Is an Online MSW Worth It?

By Alyssa Middleton | Published 5/24/2021
Alyssa Middleton Alyssa Middleton earned her MSW from Washington University in St. Louis and is currently a PhD candidate in the University of Louisville Kent School of Social Work. Alyssa's work spans from community health clinics to the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. She is an adjunct professor for the University of Louisville's Kent School of Social Work BSW and MSSW programs.

A Master of Social Work (MSW) degree is an excellent option for those wanting to work in the human services and social justice arenas. MSW-trained professionals are on the front lines of helping others and have a vast amount of career options. Earning an MSW degree can advance your career and boost your salary by close to $15,000 per year compared to entry level-workers with a bachelor's degree. This salary increase is especially significant considering completing an MSW degree could take as little as one year.

You might be wondering if an online master's degree in social work is worth it. Can you get the same quality of education and learn the skills necessary for professional social work practice online as you can in a traditional in-person program? The short answer is yes. Let's break down what an MSW degree is and examine its benefits and costs to help you decide if an online MSW program is a good fit.

What is an MSW Degree?

The social work field is highly diverse and advanced training allows graduates to pursue a number of careers in a wide range of areas such as substance abuse counseling, child welfare, healthcare, juvenile justice, gerontology and management. If you are interested in working one-on-one with clients, a career as a therapist, child protection worker, school social worker or medical social worker are excellent options. If you want to work at the community level or with a broad population, you can work as a community organizer or a refugee social worker. If affecting change on a larger scale sounds most interesting to you, then being a program administrator, lobbyist or international justice social worker are all viable career options.

Students with a desire to help others and make a difference in the world for oppressed and disadvantaged populations often find the MSW degree to be a perfect fit.

The standard curriculum for a master of social work degree includes targeted studies on human development and behavior, social theory, social justice policy, research methods, field placement, and practice methods, which includes assessment and therapeutic techniques. You can also take elective courses to focus on a particular specialization such as mental health, military social work or gerontology. Field placement is a year-long internship taken simultaneously with classes where students gain invaluable hands-on social work experience and put into practice the skills that they learn in class. Students with a desire to help others and make a difference in the world for oppressed and disadvantaged populations often find the MSW degree to be a perfect fit to prepare them for this challenging yet rewarding work.

What Are Some of the Skills That MSW Students Might Gain From Their Online Education?

The MSW curriculum is designed to hone students' skills in a number of areas. For example:

Communication Skills

Strengthening communication skills is a crucial component of the MSW curriculum, as all of the work you do as a social worker hinges on effective listening and communication. In social work courses, you'll learn how to read nonverbal communication including facial expressions and body language and how to effectively communicate in order to soothe a client or deescalate an agitated client. You'll also learn about taking case notes and documenting case plans and progress from clients.

Writing and speaking online has become even more critical to a social worker's job, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic, which has required many social workers to move to offer their services via telehealth rather than in person. Students who complete degrees online will have extensive experience in online communication and may feel more comfortable and competent in offering their services online due to their vast experience learning and communicating online.

Active Listening Skills

Courses in the MSW curriculum include observation and role playing to learn and strengthen active listening skills, including concentrating on what is being said, listening carefully, and asking questions to ensure understanding. These skills are critical when working with clients in professional practice, and online students may strengthen these techniques more than traditional students as a result of their extensive experience in engaging with fellow students and professors online.

Research Skills

From research design to implementation and statistical analysis of data, you'll gain valuable research and analysis skills through an MSW program. You'll not only learn how to read and understand published studies but also develop the techniques to write and publish your own research study results. Program evaluation is in high demand, as agencies want to ensure funds are being spent only on projects and initiatives that have demonstrated results. The research skills you'll gain through your MSW program will prepare you to offer this valuable service to your agency.

Policy and Advocacy Skills

As an MSW student, you'll learn how bills become introduced, the process that must occur before a bill is signed into law, and all of the points where advocating for changes to the bill are recommended. In addition, you'll learn how to organize individuals and groups together for grassroots efforts and how to communicate with elected officials to effectively convey your stance on a particular issue.

Is the Cost of an Online MSW Degree Worth the Return on Investment (ROI)?

Salary comparison for BSW and MSW

The above data reflects the average of more expensive traditional, in-person social work programs along with less expensive online MSW programs. You can expect to accumulate less debt if you choose a more affordable online program.

The cost of an online degree is certainly worth the return on investment because of the increase in opportunities available with an MSW degree compared to a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree. For less than $6,000, you could earn an online MSW that could then:

Allow for career advancement opportunities.

Those with an undergraduate degree in social work are often limited to entry-level positions. To be promoted to a supervisor or administrator position, an MSW degree is required.

Earn more money.

College Scorecard reports that salaries for MSWs are more than $13,000 per year higher than BSWs salaries. This is a significant pay increase, especially considering that figure is compounded throughout one's career.

Offers the opportunities to change areas of focus.

