Social Work Degrees in California

A social work degree prepares students to help others deal with problems like homelessness, child abuse, school bullying, and end-of-life decisions. California employs more social workers than any other state. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that the demand for social workers in California will increase substantially in the coming years.

the demand for social workers in California will increase substantially in the coming years

Social work graduates can become social workers or choose an alternative career path in teaching, research, or policymaking. You can work as a generalized social worker in positions such as case worker, residential counselor, or child welfare social worker with your bachelor’s in social work. Or, you can earn a master’s in social work to become a clinical social worker and qualify for more specialized positions, such as school social worker or mental health social worker. Earning a social work degree in California provides graduates with several career options.

California requires clinical social workers to hold a license. Non-clinical social workers can practice in California without a license if they hold at minimum a bachelor's in social work (BSW.) If you want to practice clinical social work, you must apply to the California Board of Behavioral Sciences (BBS) to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). The minimum educational requirement to receive your LCSW is a master's in social work (MSW) from a Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)-accredited college or university.

The first step to getting your LCSW is registering as an Associate Clinical Social Worker (ASW). If your social work degree is from another state, you must complete an 18-hour California law and professional ethics course before applying for the ASW. Once you obtain your ASW, you have six years to complete the remaining requirements for becoming an LCSW. This includes completing a minimum of 3,200 hours of supervised work; taking additional coursework in human sexuality, child abuse, and partner abuse; passing the California Law and Ethics exam; and passing the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) clinical level exam.

Once you hold your LCSW, you must apply for renewal every two years in California. To qualify, you must complete 36 continuing education (CE) hours. Eighteen CE hours are required the first time you renew your license.

Social work programs in California offer degrees at the associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate level. To work as a licensed professional social worker, you’ll need at least a bachelor’s in social work. To practice clinical social work, a master’s in social work is required. A social work doctoral degree qualifies graduates to teach social work, as well as pursue research and policy opportunities.

Associate Degree
An associate degree prepares social work students to work as social work assistants and in other support roles. Earning an associate degree is also good preparation for entering a BSW program. Students learn the basics of social work and take a variety of introductory and general education courses. .
Bachelor's Degree
Many BSW programs prepare students to work as generalized professional social workers. Several BSW programs include an internship to give students hands-on experience. Typical entry-level positions for BSW-holders include case manager and child welfare social worker.
Master's Degree
The MSW allows you to practice anywhere as a licensed social worker. Students delve into more complex issues within the field and choose a specialization, such as children, mental health, or the elderly. Graduates can work as licensed clinical social workers in positions such as school social worker, family social worker, or medical social worker.
Doctoral Degree
A doctorate in social work opens opportunities to teach social work at the university level or to work in social work research and evaluation. Students take seminars and study specialized issues in social work, culminating in a dissertation project.

Students pursuing their bachelor’s and master’s in social work usually choose a concentration and gain specialized knowledge in that area. Many social workers specialize in delivering services to a specific population, such as children, medical patients, or the elderly. Some social work specialties include school social worker, child and family social worker, healthcare social worker, and mental health and substance abuse social worker.

Child and Family Social Worker

These social workers provide direct services to families and children in a variety of non-clinical settings, including shelters and child welfare agencies. They help clients grapple with issues such as domestic violence, trauma, unemployment, and poverty. Child and family social workers make up about half of all social workers in the U.S.

School Social Worker

School social workers engage with K-12 children in elementary, middle, and high schools. They help young people and their families combat issues that affect students’ academic success, including bullying, homelessness, eating disorders, and suicide.

Healthcare Social Worker

Social workers who specialize in healthcare help medical patients and their families navigate the social, emotional, financial, and logistical aspects of health problems. They work in hospitals, health clinics, and hospices. Sometimes they offer therapy and counseling, and handle crisis situations.

Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Worker

This type of social worker helps individuals and their families struggling with addiction or mental health disorders. They are especially good at helping people who struggle with co-occurrence of these two issues. They work in hospitals, health clinics, residential treatment centers, and in private practices.

