How to Choose a Program

Many social workers find their careers to be rewarding and challenging at the same time. Embarking on a social work educational journey begins with finding out as much as you can about the program and school to which you plan to apply. It also helps to be clear on your professional objectives and the amount of money and time you are willing to invest in pursuing a social work degree. Refer to this guide to find out how to choose a social work program to help you achieve your personal and professional goals.

Technology makes earning an online degree a viable alternative to traditional onsite learning. Many online students cite flexibility as one of the most useful advantages of online learning. Social workers often work long and irregular hours. An online program's flexibility allows students to earn a degree while continuing to work. Although tuition for online courses is often comparable to on-campus tuition, online students can still end up with substantial savings since they do not have to pay for transportation or on-campus housing costs.

An online program's flexibility allows students to earn a degree while continuing to work.

Despite its convenience and relative affordability, online learning may not be ideal for some types of students. Online learners must be highly disciplined, self-motivated, and well-organized to benefit from online education. Additionally, online students must master the same material and are held to the same academic standards as their onsite peers. Schools offering online courses maintain that it is only the delivery of the course that changed and not the rigor or academic expectations. In an online environment, students bear most of the responsibility for their learning.

Factors to Consider in an Online Social Work Program

Hybrid/Blended Learning

Some online social work programs follow a hybrid course delivery system. This means some courses are available completely online, while others are offered only onsite. Blended learning is especially advantageous for professional students. Students can fit online courses into their busy schedules without completely giving up the experience of face-to-face learning. In some instances, individual courses follow a hybrid delivery system. This means only some aspects of the course, such as pre-recorded lectures, are available online. For other aspects of the course, such as project work or exams, students must attend on-campus classes. If you are new to online learning, enrolling in a hybrid course is a good way to get your feet wet. Hybrid courses give neophyte online learners the chance to experience and compare online and onsite learning and find out which course delivery system works best for them.

Synchronous or Asynchronous

Many students find online asynchronous classes to be ideal. There is no set time to log in and students can access online aspects of the course, if not the entire course, at any time and from anywhere. Students primarily learn the material through required readings and pre-recorded lectures and communicate with professors through email and interact with peers by using online discussion boards. Although there are some undergraduate programs that offer asynchronous courses, it is mostly graduate-level programs that offer them. Disciplined and determined students typically benefit most from asynchronous classes. By contrast, online synchronous classes require students to log in at preset times. Students gather in a digital classroom and interact with the professor and their peers in real-time. Sometimes a course can have both synchronous and asynchronous aspects.

Class Size

Without the constraints of a physical location, it's easy to imagine that online classes can accommodate an unlimited number of students. Some massive open online courses (MOOCs) literally have thousands of students enrolled in one course and usually do not offer credit. However, online for-credit courses usually have much smaller class sizes. This is because, physical space notwithstanding, there is a limit to how many students one professor can teach effectively. Technology may have expanded a teacher's reach, but it cannot replace meaningful student-to-teacher interaction. Most experts agree that this interaction is more effective with fewer students and is an important factor in determining the ideal class size for online and onsite courses.

Personal Learning Style

Knowing your personal learning style can help you decide the kind of online courses to enroll in to maximize your online education experience. Technology gives online professors an arsenal of teaching aids that enhance and advance online learning. Visual learners should look for courses that use films and videos as integral aspects of the learning process. Podcasts are fast becoming popular online learning tools as well. If you enjoy listening to them and find yourself completely engaged, try to find courses that use them effectively throughout the learning process. If you're an interactive learner, avoid enrolling in asynchronous classes where you basically learn on your own. Instead, enroll in synchronous classes that allow you to interact with your peers and professor in real-time. Make the effort to match your personal learning style with the online classes you take so that your online education is a positive and enriching experience.

Practicum or Internship

Social work programs require students to complete a minimum number of fieldwork hours. This is true for both the undergraduate and graduate levels and for online and on-campus students. Schools follow different procedures with respect to the practicum or internship aspect of their social work programs. Most schools assign students to fieldwork locations that are within a reasonable driving distance from where they live. These locations often include social work agencies, hospitals, and schools. Students already employed in a social work position should find out whether their prospective school will consider their place of work as an acceptable fieldwork locale. Some social work programs allow this, but only after closely examining your duties and responsibilities at your workplace and making sure the credentials of your fieldwork supervisor meet their requirements. Expect to put in extra hours since most schools will not count your regular work schedule as part of your practicum or internship hours.

