When looking for the appropriate MSW program you need to first check the accreditation status of the program. Checking accreditation of a program is important because most employers will not hire a social worker who has graduated from a non-accredited program. Your graduate education is a huge investment in your future; you wouldn’t want to invest all of this money into a degree you can’t use! The accrediting body for social workers is the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). The Council for Higher Education Accreditation has named the CSWE the sole accrediting agency for social work in the U.S.
Advanced versus traditional standing tracks
When researching MSW programs you need to know the difference between advanced and traditional standing tracks. If you already have a BSW from a CSWE accredited program you will select a program with an advanced standing track where as students with undergraduate degrees in fields other than social work will do a traditional standing tracks.
Featured MSW Programs
- MS – Social and Community Services: Capella University
- MSW: University of Southern California – School of Social Work
- Master of Social Work – Crisis and Trauma: Walden University
Some criteria used in order to evaluate the programs were convenience (part time or online options available). A livability index was used to evaluate each city based on factors such as crime, employment, education, and weather. Opportunities offered to students was another criteria used. Ranking based on the US News & World Report was also used.
Tuition costs shown are based on a traditional standing track and full time enrollment. Some MSW programs have part time options which can be more expensive so only full time tuition rates were considered. Affordability was also based on the cost of living in the city the university is in. As most students already know, even if tuition is $5,000 less at one school if it’s in New York City that won’t matter as you’ll pay the difference in rent costs within a few months. Affordability was also based on the livability index of each city.
1. Indiana University – Indianapolis, IN
Indiana University does not have the lowest tuition rate on our list but at $7,789 it is pretty close. With an entire program cost of $37,500 Indiana University’s entire MSW program costs less than many programs cost for just one year. IU offers an entirely online option as well as on campus options for its MSW program. Indianapolis has a cost of living index of 74 (lower than the national average of 100). This is because the city has a higher crime rate than the rest of Indiana. Additionally, Indianapolis was rated one of the best places for businesses and careers by Forbes magazine.
IU has an “advanced generalist” theory behind their MSW program. This means that IU focuses their program on educating students who can work in all types of settings and with all types of people. The school of social work has a long established history and has been accredited since 1923. The degree that you will obtain as an online student will be the exact same degree you would obtain if you were on campus. There will be no difference in the diploma and you will be part of the IU community just like any other student. Indiana University guarantees its online students will have an opportunity to gain knowledge in any type of social work specialization. They have a choice of electives which help students gain specialized knowledge in their area of interest or in an area that relates to their place of residence.
Indiana University is ranked #26 on the US News & World Report. This is an extremely high rating for what an affordable degree IU offers. Other highly ranked programs have tuition rates averaging around $15-20,000. With Indiana University you are getting an education from an extremely reputable and well known University at a bargain price. If affordable education is what you’re looking for you will find it at IU. With both online and on campus options offered for convenience, with one of the lowest tuition costs in the country, Indiana University makes it to the top of our list.
2. University of North Carolina – Charlotte, NC
UNC’s tuition rate is extremely low compared to other programs in the country. Additionally, UNC offers excellent tuition remission packages to students employed by the university.
UNC offers a full-time curriculum plan which is two years and also an extended study program which is three years. The benefit to the extended study program is students take 6 credits their first year, nine their second and thirteen their last year. This allows students to slowly easy into the transition of graduate school. With less credits students are able to work a part time job for the first two years of the program. Also, if a student decides to leave the program after one semester they will only have to pay for the six credits. This is somewhat of a safety net to allow students to try out the program or alleviate pressure.
UNC allows students four elective courses during the course of their MSW program. Students meet with their advisors and select electives that interest them and relate to a vulnerable population. This is different from most graduate programs which have a set curriculum and electives. Coming from an environment like undergraduate education where you have so many elective
choices it is nice to have some of that freedom in graduate school.
UNC Charlotte’s MSW program prepares students to work with vulnerable populations and utilize the necessary interventions to these populations to improve their lives. The program takes a holistic approach as they say it is an approach “that attempts to bridge divides between individually-focused and community-focused practice.”
Charlotte has a livability rating of 80. The weather is beautiful year round and the cost of living is low. Charlotte was rated #12 best places for businesses and careers by Forbes. The city is thriving and is considered to be the second largest banking center in the US next to New York City. Banking has brought a lot of money and jobs to the city, and the cost of living in Charlotte remains low. Like any big city however, there is crime and Charlotte has a crime rate 77% higher than the rest of North Carolina.
3. University of Georgia – Athens, GA
Rated #37 by U.S. News & World Report
University of Georgia-Athens provides an extremely affordable education despite its high ranking. Typically the higher the ranking of the school the more expensive the tuition is but this is not at all the case with UGA. Athens has a livability rating of 79. Cost of living is excellent but unemployment is somewhat high. The town of Athens is just over 110,000. It has a charming downtown area and beautiful botanical gardens to visit during study breaks.
