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Social work, as defined by the International Federation of Social Workers, refers to a practice-based profession and academic discipline that promotes social change and helps people through life’s challenges. Social workers serve as the largest provider of mental health services in Pennsylvania. As of 2017, the state ranked third in the U.S. for employment of social workers specializing in mental health and substance abuse/misuse. Pennsylvania also held third for child, family, and school social workers, and ranked first among the top five states in social worker employment for location quotient and concentration.

Social workers serve as the largest provider of mental health services in Pennsylvania

All told, Pennsylvania employs over 36,850 social work practitioners. Graduates with the requisite education and hours of field experience should find promising job prospects for the short and long term. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 14% growth rate for social workers through 2026, with a particularly strong outlook for clinical social workers.

Getting a social work degree in Pennsylvania counts as the first step to working as a social worker. These degrees lead to work in diverse areas of practice, including school social work, hospice care, child welfare, mental health, community planning, and veterans services. A bachelor of social work degree (BSW) can launch a social worker’s career in general practice. For Pennsylvania, to become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), an individual needs a master of social work degree (MSW) and at least 3,000 hours of supervised fieldwork experience. A total of 39 CSWE-accredited social work schools reside in Pennsylvania.

Featured Online Programs in Social Work

How to Become a Social Worker in Pennsylvania

To practice social work in Pennsylvania, an individual does not need a license. In 1987, the Social Workers’ Practice Act, or Act 136, created the licensed social worker (LSW) as a form of title protection. While the state does not require social workers to hold licensure, an individual without a LSW or LCSW license cannot refer to themselves as a “licensed” social worker. Of the state’s nearly 37,000 social workers, an estimated 11,000, or about 30%, hold licensure.

Social workers in Pennsylvania must renew their LSW/LCSW licenses every two years

That said, the Keystone State offers two professional social work licenses: the LSW and the LCSW. Both licenses require the candidate to hold an MSW and pass the corresponding ASWB exam. Act 136 recognizes an initial license, called a “provisional” license, to which social workers can apply for after earning a BSW and accruing the minimum years of field experience. These license holders may also work toward their MSW and subsequent LSW or LCSW license.

Schools in Pennsylvania offer accredited social work programs at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels. In addition to a master’s degree and passing the clinical ASWB exam, LCSW candidates also need at least 3,000 hours of supervised work experience. Social workers in Pennsylvania must renew their LSW/LCSW licenses every two years. In the years between renewal, licensees must earn 30 hours of continuing education credits. Provisional licensees must renew their licenses every year and can do so for up to six years.

Types of Social Work Degrees in Pennsylvania

Students can earn degrees in social work at the associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels. Job outlook and salary potential directly correlate to degree level, and the higher the degree, the better the opportunities. In fact, only social workers who hold a master’s in social work can apply for LSW and LCSW licensure. It takes one to two years to complete the MSW, depending factors such as classroom pacing, course load, and whether the student begins with advanced standing.

The BLS projects that the social worker space will grow at a faster-than-average rate from 2016 to 2026, with the outlook even stronger for LCSWs who provide treatment services. The BLS projects a 20% increase for healthcare social workers and 19% for social workers trained to assist people with a mental illness or substance abuse/misuse problem. As far as salary, state, local, and private hospitals comprise the top industry for social workers, followed by local government, outpatient care, and state government. Individual/family services serve as the top five social work industries in the nation.

Associate Degree
An ASW provides students with an introduction to the social work profession and prepares them for the BSW. Students learn the fundamental concepts behind social work and take courses in the behavioral sciences and on topics like cultural diversity. With an ASW, students may also enter the workforce in paraprofessional or support social work roles, such as case management aides or social and human service assistants — an occupation the BLS projects to grow 11% from 2016 to 2026.
Bachelor’s Degree
The BSW serves as the most common degree earned for entry into social work. Students focus on topics like social welfare, policy and advocacy, human behavior, and the history of social work as a profession and academic discipline. The curriculum for a BSW also requires research courses and field practicums.
Master’s Degree
The MSW counts as a professional degree that allows students to choose a specialization such as child/family social work or mental health. After earning this social work degree in Pennsylvania, graduates may apply for the LSW license. The master’s in social work enables holders to enter research or teaching careers in social work.
Doctoral Degree
Schools offer two doctoral-level degrees in social work: the doctor of social work or DSW (a practice degree) and the Ph.D. (a research degree). Careers for doctorate holders emphasize leadership and include researcher, professor, administrator, director, or LCSW.

