Bachelor’s of social work (BSW)
Introduction to social work
Social workers focus on helping their clients solve problems and cope with challenges. Social workers are employed in a variety of settings, from hospitals to schools to nonprofit agencies to advocacy organizations. This solution-focused career choice offers great diversity in the opportunities that are available to the people who decide to commit to it – in terms of clientele, presenting problems, and scale of interventions.
In general, social workers are divided into 3 main groups based on their scope of practice. Micro social workers work with clients in a one-on-one setting, often through clinical work such as therapy or counseling. Mezzo social workers focus on helping small groups or communities of people. For example, a mezzo social worker might implement a new better mental health education program within an inner-city school. Finally, macro social workers take the widest lens to focus on systemic or institutional issues. A macro social worker may lobby for expanded access to school lunches or work on a policy initiative related to access to mental health resources.
A bachelor of social work (BSW) degree is an entry level degree for the profession. After completing a BSW, you will be eligible for certain entry level positions. However, many people in the field go on to earn a master’s degree in social work (MSW) or a doctorate degree. Beginning with a bachelor’s degree of social work will give you a solid foundation and prepare you for graduate school if you so choose.
Less common, some colleges offer a bachelor of arts in social work (BASW) program – but for the purposes of this paper, we concentrate on the BSW.
Alice Walker, who wrote the 1983 Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Color Purple” which was later turned into a film and musical, was a social worker and strong advocate for equal civil rights for African Americans.
Bachelor of social work program basics
A bachelor of social work degree provides foundational coursework to prepare students to graduate and work in the field. The goal of the degree is to teach students relevant theories of social work and practical skills to be competent to perform well in an entry level social work position.
In general, people with an 2-year associate degree in social work may be able to transfer credits to a BSW program. It may also be possible to transfer prior credits from a bachelor’s degree program in another area of study. Transferring credits is at the discretion of the individual school. Contact the school directly for more information.
Note that 75% of BSW program applicants are accepted into this 4-year degree, yet the national average for graduating in 46%. This is not a career for everyone.
What can you do with a BSW?
People with a BSW degree often take entry level social work positions, such as case workers, mental health assistant, or continue their education to a graduate degree such as an MSW. Jobs performed by people with a BSW degree may be supervised by a graduate-level social worker or include fewer leadership opportunities than other social work positions.
Should you get a BSW?
When we consider the national data on employment, 95% of holders of a BSW are employed within 2 years of graduating. While these figures look great, the annual average net salary earned in this period is $32,373 which may limit luxury item purchases. Fortunately, salaries are shown to increase by 16.7% within the first decade of working (see second table).
The above table provides a snapshot of earnings 3 years after graduation. We compare the earnings of all bachelor degree recipients to those who graduated from this specific program.
To give you some idea of your long-term expected income with a BSW, the table below compares a generic 4-year degree with a BSW.
While the news is not all bad, making lots of money would be a misguided reason to decide to become a social worker. An altruistic career choice comes with its own advantages that are sought after and appreciated by the professionals who enter these fields, and the people they work with.
Finally, the average net cost of a BSW is $24,000, which takes the average student 3.46 years to payback after graduating.
Best known for her books, podcasts and presentations on the topics of leadership, empathy, shame, vulnerability – Brené Brown is considered by many to be the most highly respected social work celebrity working today.
How to pick a BSW program
People who earn a BSW degree are prepared to enter the workforce as social workers. However, they generally cannot perform clinical work, as this requires a master’s of social work degree (MSW) in most states. Earning a BSW may make you an attractive applicant for MSW programs. Furthermore, credits from this degree may transfer to other fields, particularly those adjacent to social work, such as psychology and sociology.
If you wish to become a social worker, it is critical to attend a degree program that is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). The accreditation process ensures the quality and integrity of social work programs. People who do not attend an accredited degree program may not be eligible to become licensed or practice as a social worker.
Can I study for a BSW online?
Only 5.5% of BSW programs are available as fully online programs. Integral to social work programs is coursework that refines people and communication skills, which are essential components in the main responsibilities of most social work positions. These skills are taught in person – typically incorporating role-playing, recording interviews for feedback, and numerous practice sessions held and monitored in the classroom. Secondly, BSW programs incorporate fieldwork or practicums that require in-person attendance.
The above table shows the percentage of programs available either completely in person or fully online. Figures that do not add up to 100% indicate the existence of hybrid programs.
Best bachelor’s in social work programs
Find below our ratings of the comparative earnings, costs, and payback rates of different BSW programs. Please review our methodology for more information on what metrics we look at, and how to determine comparative value between institutions.
Net cost: The median annual cost of all students that receive any aid. This does not refer to the “sticker price”, the price listed by the college.
Payback: The amount of time in years it takes to pay off the median net cost by the median earnings. For this calculation, the median earning of high school graduates (in the school’s home state) are deducted from the median earnings.