Accreditation is a voluntary self-review process that schools undergo to show that they meet certain standards set by an accrediting body. The Department of Education (ED) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) recognize several accrediting organizations, although neither accredits schools directly. Instead, they fulfill an oversight role making sure these accrediting bodies hold schools to well-defined, acceptable standards. A school's accreditation is important since ED only channels financial aid through accredited institutions. With the high cost of college and post-graduate education, most students can use some type of financial assistance from the government. If you want to receive a portion of the aid that ED distributes to qualified students in the form of scholarships, grants, and loans, be sure to check the accreditation status of your prospective school. According to U.S. News and World Report, accrediting bodies hold online programs to the same standards as programs offered by brick-and-mortar schools.

National vs. Regional Accreditation

ED and CHEA recognize regional and national accrediting organizations. Most regionally accredited schools are nonprofit private and public colleges and universities that offer two-year and four-year programs. The U.S. is divided into six regions, with each region falling under a specific accrediting body. National accrediting bodies mainly accredit for-profit professional or trade schools throughout the country. Although regional accreditation is the more prestigious of the two, both types of accreditation signify that the schools meet the standards accepted by ED and CHEA. An increasing number of employers recognize the difference between these two types of accreditation and actively seek graduates of regionally accredited schools. It is often easier to transfer credits between schools that hold the same level of accreditation. A nationally accredited school will usually accept credits from a regionally accredited school; however, this is often not true the other way around.

Programmatic Accreditation

There are specialized accrediting organizations that accredit specific departments or programs within a college or university. For example, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredits undergraduate and graduate social work programs across the country. Some accrediting bodies accredit programs offered by free-standing schools. If this is the only type of program offered by the school, the programmatic accreditation serves as an institutional accreditation as well. There are currently 61 recognized accrediting professional organizations across the country. They accredit more than 19,400 programs in various fields, including engineering, healthcare, the arts, business, and personal care services. Programmatic accreditation is often regarded as highly as regional accreditation. Most professions that require licensure, such as education, law, and medicine, expect applicants to have mastered a specific area of expertise in their respective fields. Programmatic accreditation ensures the quality of the curriculum and the professional capabilities of the students who graduate from the program.

Being clear on your career goals helps you select the best social work program. Keep in mind that there are different populations you can assist as a social worker. You can focus your career on working with one particular group, such as children or veterans, or practice within an institution, such as a school or hospital.

Degree Level

An undergraduate-level program is ideal if you're just starting out or coming from a non-social work field and switching careers. Leadership and managerial positions typically require applicants to have a post baccalaureate degree in addition to substantial work experience in the field. Find out which degree level will help you achieve your professional goals by exploring online and onsite educational options. There are several social work programs that offer both opportunities.

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Bachelor's in Social Work

A four-year bachelor's degree in social work includes liberal arts, psychology, and sociology courses in addition to classes in the major. It prepares graduates for work in various careers, such as a school social worker or community organizer.
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Master's in Social Work

This degree offers various emphasis areas, including public policy and family services. It qualifies graduates to work in leadership positions, such as nursing home directors or crisis intervention strategists.
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Doctorate in Social Work

Designed primarily for researchers and experienced clinicians, a doctorate in social work includes highly-advanced and specialized coursework in topics like cognitive behavior study and psychopharmacology.

Social Work Specialities

Some social work programs offer concentration areas at the undergraduate level; however, it is mostly when pursuing graduate-level studies that students can select an area of emphasis. Social work students can choose from many specialty areas, even if a school typically offers concentrations in only two to four areas. Be sure to check if your prospective school offers the social work specialty you want to study.

Social Work Licensure

States require social workers to be licensed before they practice. There are four general types of licensure levels: licensed bachelor of social work, licensed master of social work, licensed master social work – advanced generalist, and licensed clinical social worker. Make sure the degree you choose prepares you for licensure in the social work career you plan to pursue. The table below shows the type of licensure needed for common social work occupations.

