Making a difference in people’s lives and communities is a key motivator for social workers, professionals who serve individuals and groups of people through myriad roles, from social research to direct service. Numerous career options exist in this field, which is projected to grow by 19 percent between 2012 and 2022; the first step to any of them is to obtain a bachelor’s degree in social work that provides the necessary foundation.

What is Social Work?

Social work is a field dedicated to helping people through support services, advocacy efforts, and education. Whether working with individuals or groups, social workers meet their clients wherever they are on their life journeys, helping them to identify problems, recognize strengths, and move toward better lives. They may work in governmental or social service agencies, educational institutions, nonprofit organizations, or businesses, but whatever the setting, the common denominator is their commitment to social and economic empowerment for all, regardless of gender, age, class, or ethnicity.

Social Work Program Fast Facts
  • fast-fact

    More than 14,000 undergraduate degrees in social work were awarded during the 2010-2011 academic year. Master’s level degrees totaled 20,573, while 321 doctoral degrees were awarded during the same time period.

  • 650,000 people in the United States hold degrees in social work.

  • More than 500 bachelor’s programs in social work nationwide are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE); some of these programs are offered online.

  • Accredited BSW programs require students to complete at least 400 hours of supervised field experience.

  • Upon graduation, the average salary for an individual holding a BSW is up to $40,000, while those with an MSW can expect up to $50,000. With additional education, experience and seniority, some may earn as much as $100,000 annually.

About the Social Work Degree

To become a Licensed Social Worker (LSW) or Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), most states require students to complete a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree; however, a bachelor’s degree will open up a number of entry-level positions within social work and human services professions.

Throughout the course of their BSW program, students will gain a base of knowledge and range of skills directed toward the larger goal of becoming competent, effective social workers. Broadly speaking, the objectives of a program include:

1. Understanding human behavior

Students will be able to apply theoretical frameworks to a range of behaviors that occur during different life stages and originate from different cultures.

2. Mastering foundational social worker roles

Students will have a solid understanding of the six foundational roles within social work, identified as advocates, brokers, counselors, change agents, researchers, and mediators.

3. Utilizing research skills

Students will gain an understanding of research methods and data analysis, and be able to apply these skills to original projects.

4. Demonstrating dedication to social and economic justice

Students will possess the skills needed to be advocates for marginalized or disenfranchised populations, and to work on their behalf to advance public policy initiatives.

5. Communicating appropriately and effectively

Students will understand how to communicate with clients from diverse backgrounds and with different priorities and values, creating safe environments for dialogue.

6. Upholding values and ethics of the field

Students will have a thorough understanding of the ethical and legal values relevant to the field, and use this knowledge to guide them in their daily practice.

Most social work professionals are devoted to serving specific needs through direct service or programming, but there are those who may aspire to a career focused on the macro-level needs of communities. For them, a related degree that focuses on social welfare or social justice may be appropriate. Coursework does overlap at some points, though these related degrees emphasize studies in social sciences, including anthropology, sociology, economics, and political science.

Unlike degrees in social work, these programs tend to focus on community-based initiatives that may be on the local, national or international level. Upon graduation, students typically move into administrative or managerial roles within governmental agencies or nonprofit organizations.

Social Work Program Accreditation

An important consideration in choosing a program is accreditation. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is the recognized body; it accredits both baccalaureate and master’s-level social work programs, including online and distance education offerings. Students who wish to gain licensure after graduation are typically required to attend an accredited institution. As part of the rigorous accreditation process, programs and schools must demonstrate how the curriculum meets core competencies, and must ensure all students meet minimum requirements for fieldwork.

Online Social Work Degrees

Students seeking the convenience of an online social work degree may wonder how these programs are implemented, and if the nature of online learning is appropriate or effective for a degree requiring so much face-to-face interaction. Some of the most common questions students may have are addressed below:

How does scheduling work when it comes to field placements?

To help students fulfill the 400 minimum hours of fieldwork required in an accredited BSW program, the best online programs will have a dedicated fieldwork adviser who works with students to locate appropriate sites based on their geographical locations and future career goals.

Are the faculty members who teach online courses as qualified as those on campus?

Many online programs with campus locations employ the same faculty for both on-campus and online courses, and the ones that do will be transparent about this fact. If you aren’t sure, look for faculty bios on the website, or contact the department directly to ask.

How do services for online students compare to those attending on campus?

Social work programs frequently offer the same services to online students as those available to their on-campus peers; the most common include academic advising, tutoring services, technical support, virtual libraries, and field placement assistance.

