Are you considering enrolling in an online associate degree program in social work? If you are interested in professions that provide support to communities, families, and individuals, this may be your ideal area of study. Graduates often gain the foundational knowledge and skills necessary to better understand human development, social interactions, and cultural institutions. Earning this type of degree can lead to a variety of rewarding jobs related to health and social services.
It's important to realize, however, that many professionals in social work obtain associate degrees in order to prepare for further education. While these degrees can lead to some entry-level employment opportunities in the field that do not require licensure, most social workers choose to earn bachelor’s degrees. This is the standard minimum requirement for many professions. In some cases, master’s degrees are necessary.
Fortunately, the coursework completed at accredited academic institutions at the associate level can be transferred and applied toward bachelor’s degrees offered by traditional, four-year colleges and universities. Specifics vary, but many of these schools accept between 60 and 90 transfer hours. This means that those with associate degrees may enter these programs as juniors instead of freshmen, with approximately two more years of education remaining.
Prospective students should also be aware that associate degrees in social work are not particularly common. As a result, it’s often necessary to earn an associate degree in human services, which are much more prevalent, and then transfer the credits earned into a bachelor’s degree in social work.
Requirements of a Associate Degree?
Every institution is different, but associate degrees are generally meant to introduce students to important fundamental basics within their chosen field. Coursework is often designed to help those enrolled develop and hone the basic skills needed to be successful both academically and professionally.
Most associate degrees consist of 60 credit hours of classes and take full-time students approximately two years to complete. Those entering programs with Advanced Placement credits earned during high school may, however, be able to meet requirements sooner. Additionally, some academic institutions offer accelerated programs. These often require students to enroll in more compressed courses each semester so that requirements may be met faster. Students attending classes part-time, however, typically take two to three additional years to finish.
Curriculums may vary significantly, but students can generally expect to learn a wide selection of soft skills applicable to many different jobs and workplaces. Coursework often includes both general liberal arts education and subject-specific instruction, with a strong focus on practical career training.
Where Do You Earn an Associate-Level Degree?
Associate degrees are most commonly offered by community colleges, technical colleges, and vocational schools. There are several differences between these institutions, four-year colleges, and universities. For starters, they often have smaller campuses with fewer students, as well as more limited facilities, organized groups, and student activities. Another important distinction is that community colleges, technical colleges, and vocational schools rarely offer housing. As a result, those enrolled must find accommodations elsewhere and commute to campus for classes, unless they are able to attend through an online or distance learning platform.
One of the most significant distinctions, however, is that these schools typically set lower tuition rates than traditional academic institutions. By offering fewer services and accommodations, they are able to charge less per credit hour. This can be extremely helpful for prospective students facing financial hardship.
It’s worth noting that some four-year colleges and universities do offer associate-level degree programs. These are often secondary, however, in relation to the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees they have available.
Online Vs. Traditional Education in Social Work
While associate degrees in social work are less prevalent than some other areas of study, there are still several schools offering programs online. Notably, degrees offered online are just as viable as those obtained on campus. Whether or not distance learning is appropriate depends upon personal preference, as employers now tend to accept both options as equal. Curriculums may vary from institution to institution, but those enrolled remotely generally receive the same instruction from the same faculty offered in person.
There are, however, some significant differences between the two that are worth noting. One of the most significant has to do with scheduling. Online social work programs often offer more flexibility for students, allowing them to take classes and complete coursework in the evenings and/or during weekends. This can be extremely helpful to those who have personal and/or professional obligations that limit their availability.
While often convenient, online programs do not tend to provide as many opportunities to network with peers, faculty, and professionals as on-campus degrees do. Distance learning may also offer limited direct interaction with professors, which can be detrimental for some learners. It must also be noted that students attending classes in person often have easier access to various academic resources available, as well as career services. Many institutions have job placement departments dedicated to career development, but not all of them are equipped to provide these benefits virtually.
Some learners have a clear preference for in-person or online classes. A possible alternative to both is enrolling in hybrid degree programs. These work to address the differences between the two, bridging the gaps in each as much as possible. Hybrid programs generally offer the flexibility of remote instruction in conjunction with opportunities to interact directly with instructors and cohort members. While classes are primarily offered online, periodic residencies on campus for in-person instruction, peer interaction, and hands-on practice are also required.