Earnings: The median earnings of students 10 years after enrollment. This includes both students that do and do not graduate, across all majors.
Degree premium: The difference between the school’s median earnings and the state median earnings at the same degree level. Also referred to as vs. state average
Ranking: The payback rate is divided by the degree premium (set as a percentage), the lower the number the higher the rank. (i.e. payback=1, degree premium 20% higher than state school median: 1/120% = .883.
Economic score: The economic score is calculated by dividing the payback by the degree premium percentage. The lower the score the better. For instance – if a school has a payback rate of 1 and earnings are 20% higher than the state median, the economic score calculation would be: 1/120% =.83
Grad rate: The percentage of students that graduate from the school or program. If a grad rate is in red, it is below the relevant state average; schools with graduation rates in the lowest 25% nationally are pushed to the back of our rankings tables.
Admission rate: The percentage of applying students that are admitted.
CUNY Lehman College
Bronx, New York
Admission rate: 48%
Grad rate: 59%
Net cost: $1,814
Vs. state average: $7,276
Economic score: 0.35
California State University-Los Angeles
Los Angeles, California
Admission rate: 77%
Grad rate: 65%
Net cost: $2,768
Vs. state average: $540
Economic score: 0.84
California State University-Long Beach
Long Beach, California
Admission rate: 43%
Grad rate: 79%
Net cost: $9,622
Vs. state average: $9,706
Economic score: 1.41
Fayetteville State University
Fayetteville, North Carolina
Admission rate: 80%
Grad rate: 44%
Net cost: $5,899
Vs. state average: $2,963
Economic score: 1.60
University of California-Berkeley
Admission rate: 18%
Grad rate: 93%
Net cost: $15,329
Vs. state average: $11,641
Economic score: 1.76
California State University-San Bernardino
San Bernardino, California
Admission rate: 79%
Grad rate: 70%
Net cost: $7,342
Vs. state average: $2,049
Economic score: 1.88
University of Washington-Tacoma Campus
Admission rate: 87%
Grad rate: 76%
Net cost: $10,817
Vs. state average: $6,088
Economic score: 1.92
University of Washington-Seattle Campus
Admission rate: 56%
Grad rate: 84%
Net cost: $13,297
Vs. state average: $6,088
Economic score: 2.26
San Jose State University
San Jose, California
Admission rate: 68%
Grad rate: 75%
Net cost: $14,928
Vs. state average: $9,528
Economic score: 2.30
California State University-Fresno
Admission rate: 91%
Grad rate: 68%
Net cost: $5,464
Vs. state average: $-3,997
Economic score: 2.36
How much does a BSW cost?
See above how cost and earnings vary depending on the type of institution. Payback refers to how many years it takes students to cover the median costs while earning the median salary. Payback is calculated by subtracting the median earnings of a high school graduate from the median earnings related to this degree.
The cost of a BSW degree varies by program, school and state. The national median cost at a public institution is $14,279. The same degree at a state private institution comes with a national median cost of $22,787 and at a for-profit institution the median cost is $21,020. These figures cover tuition, accommodation, books, and other essential school-related costs.
What financial aid can BSW students apply for?
As with all degree programs, the first steps in applying for most types of aid involves filling out the FAFSA form on the Federal Student Aid website. Make a time to meet with the student financial aid service at your chosen college to uncover options that are provided by the school, or that you may be unaware of. There are also numerous scholarships available specifically for social work students, including:
Scholarships for BSW programs
What to expect from a BSW program?
Most BSW programs require core coursework in social work as well as elective courses in relevant areas of study. In general, foundational courses include:
Social welfare and justice
This course includes information about major theories in the field as well as how they are applied today.
Social workers, particularly clinical social workers, need to understand why people behave the way they do. Coursework in human behavior focuses on the causes and consequences of people’s decisions and how to help people modify their behavior.
Social work research methods
This course teaches students to be critical consumers of research in social work. Social workers must remain familiar with the scientific literature in their area of study.
Community social structures
Typically this course begins by teaching students about the roles people play in communities, followed by a focus on modifying community norms and behaviors to promote social change.
Foundational to social work practice, coursework in ethics is required at most accredited BSW programs.
Accredited social work programs require at least 400 hours of supervised field work experience. This allows you to gain real-world skills as a social worker, preparing you to transition to a job outside of school.
What are admission requirements for a BSW?
To apply, students commonly need to submit a high school diploma or GED, recommendation letters, personal essay, and application form. GPA, SAT and ACT scores depend on the admitting school.
How long does it take to get a BSW?
This is typically a 4-year program, obviously extended if you choose to study on a part-time basis.
What career options are available with a BSW?