How can I learn to help people in real life if all my learning is online?

While coursework is offered online, field placements that help students gain real-world experience are still an essential component of online social work degree programs. Many of them also require students to make occasional visits to a physical campus or other predetermined locations for intensive residencies. These sessions are meant to encourage collaboration with faculty and peers, while also tying into pivotal parts of coursework.

Online Associate Degree—Social Work

Although degrees in social work are not available at the associate level, students can use these two years to pursue a related degree that will set the foundation for future coursework. An associate degree in human services is a typical option; it provides many introductory classes to acclimate students to the curriculum they will experience at the bachelor’s level. Basic skills in research, advocacy, and understanding human behavior are just a few of the takeaways from a degree at this level. Students may take courses such as:

Introduction to Social Work

Students learn about the history of the field and the theories and methodologies used to create modern social services. Students will also gain a foundational understanding of the behavioral science that underpins the profession.

Introduction to Social Problems

Students examine the problems and conflicts that affect the functioning of society and contribute to social change, as well as the creation of social and human service programs that meet the needs of an evolving society. Specific topics include the study of both patterns and deviation in social settings.

Human Development and Family Studies

Students survey a variety of frameworks and intervention methods for supporting individuals and families. They also review the history of the field and the shift toward modern approaches.


This class covers the foundational principles of statistical design, and how to use statistics as a tool to help navigate complex and uncertain circumstances.

Infant and Child Development

Students learn about theories and research that inform modern thought on social, behavioral, biological and cognitive development of infants and children.

Online Social Work Bachelor’s Degree

A graduate degree is usually necessary to become a licensed social worker, but there are many related jobs within the field available to graduates of a BSW program. During the course of this four-year degree, students become proficient in the tenets of the field and learn how to work with people of varied backgrounds, classes, genders and ages. More advanced coursework is structured to give them an understanding of the requirements and responsibilities for positions in general social work, and how to empower and advocate for their clients.

In the last two years of study, students complete at least 400 hours of fieldwork at an approved agency or organization. These experiences are designed to let students practice their skills in a variety of real-world situations, using their knowledge of values and ethics to inform their work. Depending on the school and individual curriculum, most programs require between 120 to 132 credits to graduate, which can be completed in four years of full-time study.

Students interested in serving individuals and communities through support measures are often drawn to an online bachelor’s in human services, a related degree emphasizing advocacy and conflict management. Whether addressing an epidemic of disease, managing a situation of political strife, or serving in community activism, human service professionals typically take a more administrative role than do social workers engaged in direct service.

Core curriculum topics within a BSW program may include:

Human Behavior and Social Environment

Typically offered across two semesters, this course studies the formation of behaviors and examines how myriad factors shape how people develop and interact with others.

Group Dynamics

Group study is both the content and the format of this course, as students work together to understand the various facets of group dynamics and how to work with groups to promote profitable dialogue. Topics include leadership, communication, decision-making, and conflict.

Race and Ethnic Disparities

Students learn about the various social, economic, institutional, and political frameworks that have historically caused certain races or ethnicities to be oppressed or marginalized.

Social Welfare Policies and Programs

Students become familiar with the range of both historical and modern social services, and examine how the role of the social work profession overall has evolved through the decades.

Child Welfare

Students learn about children’s rights and the services available to them, with special focus placed on childhood development and the best ways to effectively and appropriately serve this client population.

Social Work Programs: Important Considerations

Before deciding to enroll in an online social work degree program, a number of factors deserve consideration. Some of the most important are reviewed below:


Most states require that licensed social workers attend a CSWE-accredited institution. In any case, this stamp of approval assures students that the program has been thoroughly vetted and meets rigorous standards. Accreditation is a vitally important consideration and students should check with any prospective school to determine its status.

Ability to Gain Real-World Experience

If a school is accredited, CSWE requires it to guarantee that all BSW students complete at least 400 hours of fieldwork. This experience not only provides real-world application of theoretical concepts, but also allows students to build professional connections before graduating.

Faculty with Field Experience

Students should ensure that prospective programs employ faculty members with strong backgrounds and actual experience as practicing social workers. Schools that have physical campuses typically use the same faculty to lead online courses, but it’s worth asking to be sure.

Focused Studies

Students who know they want to work with a specific population should look for a program that offers a specialized track, or at least a range of electives, suited to that interest. They can also check the profiles of faculty and read about their research interests to get a better sense of the types of specialized courses that may be offered.