Social workers may find themselves responsible for helping clients solve problems that range from personal-relationship issues to disabilities to unemployment. Between the aging Baby Boomer population and the many people seeking treatment for substance abuse or mental health problems, the Bureau of Labor Statistics is predicting promising career prospects for those in the field of social work between 2016-26.
Becoming a social worker usually requires some education — a bachelor's degree is usually a basic requirement to start in the field, and master's degrees can be required in some positions. As such, if you're interested in entering this field, it's important to consider the level of education you might want to strive for, as well as where and how you may choose to pursue it.
Best Online Colleges for Social Work and Human Services in 2018-19
Online programs for social work can offer busy students flexibility in their school scheduling that on-campus programs do not. To help online and nontraditional students interested in earning a degree in social work, we have created this list of the 10 best online colleges for social work, using data from the National Center for Education Statistics' Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). For details on our unique methodology, please see the bottom of this page.
University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh
York County Community College
East Tennessee State University
University of Phoenix-Western Washington
Grace Bible College
Degree Overview: Social Work & Human Services
Social work is a rewarding and rigorous field, and professionals need to be well prepared in order to thrive. Online colleges for social work and human services endeavor to provide the theoretical knowledge and practical skills needed to navigate through the daily challenges of these careers. This section describes common coursework a student might see and skills a student might gain during their studies in this field.
Online Social Work & Human Services Courses
Online colleges for social work and human services have different kinds of courses depending on the degree level students enroll in. The following is a description of the various courses students may find in their program.
On the associate degree level, students are preparing for their future social work studies, so the classwork is designed to familiarize them with the principles of the field. Depending on the pre-social work program they enroll in, students may take courses that cover basic counseling skills, human services principles, community psychology, lifespan development and crisis intervention techniques. In addition, students may be required to complete general education courses, such as English composition, mathematics and American history.
The coursework for an online bachelor's degree program in social work and human services is likely structured with the goal of obtaining an entry-level position in the field after graduation. To that end, the program may include courses that give students an understanding of social work policy, research and practice. Examples of specific subjects include social work statistics, child psychology, social justice, behavioral science and social work practice with groups.
On the master's degree level, social work programs have a curriculum designed to prepare students for advanced practice. Classes may cover areas such as mental health practice, public child welfare, military social work or advanced statistics.
Doctoral students prepare to work in advanced practice, teach in the field or conduct research. These programs may include courses in qualitative and quantitative research methods, data-driven decision making, advanced social work practice theories and social work leadership.
Career-Related Skills to Develop
Online education for social work and human services emphasizes a number of skills that students need to be successful in related careers. The following are examples of some of the skills students may want to focus on improving as they complete their degree programs.
- Empathy: When people come to social workers, they're generally dealing with a crisis. Very little is worse than confessing one's troubles to somebody who does not seem to understand or sympathize. Some clients, especially younger clients, may not even want to be involved with a social worker; connecting with such a client can be extremely difficult. A social worker needs to be able to express empathy to gain clients' trust and build a relationship with them.
- Interpersonal: Social workers interact with clients and colleagues from many different walks of life. They need strong interpersonal skills in order to effectively communicate with people of all upbringings and backgrounds in a tactful yet productive manner.
- Listening: Social workers conduct interviews with people to determine what their needs are. Listening skills are imperative for understanding their concerns and determining how they can be helped.
- Writing: People in the social work field often draft reports about the services they provide for clients, and strong writing skills are needed to do this.
- Problem-solving: Clients look to social workers for help with a myriad of challenges, so these professionals need to evaluate what the issues are and what services will help alleviate them in a thoughtful, yet timely manner.
- Research: Professionals must be familiar with the different services -- from food stamps to domestic abuse shelters -- that are available to clients. Research skills are needed to find these services and provide guidance to clients on how to use them.
