general education requirements with social work major courses that allow students to explore different areas of social work, from direct client work to program development and policy advocacy.
For students interested in pursuing a master’s degree after they graduate, BSW programs may also allow graduates to apply for and enroll in advanced standing Master of Social Work (MSW) programs, which can save students time and tuition on their graduate education. The number of credits that BSW students can transfer from their undergraduate program to an advanced standing MSW program depends on the specific curriculum of their BSW program and the requirements of their desired advanced standing MSW program.
Note: The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is the sole accrediting body for bachelor’s and master’s in social work degree programs in the US. Graduating from a CSWE-accredited bachelor’s and/or master’s in social work program is required to earn a social work license in most states. Prospective students who are interested in earning their social work license should make sure that their programs of interest are either CSWE-accredited or in the candidacy phase of accreditation and in good standing with the CSWE.
Social Work Licensure for BSW Graduates
Depending on their state of residence, social workers have different requirements that they must meet for licensure. This is relevant to students who are considering earning their BSW, because some states allow students with a BSW to be eligible for a social work license or credential, while other states only grant social work licensure to social workers who have earned their MSW. For states that do license social workers who have earned a BSW, the license is usually different from the license for which MSW graduates are eligible.
For example, some states might award BSW graduates who apply for licensure with a Licensed Bachelor Social Worker or Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW) credential. In contrast, the licenses that require an MSW include but are not limited to Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW), and Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW).
To help clarify the differences between various state’s policies around social work licensure, below are several examples of how different states’ social work licensing boards regulate social work licensing and the educational requirements for each type of license. Please note that all states’ Social Work Licensing Boards require applicants for social work licensure to have earned their degree (baccalaureate or graduate) from a CSWE-accredited program.*
Examples of States that License Social Workers with a BSW
There are numerous states that allow eligible BSW graduates to earn a professional license or credential. Among them is the State of Texas. The Texas Social Work Licensing Board offers a Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW) credential in addition to three MSW-specific credentials: Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW), and Licensed Master Social Worker-Advanced Practice (LMSW-AP). Social workers applying for the LBSW credential must pass the Texas Jurisprudence Examination as well as the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) Bachelor’s Level Examination.
For students in Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Social Work Licensing Board allows graduates who earned a BSW to earn their Licensed Social Worker (LSW) credential by taking the ASWB Bachelor’s-Level Examination. In some circumstances, applicants to the LSW license may be able to waive the BSW requirement if they have completed enough field education hours or relevant work experience. Students who have not earned their BSW but who have an associate’s degree in social work, human services, or a related field qualify in Massachusetts for a Licensed Social Work Assistant (LSWA) credential, if they pass the ASWB Associate Level Examination.
Other examples of states that allow BSW graduates to apply for a social work license include Maryland’s Licensed Bachelor Social Work (LBSW) credential, Louisiana’s Registered Social Worker (RSW) credential, and Ohio’s Licensed Social Worker (LSW) credential.
Examples of States that Do Not License Social Workers with a BSW
California and New York are two states whose Social Work Licensing Boards only offer licenses to applicants who have earned an MSW or a doctorate-level degree in social work. The California Social Work Licensing Board recognizes two categories of licensed social worker—the Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and the Associate Clinical Social Worker (ACSW), while the New York Social Work Licensing Board offers two social work licenses—the Licensed Clinical Social Work (LCSW) and the Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW).
As the above examples illustrate, there is great variance between states in terms of the credentials they award social workers. In addition, state Social Work Licensing Boards continually review and update their requirements for and policies around social work licensure at the associate, undergraduate, graduate, and/or clinical levels. As a result, all social workers who wish to earn a license or credential in their state of residence should contact their state’s Social Work Licensing Board for the most up-to-date information on licensing requirements.
Online Bachelor of Social Work Programs
For students who are working full or part-time, and/or have personal obligations that make a traditional undergraduate course schedule difficult, there are online BSW programs that provide students with flexibility both in terms of class scheduling and their geographic location while taking classes. Online BSW programs utilize asynchronous and/or synchronous instruction methods using online learning technologies that allow students to interact with course faculty and peers. While online BSW programs might not be ideal for all students, particularly students who learn best in a structured academic environment with in-person classes, online BSW programs provide the following advantages:
- For classes that use asynchronous instruction, flexibility in terms of when students log on to view lectures and complete coursework and projects.
- For classes that use synchronous or real-time instruction, flexibility in terms of one’s location when participating in classes (e.g., no requirement to commute to a college campus for lectures).
- The ability to access course materials such as pre-recorded lectures, online learning modules, and online textbooks at any time and as many times as needed.