What are the Admission Requirements?
Associate degree candidates must complete various institutional requirements before they can enroll in a program.
Enrollment standards vary by institution, but often include the following:
- A high school diploma or GED certificate
- Minimum overall academic grade point average
- Transcripts from any post-secondary education (if applicable)
Depending on the college and intended program, applicants may also need to submit additional paperwork, pay application fees, and/or arrange financial aid. Few require prospective students to submit SAT and/or ACT scores, however, which are often required for bachelor’s degree programs. Additionally, most schools recommend prospective and current students complete and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) every year to determine assistance eligibility.
Those with prior secondary education credits earned in higher school and/or while attending other academic institutions should expect to provide additional documentation. The gaining college will require official transcripts containing a record of all prior courses and corresponding grades for transfer purposes.
Why Earn an Online Social Work Associate Degree?
There are many reasons prospective students may choose to pursue associate degrees. A major advantage over other higher education options is the cost. Enrolling in this type of degree program is often significantly less expensive than bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degree programs. According to the College Board’s Trends in Higher Education Series in 2017-2018, the average tuition for students at the associate level was $3,570. This is substantially lower than the average of $9,970 per year for in-state students enrolled at traditional four-year institutions. Notably, many colleges and universities charge non-residents even more.
Another factor is time. Associate degrees typically take far less time to complete than other higher education options. While exact graduation timeframes vary based on enrollment status (full-time versus part-time), students can complete associate degrees in two years or less. Bachelor’s degrees, on the other hand, generally require a minimum of four years to complete, with master’s programs requiring an additional two afterward.
Associate degree graduates are also able to pursue employment sooner. Those pursuing bachelor’s degrees have to wait at least four years before joining the workforce, while associate degree holders can begin working and earning salaries after only two. This allows for more immediate income, with the added benefit of paying off any student loans faster.
Additionally, as previously mentioned, credits earned from associate degree program offered by accredited institutions can be transferred to other colleges and university later. Completed coursework, especially related to general education topics, may be counted towards future bachelor’s degree requirements.
Why an Associate Degree in Social Work?
Earning a degree in social work can be very fulfilling and may lead to a wide variety of employment opportunities. It is also an excellent option for those interested in learning the basics about the field and/or preparing for further education.
In general, social workers earn decent wages. There are also several more advanced positions available, including social and community service managers, which have even higher earning potential. Salaries do vary by location, however, with some of the most lucrative employment options available in New Jersey, Connecticut, New York, and California.
Many feel drawn to earn degrees in social work because they want jobs centered on helping people and making positive changes in the world. Professionals in this field tend to have a significant impact on individuals and communities. As a result, the work tends to be highly personally rewarding.
Additionally, many of the necessary social skills obtained and honed are easily transferred to other careers later. This is particularly true for communication, problem-solving, teamwork, empathy, and leadership.
What’s Involved in an Associate Degree in Social Work?
Associate degree programs in social work are typically designed to provide students with a broad introduction to higher education as a whole, as well as the particular field of study. Curriculums tend to be basic and broad; they often cover the most fundamental concepts necessary to obtain entry-level employment or succeed in future academic settings. Students should also anticipate taking several general education classes, particularly related to composition, life sciences, and mathematics.
- Introduction to Social Work
- Introduction to Sociology
- Introduction to Psychology
- Social Problems
- Social Welfare
- Family Intervention Strategies
- Group Intervention Techniques
- Ethics for Social Services
- Statistics in Psychology
- Cultural Anthropology
- Court Systems
- Diversity Studies
- Police and Corrections Systems
- Addition and Drug Use
- Child Development
What to Consider When Choosing an Associate Program for Social Work
When considering which social work program to choose, there are several important factors you should be aware of. Every college and university is different, making it imperative to compare and contrast options carefully. Some of the most significant aspects include cost, location, and accreditation status.
Earning a social work degree at any level can be a significant financial commitment, but the cost varies greatly from institution to institution. Prospective students should pay close attention to the school type, which can be either public or private. Public colleges and universities often receive government funding, which allows them to charge lower tuition rates than private institutions. It’s also important to be aware of the location, as academic facilities tend to set lower rates for in-state students than non-residents.
