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Illinois is a particularly good place to begin your social work studies. The 19th century social reformer Jane Addams founded the discipline of social work in Chicago, Illinois, when she opened up Hull House to assist recently-arrived immigrants and their families. That first settlement house still stands today, serving the social work program at University of Illinois-Chicago. Illinois hosts over 40 other accredited schools of social work throughout the state. Social work schools in Illinois offer degrees in traditional and online formats at the associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels. Many institutions also offer specialized certificates.

Among the major career paths in the field, Illinois is one of the top five states for highest average wages for child, family, and school social workers

Social work is an interdisciplinary field with roots in the social sciences. Social work emphasizes a practical orientation to social welfare, preparing graduates to provide assistance to individuals and communities in need. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the job growth rate for social work occupations to increase by 16% between 2016 and 2026, which is well above the national average. Among the major career paths in the field, Illinois is one of the top five states for highest average wages for child, family, and school social workers. Healthcare social workers and mental health and addictions specialists can also expect opportunities to expand in both metropolitan and rural areas of the state.

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How to Become a Social Worker in Illinois

The most common way to start a career in social work in Illinois is to earn a social work degree from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). A bachelor’s degree provides the necessary preparation for graduate studies. Although a master’s degree and licensing are not always required for social work jobs, the most challenging and well-paying positions, in clinical social work and administration, require these credentials.

A license officially authorizes you to practice as a social worker. The state of Illinois recognizes two categories of license qualifications, licensed social worker (LSW) or < ahref="/careers/become-a-lcsw/">licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). To become licensed as an LCSW, you must be a graduate of a CSWE-accredited MSW and complete at least two years of supervised clinical experience. You must also pass the clinical exam. The LSW license requires an accredited master’s degree and an exam. Although it is possible to receive the LSW license with only a bachelor’s degree, you must also complete a supervised social work experience and take the exam for this level.

For both types of licenses, applicants must pay the appropriate application and exam fees and pass a criminal background check. Once you acquire your license, you must regularly renew it to keep it current. An Illinois license must be renewed every two years. Renewal requires 30 continuing education units obtained through professional development workshops.

Types of Social Work Degrees in Illinois

If you want to make a difference in the lives of others, a career in social work may be right for you. Social work is a highly regulated profession and there are several educational paths to consider. An associate degree can be completed in two years or less and is a stepping stone to entry-level positions. A bachelor’s degree, which can take four years to finish, opens up many more rewarding careers. However, if you want to work in any clinical setting or in your own private practice, then you need an MSW.

Licenses and certifications require more time and supplement costs for applications, training courses, and mandatory exams. Clinical licensure in Illinois generally requires a master’s degree followed by 3,000 hour of supervised social work experience after graduation. If you plan on teaching at the collegiate level or conducting academic research, then a doctorate is the choice for you. Earning a doctorate in social work requires several more years of study and a major investment in money and time.

Associate Degree

An associate program can be completed in two years of full-time study. Coursework introduces students to the social science foundations of social work and presents an overview of the profession. This degree prepares students for entry-level support positions in social service organizations. It also provides a sound foundation for a bachelor’s degree in social work.

Bachelor’s Degree

Students can expect to complete this degree in four years of full-time study. A bachelor’s degree accredited by the CSWE opens up more career options than one without programmatic accreditation. In some states, it can even lead to licensing. A typical curriculum includes courses on human behavior across the lifestyle, social welfare, and research methods. The degree also requires a practicum experience supervised by a social worker.

Master’s Degree

All clinical social work positions require a CSWE-accredited MSW and license. This degree prepares students for a wide range of leadership and supervisory social work positions. A traditional full-time MSW requires two years of study. The first year is organized around foundation courses, while the second year explores concentrations that reflect social work practice.

Doctoral Degree

Although the MSW is often considered the terminal degree in social work, some students interested in advanced managerial roles, research, and teaching may opt to pursue one of two types of doctoral degrees. A doctor of social work (DSW) focuses on clinical practice, while a Ph.D. in social work is policy- and research-oriented.

Finding a Social Work Program in Illinois

First, you must determine which type of social work degree will be best to meet your long-term career goals. Earning an associate or a bachelor’s degree in social work requires between two and four years of study and can help you enter an entry-level role. However, if you want to work in a clinical setting or private practice, then you should invest in a master’s degree, which requires an additional two to three years of study followed by 3,000 hours of clinical field placement to become licensed.

If you are interested in a specialized field like addictions or mental health, you must consider which programs offer concentrations that will prepare you for certification. You will also have to budget for certification application fees and make time for field training. For those interested in research and teaching, a doctorate degree will require several more years of study.

State schools that offer social work programs in Illinois are more affordable than private universities. Scholarships are available, and some schools also provide tuition grants and work-study programs. Students who must continue to work or handle family responsibilities while earning their degree must consider how they can juggle those commitments with the demands of coursework and field placements. Online social work degrees offer flexible scheduling and self-paced learning options, which can be an attractive option for students who have to juggle multiple commitments.