Social Work & Human Services Specializations
Clinical social workers must undergo a licensing process in order to get a job, which generally involves completing at least a bachelor's degree, clinical examination and a minimum of two years of supervised, hands-on experience. In some cases, however, these professionals may be able to get an exemption if they find employment at government agencies. Similarly, social workers who do nonclinical work may also be required to obtain a certification, depending on what state they work in.
The most common types of social work licenses, which are granted through the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), are:
- Licensed Bachelor's Social Worker (LBSW)
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)
- Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW)
People who earn these designations not only display their educational and experiential qualifications: these certifications also alert employers that professionals exhibit the high standards -- such as competence, integrity, social justice and appreciation for the dignity of human beings -- that are expected of people in the field.
Social Work & Human Services Career Outlook
Social workers serve many individuals, families and groups from all areas of society; as such, there will always be a demand for social workers across the nation. Employment growth is dependent upon the area and the specialty a social worker chooses to pursue.
When someone is released from jail or prison, probation officers and correctional treatment specialists are there to help them ease back into society and pursue a better life — one free of the crimes that led to their incarceration in the first place. The job can be difficult, dangerous and stressful, but the real positive impact it has on inmates' lives is tangible.
Although correctional treatment specialists — also known as case managers — typically work with those who are in prison and probation officers typically work with those who have left prison on probation, the duties across both careers have many similar aspects. These include: meeting with probationers; evaluating those on probation to ensure they are following all requirements; conducting drug testing; monitoring conduct; and helping parolees and probationers with job training, substance abuse treatment, counseling and the like.
As social workers help individuals solve problems and cope with life changes, health care social worker careers take that passion for helping into the health care world. They meet with patients to help them understand their diagnosis; plan adjustments to their lifestyle, home or health care situation; provide information on available services; and keep tabs on the mental and emotional health of those facing serious health care issues.
Health care social workers might choose to specialize in one particular area of the health care world. For example, geriatric social workers focus solely on the elderly and their families, while hospice or palliative care social workers help those facing end-of-life decisions.
Social workers must have a minimum of a bachelor's degree, though clinical social workers must earn a master's degree plus at least two years of experience in a supervised clinical setting.
Self-esteem, grief, repressed trauma and stress are just a few of the problems a marriage or family therapist might help their clients tackle. By exploring the relationships in the life of a family, a couple or even an individual, these professionals help their clients to improve their emotional state, heal damaged relationships and prune unhealthy dependencies from their lives. Duties in this career might include anything from helping a child come to terms with the death of a parent to assisting a married couple with their relationship issues.
In addition to working closely with clients, marriage and family therapists collaborate with psychiatrists, social workers and other mental health professionals to treat their clients in a holistic manner. Marriage and family therapist careers require a master's degree in clinical mental health counseling, psychology or the like, followed by an internship or residency.
Clients with mental illness or addiction issues often need in-depth treatment. Support groups; 12-step programs for addiction; outpatient and inpatient care for those suffering from mental illness: social workers connect the individuals that need and provide these services.
Given the nature of the job, social workers who deal with mental health and substance abuse form a powerful network of connections with pertinent groups, community organizations, hospitals and treatment centers. They might even work with policymakers to create better options for patients. The day-to-day work can include individual counseling, group sessions, crisis intervention, case management and providing advocacy, prevention and education.
While some positions in this field are accessible with a bachelor's degree, others require a minimum of a master's degree, since they are considered clinical social work.
Child and family social workers provide families with a variety of resources, including finding proper housing or childcare, or helping them apply for services, such as food stamps. They intervene in cases of abuse or neglect, and they can facilitate foster care arrangements as well as adoptions.
School social workers focus on a child's educational well-being as well as their home life. They work closely with parents, teachers and the student to help bolster a student's social development and academic performance. Students who face bullying, truancy, aggressive behavior, failing grades and the like might work closely with a school social worker to help conquer their obstacles.
Though some social workers can enter this field with a bachelor's degree, many employers will prefer those who have earned at least the master's degree and completed two years of supervised clinical experience.