The broad foundational education provided by an online master's program in social work allows graduates to work with clients across the lifespan. If an opportunity arises to work with a different population or have another area of focus, having the MSW degree allows flexibility in your career path.

Are Online MSW Degree Programs More Affordable Than Traditional MSW Degree Programs?

Online MSW degree programs are often more affordable than traditional MSW degree programs. This is due in part to online programs not charging out-of-state tuition to online students. This is not only true for public schools; OnlineU's research revealed that private schools often charge far lower rates to online students than they do to their on-campus peers. Though the difference in tuition between public and private traditional institutions can be significant, OnlineU found that median annual tuition rates for online programs at the master's level are only about $1,000-$2,000 higher at private institutions.

OnlineU also offers rankings of the most affordable online MSW programs so students can minimize their expenses and debt. For example, Saint Leo University Online offers an online MSW degree for $5,610 per year. In comparison, Columbia University's traditional MSW program has a yearly tuition cost of $26,290.

Will an MSW Degree Help My Career?

An MSW degree will undoubtedly provide opportunities to advance your social work career and increase your salary. Some industries typically only hire MSW-educated social workers, such as medical social work, school social work, and some nonprofit administration positions.

Also, many students dream of having their private therapy practice one day. To become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), you must have an MSW degree in addition to other requirements. Having a private practice for clinical social work requires licensure that is not possible for those with only a BSW degree.

Expert Tip
  • In order to have a private therapy practice, you must have an MSW degree.

Are Online MSW Degrees Respected?

In terms of educational outcomes, one study found that there were no significant differences in most educational outcomes between online and traditional MSW students. Also, a small study found that employment outcomes were similar between online and traditional MSW degree holders. This demonstrates that online MSW degrees can be held in the same high regard as traditional MSW programs since students learn the same content and are employed in the same types and levels of positions post-graduation.

For most positions, skills attainment, prior job, internship, and field experience, and completing an MSW program are more important than if the program is offered online or in-person. Since many schools offer both online and in-person degree options, it can be difficult to tell on a resume if a degree was earned online or traditionally on campus.

Skills attainment, prior job, internship, and field experience, and completing an MSW program are more important than if the program is offered online or in-person.

What Are the Differences Between an Online MSW Program and a Traditional MSW Program?

Often, the courses required for graduation are identical between online MSW programs and traditional MSW programs. The primary differences lie in how and when the courses are offered.

Traditional MSW courses are offered in person and synchronously, meaning students are in the classroom on the same day and time each week. In these campus programs, lectures are presented live, and students interact face-to-face with each other and the professor.

Most online MSW courses are offered asynchronously, meaning the teaching and learning are not happening simultaneously. Professors upload the content (pre-recorded lectures, videos, PDF files, links to online quizzes, etc.) to the online platform, and students typically have one week to review the content and complete any weekly assignments. Professors may assign discussion board tasks each week to facilitate learning with and from other students. All communication takes place online but may be via Zoom, email, or posting comments on a discussion board.

What Should I Consider in an Online MSW Program?

When selecting an online MSW program, consider the following:

Accreditation

An accredited program means that the program has demonstrated that they follow an accrediting agency's strict guidelines and standards. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is the accrediting organization for social work education programs. Accredited schools of social work are committed to providing the best education in terms of faculty, curriculum, and field placement options.

Resources

What resources does the program offer to online students? Are there online learning resources? Are online library or resource labs available? Do online instructors have flexible office hours to accommodate distance learning students? Does the field education office help find local practicum placements for online students? The more support offered by an online program, the more likely you are to succeed in your studies and excel in the job market after graduation.

Program Structure

It's important to consider how the courses in an online MSW program are offered:

Fully Remote

Each course is offered entirely online, and there is no requirement for students to come to campus for in-person learning.

Hybrid Learning

Hybrid models mix online classes with some in-person. Students must travel to campus for these live sessions.

Synchronous

Students are still remote, but everyone logs onto the learning platform at the same time each week.

Asynchronous

Students remotely complete lectures and assignments on their own schedule without real-time interaction.

It's also vital to consider the length of the program. Does the program offer advanced standing for those with a BSW degree, reducing the number of credits needed to graduate? Is it a part-time or full-time program? How many years does it typically take to graduate?

The investment in the program is worth it, not only for the ability to impact your community but also for the career advancement opportunities and salary boost of more than 40%.

Why Should I Choose an MSW Degree?

An MSW degree offers the chance to help disadvantaged individuals and populations, advocate for social justice and systems change, and ultimately have a challenging yet rewarding career. The investment in the program is worth it, not only for the ability to impact your community but also for the career advancement opportunities and salary boost of more than 40%.

Completing your degree in social work online is an affordable, flexible, and convenient option, and online MSW degrees from accredited graduate schools are considered just as valid and respected by employers in preparing students for a mid-level social work or private clinical practice position. At a fraction of the traditional tuition price, online MSW graduates can develop the skills necessary to have an impactful career in social work.