- The option of attending a BSW program that is far from one’s area of residence without having to relocate or commute.
- The ability to still attend classes and earn one’s degree while traveling for personal or professional reasons (ex. students who are in the military).
Students considering online BSW programs should note that the field education component of their BSW curriculum must be completed in-person. As the signature pedagogy of the social work discipline, field education consists of completing a supervised internship in a social work or human services setting (see below for more information on field education).
Curriculum for Bachelor of Social Work Programs
Bachelor of social work programs are comprised of a mix of general education classes, social work prerequisite courses, and major classes specific to students’ interests and goals. In general, a BSW program is comprised of approximately 120 credit hours, although the actual number of credits required depends on the school, whether the program is run on a quarterly or a semester basis, and the credit system used. About half of the required credits are typically devoted to general education requirements, such as classes in undergraduate writing and rhetoric, math, natural sciences, and foreign language. The other half is devoted to the study of social work through prerequisite classes, core social work major courses, field education, and electives.
Below is a sample curricular plan and course descriptions for the social work prerequisite, core and elective requirements, and field education requirements of a typical BSW program. Please note that this course schedule is only meant to serve as an example. For the most accurate and up-to-date information on a BSW program’s curriculum, prospective students should refer to the school’s website or catalog.
Undergraduate Social Work Prerequisite Courses:
- Introduction to Human Psychology: An introduction to human thought, emotion, and behavior. Topics such as cognition, perception, memory, culture and social influence, emotion, and mental wellness/illness are discussed. The connection between human psychology, behavior, and social phenomena at the aggregate level. Students explore the history of research in human psychology, as well as cutting-edge research in the field.
- Human Anatomy and Physiology: The structure and function of the human body, and the integration of human organ systems across the lifespan. The different levels of organization within the human body, from the molecular and cellular levels to the tissues, organs, and organ systems. The principle of homeostasis and how the body’s different systems work holistically to maintain internal stability within the body.
- Introduction to Sociology: An introduction to major sociological topics including race, gender, sexuality, culture, class, socioeconomic (in)equality, disabilities and accessibility, and religion. Students learn about how individual thought, emotion, and behavior connect to public issues, and vice versa.
- Introduction to American Government: The foundations of the U.S. political system, including the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government and the role of political parties, lobbyist groups, media (including social media), and public opinion and welfare. Students investigate the driving forces behind American politics through case studies and key events in history up through contemporary politics.
Undergraduate Social Work Major Courses:
- The American Social Welfare System: This course examines both the major social issues affecting contemporary American society, and the social welfare frameworks that the United States has in place for addressing these issues. Students examine social problems such as poverty, racism and prejudice, domestic violence, mental illness, substance abuse, crime, unemployment, veteran mental and health care needs, and care for the aging population. The function of social welfare institutions, programs, and services in the public and private sectors are also discussed.
- Human Behavior in the Social Environment: The core theories and research concerning human development and behavior across the lifespan and within key social environments, including interactions between individuals, within families, and in larger organizational and societal contexts. How to understand human behavior using a psychosocial approach and analyzing the impact of social forces on human health, psychology, and decision-making.
- Introduction to Social Work Practice: The major principles, concepts, and models governing social work practice. Students learn the history of the social work profession, its core mission, values, and ethics, and the multi-method approaches to enacting positive change for clients at the individual, group, organizational, and community levels. This course employs a person-in-environment approach that incorporates considerations of clients’ social systems and environment in the assessment of challenges and the development of interventions.
- Social Work Research Methods: The importance of research in designing effective social work interventions and evaluating their impact. Students learn how to employ qualitative and quantitative research methods to gather data on social problems and assess interventions, including following the scientific method, formulating appropriate research questions, the design of social work studies, and the application of results to one’s professional practice. Students also tap into the scholarly and professional literature associated with social work practice in order to appropriately contextualize the challenges their clients face.
- Diversity and Social Justice: How social workers can take issues of diversity, prejudice, and social justice into consideration in their practice. How issues of social power, difference, and inequality shape different people’s experiences, the challenges they face, and the types of interventions that are most effective. Different forms of diversity and their impact on social work practice are explored, including gender and gender identity, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, political ideology, immigration status, socioeconomic status, and age.
- Program Development and Community Change: Methods and strategies for addressing community-wide issues through social service program design, implementation, and assessment. How social workers can partner with members of a community to most effectively tackle social justice problems.