Can You Earn a Social Work Degree Online in Illinois?

Top Online Social Work Program in Illinois

Online social work programs in Illinois provide flexible and convenient options at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Just like traditional social work degrees, they offer several specializations that allow students to develop expertise in areas like mental health, gerontology, or school social work. Before choosing your online social work degree, look for schools in Illinois that are regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission. Regional accreditation is particularly important if you plan to transfer credits or continue to graduate school. In addition, make sure the school you choose has received programmatic accreditation by the CSWE. CSWE is the major accrediting agency for social work programs at all levels. Licensed social workers practicing in Illinois must be graduates of CSWE-accredited schools.

In most online BSW programs, the majority of courses are delivered electronically. Field placements are usually required in the senior year under the supervision of licensed professional social workers, so students need to plan for that hands-on experience in a social service organization along with their online coursework. An online graduate degree also includes a fieldwork component requiring several hours of on-site training. In Illinois, graduates of an MSW program must complete 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience before they can apply for a social work license. Doctoral students must complete 2,000 hours.

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

The length of time needed to complete an online social work degree in Illinois depends on the kind of program and number of credits completed each term. The first step is earning an associate or bachelor’s degree. Most online associate programs can be completed in 24 months or less. A 120-credit bachelor’s degree can be completed in up to four years if enrolled full time. You may need another two to three years to complete the 45 to 60 credits required for an online CSWE-accredited master’s.

In addition to your degree, two to three years of supervised clinical experience and successful completion of the licensing exam are required to practice as a licensed social worker. If that is your goal, then the most common path is to earn an MSW with licensing. You may spend between five and seven years to earn a bachelor’s and master’s with another couple of years in clinical supervision.

If you want to pursue a career in research or teaching, you might consider a Ph.D. in social work or a practice-focused DSW degree. Depending on program requirements, a full-time student should plan on two to four years to finish a doctorate; a research-focused program can take up to eight years. Completion times for online programs also depend on whether classes are delivered in a self-paced format, which offers greater flexibility, or a cohort-based synchronous structure that requires groups of students to move through a program in a fixed schedule.

How Much Does a Social Work Program Cost in Illinois?

The cost of a social work degree in Illinois depends on several factors, including whether you plan to attend a public or private institution, and whether you plan to study on-campus or online. In-state tuition for a bachelor’s degree ranges from approximately $23,000 to $57,000 annually. If you apply to graduate school, the Graduate Record Exam will set you back $230. The average annual tuition for an MSW at an accredited Illinois school is $19,479. Tuition rates vary widely in doctoral programs, with state schools offering much more affordable rates than private institutions. The publicly sponsored University of Illinois-Chicago sets tuition for its Ph.D. in social work at $5,800 each term, based on 12 or more course credits. There are also highly recognized private institutions like the University of Chicago, which charges an annual tuition rate of $49,000.

You also need to consider the fees required for state licensing. The Illinois State Board of Social Work Examiners has set the LSW application fee at $30 and the test cost at $230. For the LCSW, the fees are $50 and $260 respectively. Finally, remember that once you obtain your license, you must regularly renew it by completing 30 continuing education units every two years. Rates vary by the number of units earned and some professional associations, like NASW-IL, waive the fee for members.

Types of Social Work Licenses in Illinois

Licensure and certification requirements for social workers differ by state. While the two terms are often used interchangeably, there are significant differences. State licensing is the most advanced form of qualification, administered under the jurisdiction of the American Social Work Boards (ASWB). All clinical social workers must be licensed. Unlike licenses, certifications are offered by professional organizations to establish competency within a specialized field such as addictions, gerontology, or marriage counseling. Government agencies do not administer certification programs and although some positions may require advanced certification, a social worker often seeks out certification voluntarily for career advancement.

In Illinois, only two levels of qualification are acceptable: LSW and LCSW

Social work certification differs from a certificate in social work. Social work certifications are usually obtained by passing an exam or a set of exams after completing training in a specialized area. Certificates in social work are granted after completion of formal training and are often associated with degree programs. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) offers several levels of advanced specialty certificates for graduates with master’s and bachelor’s degrees, which we discuss in detail below. NASW also administers several voluntary certifications in clinical social work, gerontology, and other areas.

Graduates with a BSW or related undergraduate degree can find entry-level employment, becoming licensed opens the door to even more career opportunities. All states require a CSWE-accredited MSW for licensure, although graduates with an accredited BSW may apply for licensure after completing a supervised social work experience. In Illinois, only two levels of qualification are acceptable: LSW and LCSW. Although LSWs in Illinois cannot provide clinical services, many professional opportunities are open to them in casework, social services administration, and advocacy. The LCSW is the most advanced form of licensure for professionals in clinical settings. In Illinois, LCSWs must hold an MSW or a doctorate in social work and pass the ASWB Clinical Exam. LCSW applicants must also complete 3,000 hours of supervised clinical social work experience, and doctoral candidates must complete 2,000 hours.

