The best master’s degrees in social work

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Social work and you

The field of social work is a vast and vital community of specialized workers. A master’s in this field is critical, as most high-paying jobs require that level of education as a minimum . It is also the quickest way to earn a license, which opens new opportunities for social workers in their chosen practice fields.

A master’s in social work (MSW) can lead to various jobs. They include, but are not limited to, school social workers, therapists, mental health clinicians, community health workers, child welfare caseworkers, public health administrators, criminal social workers, and so many more. From prisons to schools to private practice and non-profit organizations, an MSW opens many doors to human and community services jobs.

All MSWs require an internship, where supervised students participate in hands-on learning experiences in their chosen social work discipline. Many programs will set up internships that directly lead to job opportunities and licensure in the state.

The easiest way to find success in the field of social work is to start your master’s program in the state where you would like to work. It increases your chances of graduating with partial licensure, which is critical for specializations that focus on mental health and work with the populace. It also sets you up with in-state connections and a network of professionals to help secure a well-paying job.

There are many MSW programs in the U.S., and the workforce has a projected growth of 13% from 2019 to 2029, making it a great field to explore. We have selected some of the top MSW programs offered across all 50 states to help you find the right fit for your continuing education.

Basic requirements

No matter what path you choose in social work, the emotional demand will be the same. Social workers are constantly dealing with the best and worst of humanity, working through vulnerabilities while remaining calm and collected should things escalate. Some of the most vital skills to possess include compassion, empathy, emotional maturity, and critical thinking.

Though specific requirements of a master’s degree will vary, generally, MSWs will strengthen your emotional resilience, empathy, and critical thinking skills through intense hands-on work. All degree programs require fieldwork or clinical practicum work through the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), the organization in charge of accrediting all social work programs.

Beyond supervised hands-on work, most MSW programs can be completed in the same range of time. A traditional program will require around 60 credit hours of classwork to graduate, completed in 2 years. Advanced standing programs are created for those with a bachelor’s degree in social work or social work equivalent. These expedited programs generally consist of 30 to 40 credit hours and can be completed in 1 year.

Each MSW program will set its requirements, including grade point average (GPA), graduate record examinations (GRE), and any additional courses they feel are necessary to complete before the entrance. Letters of recommendation are also a must, but check if they require an academic or professional source.

Some colleges offer flexibility in their master’s, with part-time, online, hybrid, or continuing education programs. These programs accommodate those who can’t commit to full-time or in-person education due to family or work commitments and those who have been in the social work field for a while but lack an official degree.

Certificate and licensure

Career options including clinical social work and private practice counseling may require a license to work. Due to the time and advanced skills required to earn a license, jobs requiring one will pay better than those asking for a BSW or an MSW. Each state has different prerequisites for earning a license, making it easier to obtain one in the state where you received your MSW.

Licenses are earned after 2 years of supervised clinical experience post-graduation. After the clinical work, you will be required to take an exam, which some master’s programs assist you in completing.

Additional certificates exist for specializations in your field. These show competency in your specialization and don’t require the same rigorous work as a license. Many MSWs offer certificate programs like Certified Social Worker in Health Care (C-SWHC), Certified Advanced Children, Youth, and Family Social Worker (C-ACYFSW), and more for those interested in obtaining them.

For more specific information on certificates, licensure, and what your state requires, the Association of Social Work Boards  (ASWB) offers a comparative list and detailed reports for your jurisdiction.

The top 10 programs for a master’s in social work

  • University of New Hampshire

    University of New Hampshire Durham, New Hampshire
    University of New Hampshire

    The University of New Hampshire’s (UNH) main campus is located in sunny Durham, but it’s MSW is entirely online. This is the only college in the state to offer a full-time MSW program online, providing both regular and advanced degree options. The standard master’s of social work is completed in 62 credits over 28 months, while the advanced standing is 35 credits over 16 months. They offer 2 dual degrees, combining social work with law or kinesiology, and are fully accredited by the CSWE. They proudly host the Pi Chi Chapter of the Phi Alpha Honor Society for social workers.

    A UNH MSW requires a 3.0 GPA upon entrance with no GRE needed, 3 letters of recommendation, and a bachelor’s degree. They require students to keep a B+ average in all courses to continue in the program.