All states clinical social workers to possess licensure, and most also require that non-clinical social workers hold a license. California’s rules for social worker licensure are a bit different, as the state only requires clinical social workers to have a license.

You must hold at least a master’s degree in social work to become an LCSW in California. After completing a CSWE-accredited MSW program, graduates must complete at least 3,200 hours of supervised work and pass the ASWB clinical level exam. While working towards the 3,200 hours of supervised experience required to become an LCSW, applicants register as an ASW.

To legally work in specific fields like nursing, teaching, and social work, you typically must hold the appropriate license

Although similar, licensure and certification are two different processes. State agencies regulate and distribute licenses. To legally work in specific fields like nursing, teaching, and social work, you typically must hold the appropriate license. However, becoming certified is a voluntary process that is typically done through an independent, non-governmental organization.

Several organizations offer certifications for social workers in areas such as gerontology, palliative care, and children and families. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) offers the certifications listed below.

Advanced Practice Specialty Credentials

Students can choose from many different social work schools in California. When researching programs, consider cost, location, specializations available, and program length. The length of social work programs varies depending on degree, previously earned credits, if you can attend part-time or full-time, and if the program offers courses year-round. If you already have a BSW, you could potentially earn an MSW in an accelerated format.

Cost poses one of the biggest concerns when selecting a social work program. Investigate financial aid opportunities, particularly scholarships and grants. Also check if you qualify for student loan forgiveness or tuition reimbursement programs.

Of special importance when choosing an MSW program is if the school offers your intended specialization. The more experience and knowledge you gain in your specialization area, the easier it is to find employment.

Can You Earn a Social Work Degree Online in California?

Prospective students can choose from several online social work programs in California. Earning an online social work degree is a convenient, affordable, and flexible option for many students. Online social work programs often include the same curriculum, instructors, and internship opportunities available at on-campus programs.

Earning an online degree has no impact on applying for a social work license. You still must submit proof of MSW, complete the required hours of supervised work experience, and pass the required exam. However, you also must ensure your social work program holds accreditation from the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). The CSWE accredits online and in-person social work programs. To become a licensed clinical social worker in California, you need an MSW from a CSWE-accredited college or university. If you earn your degree from an unaccredited program, you can not qualify to become a licensed social worker in California.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Social Worker in California?

How long it takes to become a social worker in California depends on several factors, including the degree and length of program. Plan for about two years of full-time study to earn an online associate degree or master’s in social work. A BSW usually takes about four years, while a Ph.D. can take three to five years, or longer. Students who already hold a BSW may potentially enroll in a fast-track MSW program, in which coursework is condensed into one year.

Other factors that can affect the length of an online degree in social work include if the program is part-time or full-time, and if it's taught asynchronously or synchronously. Additionally, program length can vary depending on whether the program uses a cohort format or not. In cohort programs, students take courses with a group of other learners over a specific timeframe. Cohort learning keeps you on track to finish your degree in a predetermined amount of time. An individually paced program might be a good choice if you want to study at an accelerated rate and take classes year-round to earn your degree faster.

How Much Does a Social Work Program Cost in California?

Costs vary based on a number of factors. Oftentimes, graduate students can pursue assistantships and fellowships to offset their tuition expenses. Cost also varies depending on the school. Public and community colleges tend to be less expensive than private universities.

Although you can practice non-clinical social work without a license in California, you need a license to work as a clinical social worker. The cost of the ASWB board exam required of clinical social workers is $260. Applying for the LCSW costs an additional $200. Registering as an ASW, which is required while earning the LCSW, includes a $75 application fee. CE costs vary depending on where you earn them. To renew your license you must complete 36 CE hours every two years. The first time you renew your license the state only requires 18 hours. Some professional social work organizations offer CE credits at a free or reduced rate to members.

Directory of Social Work Programs in California

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Most students graduating with a social work degree become social workers, although some pursue other careers. Social workers can specialize in many different areas, including children, families, the elderly, and individuals dealing with substance abuse and addiction. Some social workers focus on helping people in specific environments, like schools or hospitals.

