Bachelor’s of social work (BSW)

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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.

About a bachelor of social work degree

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 provide you with relevant theories of social work and practical skills to be competent in an entry level social work position. Some things to consider when thinking about a BSW degree include:

Duration of the degree program

Most BSW programs require 4 years of full-time study. Students with prerequisite courses from another school may be able to reduce the length of study.

Transferability from other degree programs

In general, people with an 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.

Degree flexibility

A variety of accredited BSW programs offer fully online learning. Many of these programs offer asynchronous online courses for some, if not all, of their courses. For those who require flexibility due to full-time work or other obligations, a fully online or hybrid BSW degree can be a good option. An important question to ask when researching BSW programs, is whether there are requirements for fieldwork or practicums that require in-person attendance.

Coursework

Social welfare and justice

This course includes information about major theories in the field as well as how they are applied today

Human behavior

Social workers, particularly clinical social workers, must 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 begins by teaching about the roles of people in communities, followed by a focus on modifying community norms and behavior to promote social change.

Ethics

Being 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.

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.

Accreditation

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.

Cost

The cost of a BSW degree varies by program. In general, earning a bachelor’s degree at an in-state institution costs less than a private school. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the average annual cost of a 4-year degree in 2019-2020 was $16,647. This does not include room and board. The cost was $9,349 per year for public institutions and $32,769 for private or for-profit institutions.

Careers that begin with a BSW degree

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 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.

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  • Median 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.

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  • Median 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.

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  • Median 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.

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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.

Continuing education

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.

Should I get a BSW degree?

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.

National Association of Social Workers (NASW)

The NASW focuses on supporting the professional development of its members, and advancing professional standards of practice, campaigning for progressive social policies.

Clinical Social Work Association (CSWA)

The Clinical Social Work Association (CSWA) is a national individual membership association focused on supplying services, products, professional support for Clinical Social Workers.

The Network for Social Work Management (NSWM)

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

Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)

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.

School Social Work Association of America (SSWAA)

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.