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  • University of Pennsylvania

    University of Pennsylvania Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
    University of Pennsylvania

    The University of Pennsylvania has a large campus with over 600 clubs and organizations to choose from annually. The MSW program focuses on fieldwork, seeing their students through 2 full-time internships in one of their approved fields of study. They offer 14 dual degree opportunities, allowing students the freedom to craft their education to their desires.

    The University of Pennsylvania is fully accredited by CSWE, with the school of social work holding intimate classes of 25 and below. No GRE is required to apply, though advanced standing students must maintain a B or above average in their undergraduate program to apply.

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  • University of Illinois

    University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, illinois
    University of Illinois

    The University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (UI) is a top-ranked MSW program. A master’s in social work can be earned through traditional, hybrid, and online means. The advanced program consists of 44 credit hours, while traditional routes take 64 to 72, both include a 2-semester field internship.  They offer 4 different scholars programs that provide financial support and enhanced learning experiences in the social services field. UI boasts an intimate class size of 25 or less, with a student-teacher ratio of 15:1

    UI is fully accredited by CSWE and requires no GRE to apply. Students must have a 3.0 minimum GPA, a 103 or higher on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), and 20 completed hours of core liberal arts classes upon application.

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  • Michigan State University

    Michigan State University East Lansing, Michigan
    Michigan State University

    The Michigan State University (MSU) main campus, located in Ann Arbor, is known for its quality and community. Its MSW program is highly flexible and accommodates part-time, online, fast-tracked, advanced standing, and dual degree options. The average length is 60 credit hours and can be completed in 12 to 20 months. Those with a BSW and a 3.5 GPA or higher may qualify for the advanced track 45 credit-hour degree.

    MSU has a 9 to 1 student-faculty ratio, 8 MSW degree pathways, 300+ scholarships for MSW students, and is fully accredited by the CSWE.

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  • University of Connecticut

    University of Connecticut Mansfield, Connecticut
    University of Connecticut

    University of Connecticut’s (UCONN) social work school has dedicated bachelors, master’s, Ph.D., continuing education, and non-degree program options. This range of degrees allows students to work their way linearly from undergrad to Ph.D. while offering those with field experience but no formal degree the chance to earn a master’s of social work or license equivalent. UCONN has 3 dual degrees and 2 joint degree options, with 35 credit hours required for advanced standing students and 60 for traditional students.

    UCONN is fully accredited by CSWE. They require a 3.0 GPA and a liberal arts foundation in an undergraduate degree.

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  • North Carolina State University

    North Carolina State University Raleigh, North Carolina
    North Carolina State University

    North Carolina State University at Raleigh’s MSW is a 39 to 60-hour degree and a 1-2 year internship in their degree with a single specialization in advanced general practice. The school is deeply grounded in its ethics of social justice, diversity, and community engagement and offers a track from their BSW to their MSW. The school is large but holds a diverse community of support alongside a beautiful campus.

    The master’s of social work program asks for a 3.0 GPA and an approved statistics and biology course to apply. Uniquely, they accept unofficial transcripts and only ask for the official transcript upon acceptance into the program. They are up for re-accreditation in 2021.

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  • Ohio State University

    Ohio State University Columbis, Ohio
    Ohio State University

    Ohio State University’s social work field offers education levels from undergrad to Ph.D., both in-person and online. The program length ranges from 43 credit hours for advanced standing students to 63 for traditional students, completed anywhere from 3 to 11 semesters. The online program offers specializations in mental health, substance abuse, children, youth services, while the in-person degree offers additional aging and health-community-social justice options.

    Ohio State is fully accredited by CSWE both online and in person. The online degree requires an in-person field placement to be completed within 50 miles of the main campus. No GRE is required for students above a 3.0 GPA.

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  • University of Pittsburgh

    University of Pittsburgh Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
    University of Pittsburgh

    The University of Pittsburgh was one of the first social work programs to become accredited and remains accredited by the CSWE in 2021. It offers education beginning in a bachelor’s up to a Ph.D. in social work. They offer 6 certificate programs, 8 dual degrees with a career center to help connect students to a professional job and network. International programs, though available, are currently on hold.

