Associate degree in social work

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Social work is a profession of advocates, caregivers, first responders, and mentors. Social workers guide clients through life crises and difficulties with empathy, patience, and a plethora of resources learned through their education.

The first step into the profession begins at the associate degree level, where vital emotional and physical skills like empathy and case file management are learned. This degree is typically offered in 2-year and community colleges and can be completed within 60 credit hours. Upon graduation, students can transfer to a 4-year college program, and after another 2 years of study, possibly graduate with a bachelor’s degree in social work.

While many students transfer directly into a 4-year social work program, some choose to gain experience and enter the field directly as social work assistants. Social work and human and community services are set for a 17% growth between now and 2029. Although you will have to wait to earn your social work license or certificate before becoming a fully-fledged social worker, an associate degree allows you to get a taste of the profession and its responsibilities before committing to further education.

Social workers can find themselves working in various settings with diverse clients. For example, you can work in a hospital, aged care facility, mental health clinic, or even in an urban environment securing a better quality of life for disenfranchised populations. It is while studying for their associate degree that students begin exploring the many pathways of social work, like child protection or school social work — that can guide them to make decisions on their future work setting.

An associate degree can appeal to students with a passion for social justice, but have other commitments deterring them from a full-time 4-year degree program. Offered online and in-person, in both synchronous and asynchronous formats, an associate degree in social work gives students the flexibility to learn the foundations of social work at their own pace.

About the associate degree

An associate degree in social work is often seen as a substitute for the first 2 years of a bachelor’s degree program. Students complete basic core requirements, like English and math classes, before moving focusing on to social work subjects.

At the associate level, social work classes cover introductory to intermediate social work topics, that is then taken further in the bachelor’s program. At the end of this program, students have typically developed core skills like critical thinking and conflict resolution. They may also have created a professional network that can be beneficial when looking for their first paid position. Upon graduation, students can use the connections made in the program to begin working in the field.

Although some variations exist between programs, here are some of the standard classes found in an associate degree program:

Statistics in psychology

This teaches students how to read, process, and analyze data used in scientific studies and research papers. Students learn how to gather data through surveys, interviews, observations, and more. This math course is essential for social workers to understand research papers, client surveys, and other data.

Intro to psychology

Required by most liberal arts universities as part of the core curriculum, this course teaches students about brain behavior, brain growth, and the history of psychology including the theories of Sigmund Freud and Erik Erikson.

Intro to sociology

While psychology studies the brain, sociology focuses on the interactions between people and their environments. Students gain a general understanding of social theories and socio-economic struggles, including the teachings of Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim.

Intro to social work

This course gives students their first glimpse into the social work field. Students learn about the expected responsibilities of social workers, client demographics, reading and writing case notes, locating additional support, and setting practical goals. Some courses incorporate field trips to local outreach centers or talks by practicing social workers.

Ethics in social work

Every aspiring social worker must be well versed in ethical practices before entering the field due to the large amounts of sensitive client information. Students learn professional conduct, boundary setting, conflict management and safety skills, and how to respond to violations in the workplace.

Fieldwork

Generally, internship and fieldwork opportunities are not offered at the associate’s degree level. However, some classes may ask students to volunteer at a local non-profit organization or to research other social work opportunities for students in the area. Fieldwork and outreach opportunities depend on the program, as most intern work is completed at a bachelor’s level and above.

General admission requirements

Entry into an associate degree program requires a high school diploma or GED equivalent. Students need to submit academic letters of recommendation, resume, and have a minimum GPA of 2.0. Some programs may require a clean background check before admission.

Note, students looking to transfer to a bachelor’s program after earning their associate degree should check with the program regarding how many transfer hours can be accepted and for additional requirements. 

Online or in person?

Social workers meet with clients in various face-to-face scenarios, like schools, clinics, hospitals, and even their own homes. Social workers connect best with clients during in-person meetings.  Hence in-person learning opportunities are highly beneficial to social work students in terms of improving their interpersonal and communication skills.

However, remote and online working opportunities have increased in recent years. For example, therapists can connect to clients via secure online therapy systems. Social workers can use online resources to video chat and keep up with clients, and students can achieve a quality education online. The in-person internship and fieldwork experiences begin at the bachelor’s degree level, meaning students in the associate degree program can take a fully online course load without the risk of missing out on essential skills.

Online programs are great for students with working or family responsibilities. They allow students to learn from home, sometimes even from another state. Online programs can also offer asynchronous learning opportunities, allowing students to learn at their own pace.

Though we generally recommend in-person learning opportunities for social work and human services degrees, an online associate degree can be easily completed without consequence. Students can learn from the format of their choosing and excel — just make sure the program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education, the central accrediting body for all social work programs.

What can you do with this degree?