Finding a Social Work Program in Pennsylvania

Social work students must carefully weigh academic and practical factors, including costs, location, specialization availability, and program length. Several schools, 39 total, offer CSWE-accredited social work degrees in Pennsylvania, not including the available online options.

The CSWE reports that college debt for social work students reaches $28,000 for a BSW and over $55,000 for a doctorate. The average loan debt for MSW graduates, meanwhile, reaches over $41,000. Obviously, a student’s debt will rise the longer they attend school. However, in social work, a higher degree also means licensure and better salary potential. Students choosing a social work program should keep this in mind as they map out their postsecondary plans. Location also matters. Students considering an out-of-state school should compare their program to their state’s licensure requirements.

According to the CSWE, a majority of social work students attend full time. For MSW programs in 2016, 41,440 of nearly 65,000 students took on a full-time course load. Students hoping to attend part time need to check for this option as some programs do not offer it. For the 2016 academic year, the CSWE reports that 44.3% of BSW programs and 89% of MSW programs offered part-time study.

Can You Earn a Social Work Degree Online in Pennsylvania?

While Pennsylvania boasts 39 social work schools, students can also complete online social worker degrees in the state. Online learning today serves as a cost-effective, flexible option for many university students. For graduate-level social work students, the availability of specializations counts as a major factor.

The CSWE helps postsecondary students get started with a list of nearly 100 distance-learning social work programs in the U.S. Learners can enter one of four online social work programs in Pennsylvania, three of which offer part-time options. All of the schools on the list boast accreditation by the CSWE. For Pennsylvania state licensure and NASW certification, a social worker’s degree must hold CSWE accreditation. As the CSWE explains, any accredited social work program online must meet the same standards in order to earn approval by the Commission on Accreditation.

See The Best Online MSW Programs

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

Various program characteristics impact how long it takes to complete an online social work degree in Pennsylvania. On average, social work programs last four to eight years, depending on degree level. A bachelor’s in social work typically takes four years to complete, while a master’s in social work takes one to two years. A student with advanced standing could finish MSW requirements in a year, as could self-paced students. For social work doctoral degrees, it generally takes three years for the DSW and four years for the research-focused Ph.D.

Course load factors into program length, too; part-timers generally take a year or two longer than students who attend full time. The majority of social work students attend full time, and according to CSWE, less than half of BSW programs and 89% of MSW programs offer a part-time option. Additionally, a individual-pace or self-paced program allows students to set their own academic schedule. They can move through coursework as quickly or as slowly as they like. A cohort model by contrast refers to a group of students who work through a sequences of courses together.

How Much Does a Social Work Program Cost in Pennsylvania?

The CSWE reports that the percentage of graduates with student debt following graduation reaches 79.6% for BSW holders and 80.2% for those with a master’s. For the terminal DSW and Ph.D., the number reaches 69.6% and 64.6%, respectively. According to the CSWE, the average debt for the degree levels reach $28,283 for the BSW, $41,334 for the MSW, $56,494 for the DSW, and $47,342 for the Ph.D.

The Social Workers’ Practice Law allows social workers in Pennsylvania to qualify for licenses by examination. The states uses ASWB exams. For LSW licensure, students take the master’s level ASWB exam, which costs $230. The bachelor’s level ASWB exam also costs $230. For the LCSW, candidates must pass the clinical ASWB exam, which costs $260. Pennsylvania license holders must renew their LSW or LCSW every two years. To qualify for renewal, social workers must complete 30 CE credits. The biennial renewal costs $95.

Some schools may request GRE scores if the applicant falls short of certain admissions criteria (for example, a lower GPA). The GRE costs $205 for U.S. citizens.

Directory of Social Work Programs in Pennsylvania

Types of Social Work Licenses in Pennsylvania

With more than 36,500 social workers, Pennsylvania boasts one of the highest concentrations of social work employment in the nation. It also counts as one of only two states that does not require social workers to obtain licensure to practice. In fact, less than one-third of Pennsylvania social workers hold a license. The state enforces the Social Workers’ Practice Act (or Act 136), which allows social workers to practice in the state without a license on the condition that they do not refer to themselves as licenced unless they hold a LSW or a LCSW credential. The Pennsylvania chapter of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW-PA) hopes to expand the act further and make it mandatory for clinical social workers to obtain a license, as they must do in 48 other states.

With more than 36,500 social workers, Pennsylvania boasts one of the highest concentrations of social work employment in the nation

For now, individuals can receive one of two social worker licenses in Pennsylvania: the LCSW for social workers with a MSW and 3,000 hours of supervised fieldwork experience, and the LSW for social work practitioners with just a master’s. Both licenses require candidates to earn a passing score on the ASWB exam.