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In Illinois, the LCSW requires a CSWE-accredited MSW and completion of 3,000 hours of supervised experience. Social workers apply for licensing by submitting a $300 fee to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. After completing a criminal background check, they must register for the clinical exam administered by the ASWB and submit an application fee of $260. The LCSW is granted after an applicant receives a passing score on the clinical exam.


Advanced Practice Specialty Credentials


The C-SWCM is a non-clinical credential is ideal for case managers working with agencies to coordinate the biopsychosocial care of their clients. Eligibility requirements include a bachelor’s degree from an CSWE-accredited program and completion of three years (4,500 hours) of supervised, paid professional experience in case management. Administered through NASW, the application fee is $165 for members and $210 for non-members.


Career and Salary Outlook for Social Work Degree Graduates

Social workers provide assistance to people of all ages and in all walks of life. They may specialize in areas like child welfare, school social work, or substance abuse counseling. Many social workers find employment in government agencies, hospitals, mental health centers, and private clinics. The most successful social workers have the capacity to express empathy for people in crisis and need to be organized and resourceful enough to help their clients face their challenges and find solutions.

Clinical Social Worker

Clinical social workers provide therapy, conduct assessments, and coordinate services for clients in many settings including hospitals, nursing homes, mental health clinics, and private agencies. These positions usually require a master’s degree in social work and state licensing.

School Social Worker

These professionals are part of administrative teams in schools from the elementary through secondary level and are responsible for counseling students and parents as well as conducting behavioral assessments. They must have a bachelor’s degree in social work or a related field and state-specific certification.

Substance Abuse Counselor

These counselors provide therapy to people struggling with drug and alcohol dependency. A master’s degree in social work or counseling is usually required for employment and certification and state licensing in addictions or mental health counseling is recommended.

Medical Social Worker

Medical social workers coordinate patient services and communicate with patients, families, and other caregivers to deliver appropriate patient support. Medical social workers must possess at least a bachelor’s degree in social work or counseling.

Hospice Social Worker

These social workers provide palliative services to patients in the end-of-life stage and offer logistical and emotional support for their families and caretakers. A master’s degree in social work is increasingly required for employment along with specialized hospice certifications.


 EmploymentAnnual Mean Wage
Child, Family, and School Social Workers12,420$58,140
Healthcare Social Workers5,430$53,600
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers3,130$51,290
Social Workers, All Other4,940$65,890

Source: BLS

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Scholarships for Social Work Majors in Illinois

A master’s degree in social work is worth the investment. While a bachelor’s can lead to entry-level employment, a graduate degree can open up career possibilities with more responsibilities and higher salaries. Scholarships are available to help ease the financial burden of undergraduate and graduate study, including some that are specifically intended for Illinois students.

Social Work Scholarships


Who Can Apply: Sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, this scholarship is intended for Jewish college students from Chicago, Illinois, and nearby counties who intend to enter an accredited graduate program in social work, gerontology, or other helping professions. View Scholarship


Resources for Social Work Students in Illinois

  • National Association of Social Workers Illinois Chapter The Illinois chapter of NASW provides resources for employment, private practice licensure, and professional development. The organization administers approved licensing and certification programs and offers members discounted application fees. NASW-IL sponsors a student liaison program, which provides information on licensure, legislation and other relevant issues to students in social work programs.
  • Illinois Society for Clinical Social Work This professional association for clinical social workers provides research, continuing education, and updates on legislation affecting clinicians for its members. It sponsors programs that offer CEUs for license renewal, and oversees mentorship and supervision services for new professionals. Members receive a subscription to the Clinical Social Work Journal. ISCSW also provides a curated set of professional resources for students.
  • Illinois Association of School Social Workers IASSW promotes professional best practices among school social workers. The organization provides a job bank, professional development opportunities, and current information about state licensing requirements for members. Through its affiliation with the Dee Yeck School Foundation, it offers grants and awards for school social work professionals, student interns, and community residents. Students are eligible for a discounted membership fee.
  • Chicago Association of Black Social Workers This organization is an affiliate of the National Association of Black Social Workers and was organized in 1969 to advance the professional interests of African American social workers in Chicago, Illinois, and the surrounding metropolitan area. The organization sponsors continuing education through workshops and seminars. CABSW encourages students to join and sponsors a scholarship program.
  • Association of Police Social Workers This Illinois-based nonprofit organization promotes the recognition of police social work as a specialized mental health field. It supports the continuing development of police social workers and provides resources for practitioners, including a listing of Illinois law enforcement agencies that employ social workers specializing in crisis intervention, mediation, juvenile evaluations, and other related social services.