The location of potential colleges and universities can also impact employment opportunities. This is because many institutions strive to establish mutually beneficial relationships with nearby employers, which can make it easier for students to obtain internships during enrollment and jobs after graduation. Additionally, these schools usually have a better understanding of employer standards in the area and adjust their curriculums accordingly.
Prospective students should also always verify the accreditation status of colleges and universities prior to enrolling. Accreditation is the best way to determine whether or not the program meets general and field-specific standards. While higher education institutions do not have to be accredited as this a voluntary procedure, most of the best schools work hard to maintain proper accreditation because it validates their curriculums. Schools without proper accreditation may not properly prepare graduates for employment and cannot provide access to federal financial aid.
There are two types of accreditation: regional and national. The primary difference between the two is how much education their professors possess. Regionally accredited colleges and universities are regarded higher because they require faculty members to have doctorate degrees, whereas nationally accredited institutions set their own standards. Notably, only regional accrediting agencies are overseen by the US Department of Education and the Council of Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), setting them even further apart from national accrediting bodies. Additionally, it’s important to realize that transferring credits earned at regionally accredited schools tends to be easier.
In addition to being accredited by national or regional agencies, academic departments can receive field-specific accreditation. The most prominent specialized accreditation organization for social work is the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Notably, however, SCWE is only responsible for developing program standards for bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Further Online Social Work Education
As previously mentioned, many students choose to pursue other types of social work education. There are, in fact, degree options available at every level: associate, bachelor’s, master’, and doctorate. The amount of education required will ultimately depend on the type of profession pursued.
Online Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work
While there are some entry-level positions related to social work available to associate degree graduates, professional social workers typically need, at minimum, a Bachelor of Science in Social Work. These programs provide students with a general overview of the field. Students may also select electives or concentrations to specialize learning in certain areas, such as addiction or young adults. Some of the most common career outcomes include mental health assistant, rehabilitation caseworkers, family service workers, and caseworkers.
The majority of bachelor degree programs in social work consist of 120 credit hours of coursework that take full-time students approximately four years to complete. Those with associate degrees awarded by regionally accredited institutions may be able to graduate in as few as two years, however. Curriculums vary, but most are comprised of both general education and major-specific classes. Students can anticipate learning about the legal and ethical standards in social work, case management, human behavior theory, psychology, and sociology.
Online Master’s Degree in Social Work
Social workers are commonly required to have master’s degrees in social work. Graduates have the knowledge, skills, and education credentials necessary to work in clinical settings. They are also much better prepared for any required licensing examinations. Other benefits of earning a master’s include higher salary potential and faster promotion prospects. While there are many positions available to graduates, some of the most common options include psychiatric social worker, hospital social worker, substance abuse and addiction counselor, gerontological social worker, and social justice advocate.
The majority of master’s degree programs in social work are comprised of between 30 to 60 credit hours of coursework that takes full-time students approximately two years to complete. Curriculums vary, but students can expect instruction that helps them hone their expertise in specific areas such as child development, public health, clinical, or geriatrics. In addition to classwork, practice interacting with individuals and groups during residencies is also common.
Online MBA in Social Work
A master’s in business administration (MBA) is one of the nation’s most popular graduate degrees. While not directly related to social work, choosing to earn an MBA can drastically increase employment opportunities, salary potential, marketability, advancement options, and job security. This degree is most appropriate for individuals interested in obtaining leadership and management positions.
Most master’s degrees in business administration range from 30 to 60 credit hours of coursework and take full-time students approximately two years to complete. Accelerated programs do exist and are made to require less time. Topics covered often relate more to business and finance, but the knowledge and skills gained can prove invaluable in almost any workplace.
Online PhD in Social Work
PhD and doctoral degrees in social work typically designed for current professionals in the field who wish to expand even further upon their knowledge and skills, or those who wish to move into research or academia. This level of education is most appropriate when preparing for positions in research, higher education instruction, or public policy advocacy.
Doctorate-level degrees in social work typically consist of between 90 and 120 credit hours and take full-time students four to seven years to complete. Students will be required to conduct extensive research prior to writing and defending dissertations in order to graduate.