Although an associate degree in social work provides access to some entry-level positions in the field, to be eligible to work as a licensed social worker (LSW), students need to earn a bachelor’s degree and complete a state-certified exam. To become a certified social worker (CSW), a master’s degree in social work is required.

This makes official social work licensure and certificates hard to earn at the associate degree level. However, some states allow associate degree holders to become licensed social work assistants after passing an Association of Social Work Board exam. Associate degree holders can strengthen their applications with a first aid certification, which is recommended to social workers working with young and disabled populations.

Advantages of the associate degree

An associate degree is the first step in higher education that you can earn after high school. In the working world, employers prefer this degree over a standard high school diploma or GED equivalent. A college degree of any type shows a dedication to learning, strong time management skills, and a commitment to professional and academic excellence.

Although the qualifications to become a social work assistant are a high school diploma and on-the-job training, organizations like Child Protective Services (CPS) prefer candidates with experience in the field. An associate degree can substitute for professional experience, as students learn the basics of the field and how to conduct themselves professionally.

Associate degrees can benefit adult learners who have been working in the field for some time but have not pursued higher education. Not only can your studies highlight your dedication to the profession to your employer, but it may also open the opportunity for their support towards any further education you may wish to follow.

A stepping stone to further education

As mentioned above, people with a bachelor’s degree, certification, and licensure are ideal for most working positions. However, higher degrees are available after a bachelor’s degree to further refine a social worker’s education while opening additional job opportunities.

At the social work master’s degree level, students begin more hands-on field training, often shadowed by professionals during their 2 years of work. Students customize their education at this level to the population and social service of their choosing.

A doctoral degree in social work is the terminal degree for the profession. It allows students direct access to teaching positions, research work, and practice in a clinical setting for research and rehabilitation.

Before you can move onto a master’s or doctoral degree, you will first need to complete your bachelor’s. Below is a table listing the major differences between an associate degree and a standard bachelor’s degree.

Degree TypeDegree length Average salary Average cost Online adaptabilityCan you transfer credits?License or certificate eligibilityCan you work as a social worker after graduation?
Associate in Social Work2 years, 50-60 credits$37,655$2,000 -$8,000HighStudents can easily transfer credits to another program, or higher degree at this levelNot eligible for licenses or certificatesNo, graduates are eligible for entry-level positions only
Bachelor’s in Social Work4 years, 120-130 credits$50,983$19,000 – $45,000Moderate, as students may have trouble completing this degree onlineStudents sometimes can transfer credits between programs and to accelerated programsEligible for licenses and most certificatesYes, after licensure and certification

What can you do with an associate’s degree in social work?

Those with an associate degree in social work can find their way in the field without licenses or certificates. Though positions can be limited, they remain vital to the community, often acting as an intermediary between a licensed social worker or healthcare worker and the clientele.

Depending on the organization, associate degree holders can work with various age groups in many ways, like outreach, program education, aid, and research. A bachelor’s degree will often be prioritized over an associate degree, but hard workers can still find a job in some popular fields below.

Social work assistants

Paired with an acting social worker, a social worker assistant works with clients in a range of non-essential but vital services, like coordinating help services, conducting research for government aid assistance, developing treatment plans, and even helping clients who struggle with independently eating or bathing. They are similar to case management aides but act as a hands-on worker while a case management aide focuses on paperwork and reception. Although this job does not require further education, workers need to participate in initial on-site training.

Community outreach workers

This position places workers in local community centers, such as domestic violence shelters, childcare programs, food banks, and local non-profits. Workers take on various tasks to educate and inform the community of their services, including social media campaigns, assisting with fundraisers, and scouting volunteer workers. A bachelor’s degree is commonly required, but long-term volunteers may be hired regardless of degree level.

Case management aides

Workers in this position support social workers and caseworkers in administrative tasks, including processing applications and managing sensitive client information. Case management aides inform clients of essential paperwork that must be completed, and have receptionist duties, like answering phone calls and scheduling appointments. This first-contact position helps clients develop confidence in the organization and eases the workload of case managers..

National Association of Social Workers  (NASW)

The NASW is a large professional social work organization focused on connecting and training professionals worldwide. They connect social workers through professional and academic membership services, with chapters located globally. Members are supported through career advancement training, academic supplement courses, podcasts, meet-up events.

Association of Social Work Board ASWB

The ASWB is the primary certification and licensure provider for social workers across the nation. They supply examinations for social workers at all degree levels and practice tests and regulatory requirements for all 50 states. Those looking to become certified, licensed, or board-trained social workers will benefit from familiarizing themselves with this site.

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

The NAMI is the premier source for mental health information and support. NAMI is the perfect resource for social workers wanting to assist their clients struggling with mental illness and offers many educational sources and hotlines for students to peruse.