People with a BSW degree often take entry level social work positions or continue their education to a graduate degree such as an MSW. Jobs performed by people with a BSW degree may be supervised by a graduate-level social worker or include fewer leadership opportunities than other social work positions. Some examples of jobs that can be performed with a BSW include:
Case worker or residential case managerMedian salary: $47K
Case workers help to connect people to the social services they need. Often, a case worker works with vulnerable people such as older adults, children, people with disabilities, or individuals with a criminal record. They may visit people at home to observe their living conditions, make reports of abuse or neglect, and offer support in creating a healthier home environment. Case workers also help their clients connect with housing, nutrition, legal, and other services to improve their quality of life.
Residential case workers typically work in residential treatment facilities. This could include a group home for people with disabilities, homeless shelter, residential substance abuse treatment facility, or a residential inpatient psychiatric treatment unit. They help residents maintain independence and receive the social services they are entitled to.
Family service workerMedian salary: $36K
A family service worker focuses on individual families in crisis or facing problems. For instance, this can include observing family interactions to help parents develop stronger parenting skills. A family service worker may also identify abuse or neglect in the home. It is critical for family service workers to maintain honest, complete, and up-to-date records to document relevant information about the families they work with.
Activity or workshop directorMedian salary: $44K
Activity directors are found in a wide variety of facilities, including nursing homes, halfway houses, specialty schools, and rehabilitation centers. Their job is to understand the needs of the people served by that facility. This type of social worker will design and implement activities to educate, enrich, and entertain clients.
Mental health assistantMedian salary: $26K
A mental health assistant works with a licensed clinical social worker or licensed psychologist to provide supportive mental health services. It is important to note that someone with a BSW cannot provide clinical services such as assessment or psychotherapy. Rather, a mental health assistant may support the clinician’s treatment plan by teaching coping skills or daily living skills. They may work with people with serious mental illness, developmental disabilities, or other psychiatric problems. Working as a mental health assistant is a good way to gain experience that may be used to earn a master’s degree in clinical social work and become a licensed clinical social worker.
Licensure and certification
In most states, bachelor’s level social workers who intend to work directly with clients to provide social work services must be licensed. The exact licensure requirements vary by state, so check with your local laws. To become licensed, you must first earn a BSW degree from an accredited social work program. Then, you must complete 2 years of post-degree work experience. This experience must be the equivalent of 2 full years and must be supervised by a licensed social worker. Finally, you must pass the ASWB bachelor’s exam to be eligible for licensure.
After becoming a licensed bachelor level social worker, you need to take continuing education courses to renew your license every 2 years. The exact type and number of courses may vary by state, so check with your state licensing board.
Many people who get a BSW degree do so because they want to become a social worker. Thus, an obvious next step for continuing your education is to earn an MSW degree. This opens considerably more options in terms of clinical practice, leadership, or advocacy work.
In some cases, people with a BSW want to change careers. The skills gained through a BSW degree are transferable to a variety of other career paths. People with a BSW degree may seek graduate education in psychology, sociology, medicine, law, business, and more.
Social workers are involved in all aspects of public life, from healthcare to social services to policy work. That makes a BSW a strong foundational degree for careers in a variety of health and welfare sectors. The skills and knowledge you gain through a BSW can transfer to many different areas of work, making this a very versatile degree option.
It is important to also recognize the limitations of the degree. For example, many people interested in social work wish to provide clinical services such as psychotherapy. This is only possible by earning a MSW or doctorate degree in social work. The BSW can be a good steppingstone to these graduate degrees, but it does not provide the experience needed to practice clinically.
Is social work a bachelor degree?
In the social work profession, there are career options available at the associate, bachelor, master, and doctorate degree level. Generally, you can call yourself a social worker after graduating with a bachelor of social work. The actual type of social work interventions you provide—micro, mezzo, macro— depend on the degree level you have earned and license you hold.
Do I need to attend an accredited program?
This is highly recommended. Accreditation ensures that the program graduates students who are competent in the knowledge and skills required to practice social work. It also ensures eligibility for entry to graduate programs and financial aid.
What are the best paying social work jobs?
Social workers in private practice (typically licensed clinical master-level social workers), social workers in academia, and social workers in government and administrative positions (master and doctorate degree holders) make the highest salaries in this profession.
The NASW focuses on supporting the professional development of its members, and advancing professional standards of practice, campaigning for progressive social policies.
The Clinical Social Work Association (CSWA) is a national individual membership association focused on supplying services, products, professional support for Clinical Social Workers.
The NSWM is focused on helping managers to become effective humanistic leaders in a variety of sectors: public, private, non-profit and for-profit organizations, hospitals, universities, management consulting firms, bureaus, and agencies. It also makes available training, resources, and networking opportunities for members
The CSWE is the organization that accredits BSW programs. It also encourages professionalism and academic excellence in social work education. Membership is open to both individuals and accredited degree programs. The association also hosts an annual conference and regular networking events.
The SSWAA primarily functions as an advocacy group to promote the profession and to enhance the social and emotional growth and academic outcomes of all students nationally and globally. Members receive many benefits, including liability insurance and access to the SSWAA digital library.