Social Work Certifications
In addition to degrees in social work, students and professionals can pursue certifications in the field. These credentials demonstrate proficiency and expertise, making professionals more competitive when applying for jobs. In some cases, certifications may also lead to promotions and higher pay potential.
There are many certifications to choose from, with some being more appropriate for specialized professions than others. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) administers a wide variety of social work credentials.
Some prominent examples include:
- Academy of Certified Social Workers (ACSW)
- Certified Social Worker Cast Manager (C-SWCM)
- Qualified Clinical Social Worker (QCSW)
- Certified School Social Work Specialist (C-SSWS)
- Social Worker in Gerontology (SW-G)
- Certified Social Worker in Health Care (C-SWHC)
- Certified Hospice and Palliative Care Social Worker (CHP-SW)
- Military Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families – Social Worker (MVF-SW)
- Certified Children, Youth, and Family Social Worker (C-CYFSW)
It’s important to realize that certifications are different than licensure. All states require clinical social workers to be licensed. Some states also require non-clinical social workers to have a license or specific credential. Licensure requires a master’s degree, as well as a supervised clinical experience after graduation. In some cases, it’s also necessary to pass certain exams. As regulations vary by state, those interested in this profession should research information provided by their local licensing board.
Potential Careers for Social Work Associate Graduates
While social workers typically require bachelor’s or master’s degrees, those with associate degrees will still qualify for some related employment opportunities. Professionals in this field typically find work in clinics, nursing homes, government agencies, and schools.
While salaries and daily duties will vary, some of the most common professions available to graduates include:
- Patient Advocate
- Student Aide
- Rehabilitation Aide
- Counselor Assistant
- Case Manager
- Service Administrator
- Social Services Assistant
- Behavior Technician
- Intake Coordinator
Patient advocates help people being treated at medical facilities, answering questions and addressing concerns regarding care and the healthcare system as a whole. According to PayScale, patient advocates make an average base hourly rate of $17.48.
Rehabilitation aids provide assistance to physical therapists in order to enhance the patient experience. They often prepare, clean, and maintain the work area, in addition to performing various clerical duties. According to PayScale, rehabilitation aides make an average base hourly rate of $13.40.
Case managers assist individuals in a wide variety of situations, such as addiction recovery and impoverishment. They may also work with the elderly, ex-convicts, and/or people with severe illnesses. According to PayScale, case managers make an average base hourly rate of $18.77.
Behavioral Health Technician
Behavioral health technicians help licensed therapists and nurses treat people who need behavioral development and modification. They often design programs and treatments catered to specific client needs. According to PayScale, behavioral health technicians make an average base hourly rate of $15.27.
Intake coordinators manage the font desks of healthcare facilities. They often register and admit incoming patients, as well as make sure all required information is received and properly processed prior to appointments. According to PayScale, intake coordinators make an average base hourly rate of $17.30.
According to PayScale, the average base hourly rate for graduates with associate of arts (AA) degrees in social work is $15.27. This is comparable to the $15 average base hourly rate reported for individuals with associate degrees in human services.
It’s important to note that earning potential is likely to rise for professionals who pursue further education. Those with bachelor’s degrees, for example, have an average base salary of $59,000. This is higher than the median annual wage for all occupations of $45,760, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In fact, the median annual wage for all community and social services occupations was also higher in May 2021, at $48,410.
Earning potential is also often dependent upon location. Some states pay professionals in this field more than others. Prospects are best in California, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Washington, and Alaska. The states that have the lowest annual mean wage for community and social service occupations are South Carolina, West Virginia, Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Montana, and South Dakota.
Overall, the outlook for professionals pursuing employment in community and social service occupations is decent. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, employment for these workers is projected to grow by 12% from 2020 to 2030. This is faster than the national average for all professions and will result in about 346,900 new job openings nationwide. While this includes professions at every level, the increase will positively impact the availability of entry-level positions for associate degree holders as well.
The primary explanation for the anticipated job growth in this sector is mostly due to a continued need for counselors and social workers. This is particularly true for those specializing in drug abuse counseling and rehabilitation counseling.