Social Workers

Non-clinical social workers work in many community settings, including state agencies, nonprofit groups, and shelters. A minimum of a BSW is necessary to work as a non-clinical social worker in California. Non-clinical social workers include any social worker who does not practice in a clinical setting.

Medical Social Worker

Medical social workers work in hospitals, clinics, hospice, and other healthcare settings, providing counseling and guidance to patients and their families. Medical social workers who hold an MSW earn better salaries and enjoy better career opportunities than those with only a BSW.

Child, Family, and School Social Worker

This category of non-clinical social worker provides support to vulnerable children, helping them address a variety of problems stemming from socioeconomic issues. A minimum of a BSW is required to work as a child, family, or school social worker in California.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker

In California, you must hold an MSW to be a licensed clinical social worker. LCSWs provide therapy and counseling to patients in a clinical setting. They advocate for patients and connect them with needed resources.

School Social Worker

School social workers need at least a BSW to work in California. They provide direct services to students at the K-12 level in public and private schools. They help children deal with bullying, suicide, poverty, and other issues.

Median Salaries and Employment for Social Work Specialties in California

  Employment Annual Mean Wage
Child, Family, and School Social Workers 32,050 $55,830
Healthcare Social Workers 18,150 $72,770
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers 12,600 $55,730
Social Workers, All Other 10,600 $66,300
Source: BLS

Although many college students worry about paying for college, scholarships can help relieve the financial strain. The list below is just a small sampling of the social work scholarships available.

Social Work Scholarships

Jannette Alexander Foundation Scholarships $500

Who Can Apply: The Jannette Alexander Foundation for Clinical Social Work Education distributes these scholarships to graduating MSW students with proven excellence in clinical studies and practice. Students must attend a college or university in California. View Scholarship

NASW-CA Native American Student Scholarship $1,000

Who Can Apply: The California chapter of NASW offers this scholarship to increase the number of Native American social workers in the state. Students must be Native Americans working on a BSW or MSW at a CSWE-accredited school in California. Applicants must also be members of NASW-CA. View Scholarship

Consuelo W. Gosnell Memorial Scholarship $4,000

Who Can Apply: Each year the NASW gives 10 scholarships to MSW students with a demonstrated commitment to working with Hispanic/Latino or American Indian/Alaska Native populations. Applicants must be NASW members in a CSWE-accredited program. View Scholarship

Carl A. Scott Book Scholarship $500

Who Can Apply: The CSWE distributes this scholarship to help BSW or MSW students buy books. Students must have a minimum 3.0 GPA and be in their last year of full study towards a BSW or MSW. Minority and ethnic students receive priority. Applicants must demonstrate a commitment to social justice in social work. View Scholarship
  • California Society for Clinical Social Work The CSCSW is a professional organization that advocates for clinical social workers and the profession of clinical social work. Membership benefits include free CE units, networking, workshops, listserv, a supervisor list for licensing hours, a subscription to the Clinical Social Work Journal, and a mentorship program.
  • California Association of School Social Workers The CASSW promotes the profession of school social work in the state’s school system in order to better serve students’ mental health, emotional, and social needs. The group also works alongside social work graduate schools in California to offer the Pupil Personnel Services Credential for School Social Work and Child Welfare and Attendance.
  • California Chapter of National Association of Social Workers The California chapter of NASW advances the profession of social work, creates professional standards, and contributes to members’ professional growth. NASW-CA hosts an annual conference, maintains a job board, and keeps members abreast of state news relevant to the profession.
  • National Association of Black Social Workers The NABSW is a group of social workers and social work students of African ancestry. The group advocates for social justice of African people. Members receive access to networking opportunities, discounted pricing for conferences, presenter opportunities at the NABSW annual conference, a career center, CE units, and a mentorship program.
  • Council on Social Work Education The CSWE works to ensure the existence of quality social work education programs in the U.S. Members include more than 800 BSW and MSW programs, as well as individual educators and practitioners.