Though Pennsylvania currently serves as an exception, states usually require social workers to hold licensure. Alternatively, states do not require certification. While licensure refers to meeting the legal standards for practice in a particular state, certification serves as a boost to a social worker’s resume. Certification denotes that a professional boasts achievements beyond the legal minimum. For example, social work professionals may seek NASW certification in youth and family, the military, addiction, gerontology, or hospice service.


The LCSW in Pennsylvania requires those with a license to hold a MSW and 3,000 hours of supervised post-degree work experience. Applicants must also pass the clinical-level ASWB exam with a score of 70% or higher. The clinical exam costs $260, and the license application fee currently costs $45. Licensed clinical social workers work with clients dealing with mental or emotional health issues.


Advanced Practice Specialty Credentials


The C-SWCM requires that applicants hold a BSW from a CSWE-accredited program and three years of paid, supervised experience in an organization that provides case management services. Applicants also need either a BSW-level license or a passing score on the bachelor’s ASWB exam. The C-SWCM/C-ASWCM application costs $165 for NASW members and $210 for non-members.


Career and Salary Outlook for Social Work Degree Graduates

Social workers help others through a variety of career paths, from youth and family services to working with the aging, veterans, and displaced. A social worker helps individuals, families, and communities through education, counseling, initiatives, advocacy, and outreach. To fulfill their mission, social workers must possess a variety of characteristics, including empathy and compassion, active listening, emotional intelligence, and the ability to foster cooperation.

Social Worker

Social workers help people cope with adversity, transition, and loss. Clinical social workers help individuals with emotional, behavioral, or mental issues. While licensed clinical social workers work one-on-one in direct practice, licensed social workers typically work at a macro level.

Mental Health Counselor

Mental health counselors treat patients for various issues, including anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. They often join other counselors to work with patients struggling with either substance abuse or behavioral issues.

Community Health Worker

Community health workers provide outreach by serving as a liaison between individuals and healthcare professionals. They educate people on health initiatives and available healthcare services. CHWs also collect data for reports on the health concerns of specific communities.

Social Services Director

A social services director develops social services programs and oversees staff who carry out operations. They monitor the progress and effectiveness of programs, ensure compliance with privacy and safety regulations, and act as a liaison for their organizations through education sessions.

Care Coordinator

A care coordinator readies patients to assume control over their treatment plans. This requires educating and communicating with patients, families, and caregivers. Care coordination also requires professional cooperation among social workers, nurses, and other clinicians.
 EmploymentAnnual Mean Wage
Child, Family, and School Social Workers19,440$42,860
Healthcare Social Workers7,590$51,530
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers8,640$36,800
Social Workers, All Other1,200$63,310
Source: BLS

Featured Programs in Social Work

Scholarships for Social Work Majors in Pennsylvania

As college tuition continues to rise, students must explore all avenues of financial assistance, from scholarships to work-study programs. For scholarship awards, students should start local, then expand out to state-level and national awards. Note that many organizations create scholarships in support of a particular field or state, such as the social work profession and Pennsylvania.

Social Work Scholarships


Who Can Apply: Applicants must be finishing a CSWE-accredited bachelor’s or master’s in social work degree and possess a 3.0 GPA or higher. Students must demonstrate leadership and a drive to promote equality and social justice. Students may receive this award only once. View Scholarship


Resources for Social Work Students in Pennsylvania

  • NASW – Pennsylvania Chapter This member organization works to promote, develop, and protect social workers in Pennsylvania. Through its advocacy, NASW-PA strives to enhance the value of social workers and influence public policy.
  • Mental Health Association in Pennsylvania A nonprofit organization, MHAPA serves as an information conduit for mental health professionals and the communities they serve. Statewide, MHAPA promotes best practices and standards to ensure that individuals receive the help they need regardless of circumstance.
  • Pennsylvania Society for Clinical Social Work Established in 1971, PSCSW promotes the clinical social work profession and works in collaboration with the NASW-PA on the Act 136 amendments HB 445 and SB 530 to protect the practice and title of all LCSW license holders.
  • Council on Social Work Education Founded in 1952, CSWE is a national association comprised of more than 800 accredited programs. CSWE accredits nearly 40 BSW and MSW social work programs in Pennsylvania. CHEA, or the Council on Higher Education Accreditation, recognizes CSWE as the sole accreditor for U.S. social work programs.