- Social Welfare Institutions, Policies, and Services: An in-depth analysis of social welfare programs, policies, and institutions in the United States. Students analyze different areas of social welfare, including child welfare, corrections and criminal justice, mental health, health care, and elderly/geriatric social services. Various frameworks around social justice and change, diversity, social science theory, and behavioral health science are explored within the context of human services institutions and their function in society.
- Social Work in Medical Settings: The role of the social worker in health care settings, including hospitals, community health centers, urgent care clinics, and outpatient behavioral health care centers. How social workers can help patients and their families cope with the mental and emotional challenges of illness and injury, as well as navigate the health care system.
- Chemical Dependency Assessment and Treatment: The key methodologies for diagnosing and designing effective interventions for individuals struggling with substance abuse. Psychosocial assessments, risk assessments, cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, harm reduction techniques, mindfulness therapy, and motivational interviewing are several of the key methodologies covered in this course.
- Social Work Programs for the Elderly: The specific challenges that the elderly face, including ageism, financial insecurity, isolation, depression, and barriers to accessing medical care. The strategies that social workers can employ to help elderly clients and their families navigate important social welfare systems for older adults, and the counseling and assessment methods they can use to diagnose and address mental, emotional, and behavioral health issues amongst the elderly.
Field Education Requirements for BSW Programs
Field education is the signature pedagogy of social work education, as it enables students to apply all of the concepts, methodologies, and skills they have learned in their classes to real work with clients and organizations. Through their field practicums, BSW students can obtain first-hand experience in completing casework, engaging with and advocating for clients, and supporting their supervisors in developing treatment plans and interventions. Through these experiences, students can learn how social work theory, principles, and precedents intersect with contemporary practice in the field, which can prove to be a formative time for them as they determine the areas of social work in which they would like to focus, and the impact they wish to make.
According to the Council on Social Work Education, all CSWE-accredited BSW programs must require students to complete at least 400 hours of field practicum. Some BSW programs require more than 400 hours. Current and prospective BSW students should keep in mind that, if they wish to seek BSW-level licensure in their state of residence (for states that license BSW graduates), they may have to complete more than 400 hours of field experience.
BSW programs, both online and campus-based programs, vary in terms of their field placement process for students. Some programs actively match students to social work agencies and other relevant field practicum settings within commuting distance. These programs also typically set up interviews between students and their potential field education supervisors. Other BSW programs require students to secure their own field practicum sites and supervisors, and to apply for approval once they have determined their desired practicum site. Still other programs collaborate with students to help them identify and contact practicum settings and supervisors that might meet their academic and professional interests. Given the importance of field education to BSW students’ overall learning experience, it is highly recommended that prospective students research how their programs of interest handle field practicum placements, in order to determine the programs that best match their preferences.
To fulfill their field education requirements, BSW students generally must complete 16-20 hours per week of a supervised internship in an eligible social services setting. During this internship, they also meet regularly with their supervisor to determine their desired learning outcomes, discuss progress towards these outcomes, and any questions or challenges they have during their internship. In addition, students typically must attend a 1-credit Practicum Seminar during each term in which they are engaged in field education.
Advanced Standing MSW Programs for BSW Graduates
One of the advantages of earning a BSW from a CSWE-accredited social work program is the option to transfer some or all of one’s BSW coursework into an MSW program that has an advanced standing track. For students who are interested in earning their MSW, advanced standing programs can save them both time and money. The number of course credits that students can transfer from their BSW program to an MSW program depends on the specific coursework they completed during their baccalaureate program, the requirements of their chosen MSW program, and their desired specialization within that program.
For students who think they might want to pursue an MSW in the future post-graduation, it is important to start preparing while they are still pursuing their BSW. Advanced standing MSW programs typically have highly selective admissions requirements that include a high minimum GPA requirement (often 3.25 to 3.5 or higher), proof of excellent performance in one’s BSW field practicum, stellar letters of recommendation, and an eloquent statement of purpose that also illustrates drive and a clear ability to succeed in a rigorous and fast-paced graduate program. Therefore, current and prospective BSW students should reach out to advanced standing MSW programs well before they plan to apply to determine the typical requirements for students who are accepted to such programs. Oftentimes, applicants to advanced standing MSW programs may need to exceed the minimum admissions requirements for these programs in order to be competitive.
For more information on Advanced Standing MSW programs, including online options, please refer to our in-depth Advanced Standing MSW Programs page.
*Students who graduate from a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) program may be eligible for licensure in some states. At this time, the CSWE does not accredit DSW programs and while the majority of DSW programs require an MSW for admission, there are a limited number that accept students who have earned a master’s degree in a field other than social work.