Education and Training Requirements for Careers in Social Work

Occupation Minimum Degree Required License or Certification Required? Median Salary
Case Managers Associate or Bachelor's Certification optional $38,966
Clinical Social Workers Master's State licensing required $52,619
Healthcare Social Workers Master's State licensing required $54,870
Child, Family, and School Social Workers Master's State licensing required $44,380
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers Master's State licensing required $43,250
Social Work Teachers, Postsecondary Master's or Doctorate Social work license may be required $64,370
Source: BLS, Payscale

All students pursuing a master's degree in social work must complete a practicum or field experience. This is an important element of social work education because it allows students to experience the challenges and difficulties they will likely face once they begin their social work practice. Additionally, prospective employers examine an applicant's field experience to determine the level of exposure they have in a particular social work field. Contact your prospective schools and find out whether they have field placement opportunities in the social work arena where your professional interest lies. Part of a successful and rewarding field experience depends on a school's support, so make sure the school you are considering has an adequate system in place.

Most students can use some kind of financial assistance due to the soaring cost of higher education. Several factors influence the cost of a social work program, including degree type; program length; enrollment status; and whether a student enrolls in a for-profit, private nonprofit, or public institution. While the cost of a program is a main consideration, keep in mind that the best social work master's programs may not always be the least expensive option.

Public vs. Private Schools

Tuition in public universities is usually lower than in private nonprofit institutions, because public universities receive funding from the state government. Without access to the same funding, private nonprofit colleges are forced to rely on tuition and private donations to keep their schools operational. However, there are some states that drastically reduced their allocation for public higher education. In these states, private college tuition is sometimes comparable to public universities.

Tuition in public universities is usually lower than in private nonprofit institutions, because public universities receive funding from the state government.

Aside from funding source, there are other differences between public universities and private schools. Private colleges tend to award merit-based scholarships, while public institutions provide more need-based grants and scholarships. Public schools in densely populated states often have several thousand students, while private colleges typically have a smaller student population. The sheer number of students in public universities often means bigger class sizes. In contrast, class sizes in private colleges are smaller, with lower student-to-teacher ratios. Private colleges often cite their small class size as an advantage since it is generally believed that a small class size enhances learning.

In-State vs. Out-of-State Schools

Students who enroll in a public university in the same state where they live pay a lower tuition than out-of-state students who enroll in the same university. This is because the funds that public universities receive from the state government subsidizes the education of the state's resident students. As seen from the table below, the average in-state student's tuition in a public four-year college is $9,970, while an out-of-state student's tuition is $25,620. This difference goes even higher when compared to the tuition of a private four-year college, which is $34,740. If the best social work undergraduate program for you is offered by an out-of-state school, it may still be possible to pay in-state tuition even as an out-of-state enrollee. Check if your state has a reciprocity agreement in place with the other state where your prospective school is located. If so, you can end up paying in-state tuition, especially if the degree you want to pursue is not offered in your home state.

Two-Year vs. Four-Year Schools

If you're looking for ways to lower the cost of your social work degree, consider enrolling in a two-year college to complete the general education requirements of a four-year program. In the chart below, you can compare the community college tuition for in-district students to the tuition of a four-year public university for in-state students. Enrolling in a two-year college to complete general education requirements or an associate degree can mean saving an average of $6,400.

Two-year colleges also receive state funding, but their overhead costs are typically much lower than large public universities for things like teacher salaries and grounds and building maintenance, which is why their tuition rates are lower. Plan your coursework carefully, especially if you have plans to use your community college degree as a stepping stone to a four-year program. Four-year institutions do not automatically accept credits earned at two-year colleges. Additionally, community colleges do not offer the breadth of degree options that public universities do.

Online vs. On-Campus Programs

Most online social work programs are more affordable than on-campus programs, but this is not always the case. For example, Humboldt University offers one of the lowest tuitions among online programs, but the on-campus social work program at the University of North Carolina still costs less. Online students still save on transportation and lodging expenses, which can drive a program's ultimate out-of-pocket costs even lower. When comparing costs, don't forget to factor in scholarship and grant opportunities.

While it's true that brick-and-mortar students have access to more scholarship programs than online students, an increasing number of colleges and universities offer comparable scholarship opportunities to their online enrollees. It is equally important to enroll in an accredited program or a social work degree offered at an accredited institution. Accreditation facilitates credit transfers and provides you with more financial aid options.

There is more to a school's reputation than a prestigious Ivy League tag. Much of the information below can be gleaned from a school's website or you can contact the school to inquire. A school or a program's standing matters as it can expand professional opportunities and help pave the way for a successful social work career.