    Their program requires 60 credits for traditional students to graduate and 30 credit hours plus 12 in-field internship hours for advanced standing students.

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  • Miami Ohio University

    Miami Ohio University Oxford, Ohio
    Miami Ohio University

    Miami University of Oxford, Ohio, has a small master’s of social work program that focuses on developing skills through hands-on learning. Its traditional and advanced standing programs are offered both full and part-time for flexibility. Requirements are 500 hours of field education for advanced standing students and 900 for traditional students. Credit hours range from 34 to 57 and are usually completed in 2 to 4 semesters. MUO has connections to over 100 organizations and non-profits to help fit students with their perfect internships.

    CSWE fully accredits MUO with an 80% success rate on licensure exams post-graduation, above the national average of 67%. They have no GRE requirements but do ask for 1 course in psychology, sociology, anthropology, 1 class in American history, government, or economics, 1 human biology course, and 1 statistics course, with a 3.0 GPA minimum.

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  • University of Wisconsin

    University of Wisconsin Madison, Wisconsin
    University of Wisconsin

    University of Wisconsin-Madison’s (UNWM) specialized field of social work is named the Sandra Rosenbaum School of Social Work after the 1972 alumna. They offer a fieldwork-heavy program, requiring 265 hours per semester for your first year, and 320 hours per semester for your second year.

    Applicants are required to have 30-semester credits of approved social science coursework before admittance and a 3.0 GPA in the last 2 semesters of their undergraduate degree. They offer 4 specialized fields and dual degrees in law, pharmacy, medicine and public health, and veterinary medicine. A minimum of 30 credit hours  is required for graduation. UNMW accepts 100 applicants per year and is up for re-accreditation by the CSWE in 2021.

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Career outlook in the market

Social work is projected to add 348,600 new jobs to the field between now and 2029, a 12% growth occurring faster than average compared to other occupations. Tons of new jobs are on the horizon for current and incoming master’s of social work holders.

The turnover rate in the field of social work is high. Though the work is rewarding and impactful for communities everywhere, it’s complex and demanding work. Burnout is a common occurrence in the field, creating a high turnover rate in lower-level positions. Thankfully, a master’s degree offsets this by teaching students the skills they need to overcome stressors and exhaustion.

A master’s in social work shows commitment, education, perseverance, and a great work ethic that potential employers love to see. The higher your education in the field, the more likely you will be considered by employers for better-paying jobs and positions. Additionally, the longer you stay with your organization, the more likely you will complete the qualifications needed for a license, which requires 2 years of supervised fieldwork for approval.

Salary growth for MSW students

An MSW holder’s average salary is $43,423, with a low of $36k and a high of $65k. All introductory jobs require a minimum of a BSW to work, including lower-level care workers and human services jobs. Any counseling or clinical-based jobs will require an MSW or higher to be considered eligible for work.

Those who hold a clinical social work license (LCSW) will see a higher annual salary that averages $59k a year, with a low of $44k and a high of nearly $80k. Salaries will shift depending on current location and job type, especially in non-profit job opportunities. All salaries will increase with experience in the field and higher education.

States like California and New York have some of the highest employment rates, where states like Hawaii and Rhode Island have some of the best mean wages when compared to the rest of the U.S.

Financial aid

The CSWE, the primary accreditor for all social work school programs, offers a detailed list of all social work scholarships. Each scholarship, fund, and fellowship holds different requirements to be eligible, but the wide variety of financial support leaves a little something for everyone. Whether you are an undergrad, graduate, or Ph.D. earning scholar, financial aid is available to you as you do your part to help change the world.


Listed below are some of the many opportunities students in need can apply for before or during their master’s program. They seek to support students and communities in need, sponsoring young scholars from various backgrounds so they can be the social change leaders America needs.

  • Consuelo W. Gosnell Memorial Scholarship
  • Davis-Putter Scholarship Fund
  • Josie Torralba Romero Scholarship
  • Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation
  • Verne LaMarr Lyons Scholarship

Students may also seek financial support from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). They offer specialized aid opportunities for undergrads, grads, and parental loans to help see you are a loved one through higher education.