In addition to beauty, UGA offers the freedom to choose concentration area upon acceptance. Students can choose clinical practice, where courses prepare you to work with clients. Or you can choose community empowerment and program development where courses have a broader focus and you learn to work in community advocacy or administrative type positions. Also, with UGA there are many more program options than there are with any other programs on the list. There is a traditional full-time program, part time program, advanced standing program, duel degree, and certificate programs.
The duel degree options at UGA are quite unique. There is a MSW-JD which combines the MSW with a law degree. With this degree you can provide legal interventions to clients while also providing social work services. The MSW-MPH is a MSW combined with a master’s in public health. This is an excellent degree since careers in public heath social work are expected to rise over 22%. These dual degree programs are lengthier than MSW programs alone, for obvious reasons. The university also offers many certificate programs. The certificate programs offered include disability studies, gerontology, global health management of nonprofit organizations, and marriage and family therapy.
4. University of Washington School of Social Work – Seattle, WA
Although the tuition rate is much higher than other programs mentioned, University of Washington is worth the extra cost. It is among the least expensive of the top MSW programs rated by U.S. News & World Report. UW offers a traditional MSW day program, advanced standing program, and extended degree program. It also offers a MSW/MPH and MSW/MPA (masters of public administration). The school also has early consideration, regular consideration, and space available online applications.
Students at UW get exposure to many different areas of social work such as administration, multi-ethnic practice, community practice, anti-poverty programs, elder services, policy practice, child and family services, and health and mental health services.
The MSW program has a foundational curriculum goal for students to learn general practice knowledge and skills to understand and solve the complex problems that arise in social work. The program has an advanced curriculum goal of preparing students for advanced practice in a way that creates social work leadership, commitment to a just and diverse society, commitment to public service, and effective social interventions.
The campus is located in the city of Seattle which was rated #13 in education by Forbes. It has a livability score of 75. Seattle has high graduation rates, low unemployment and an incredibly high cost of living and also a high rate of crime.
5. University of Michigan School of Social Work – Ann Arbor, MI
The University of Michigan has the highest tuition rate on the list but if this number fits within your budget this is the school to go to. Comparable to the other school named #1 (Washington University) it is an incredibly affordable education. Washington University’s per semester tuition is almost as high as UofM’s yearly tuition.
There is a reason that UofM is ranked #1, and that is because of its broad range of specializations which outshine all of the competition. UofM offers students opportunities to complete field work placements globally. This is an amazing opportunity that very few MSW programs in the country offer. For students looking for global opportunities in an advanced standing program there is a Peace Corps program which allows students to incorporate 27 months of volunteering in the Peace Corps to their MSW degree.
A degree UofM will be highly recognized and respected in the field and by employers. It is easier to find a job with a degree from the top university because employers want top employees. You are paying more for tuition but it is an affordable education for a graduate level program and is almost half the cost of some lower ranking programs.
The University of Michigan is one of the safest campus’ on the list. The violent crime rate is 52% lower than Michigan. It is a beautiful campus with historic buildings and lots of award winning restaurants and coffee shops in walking distance of campus. Winters in Ann Arbor are very brutal but in order to attend the top program in the country many students decide to bear the cold! Ann Arbor was rated #23 in job growth and #5 in education. Health care is one of the major industries in Ann Arbor so students considering becoming a healthcare social worker should consider this when looking at UofM.
6. University of Missouri – Columbia, MO
The MSW program at the University of Missouri-Columbia is focused on clinical practice and policy and planning and administration. In addition to the traditional MSW, they offer a MSW/MPH degree for those who are looking to work as a health agency administrator, health coach, team leader, patient advocate, care manager, or health policy advocate.
For regular standing students (those with a degree other than social work), the program is 60 credit hours. It will be two years of full time study with summers off. The advanced standing program is only 39 credit hours. You must have obtained a BSW degree from a CSWE accredited school within the last seven years in order to receive the 21 credit hour waiver for the MSW. UM already provides a very affordable education, but with the advanced standing program the credit hours are reduced so the degree is that much more affordable.
The University of Missouri is known for having a very active student body with an extensive amount of student run organizations and an exciting student life. MSW students at UM are very active within the community and there are constantly activities to volunteer for, and events to attend which benefit the community. You can check out their Facebook page (it is public so even if you don’t have Facebook you can still access it) to really see just how involved current MSW students are https://www.facebook.com/MizzouSocialWork.
The city of Columbia has a livability score of 80. It has high graduation rates, a stable housing market, a low cost of living, and lots of amenities (such as delicious restaurants, parks, movies etc.). Columbia is a great college town to call home.
7. Georgia State University – Atlanta, GA
Georgia State University’s MSW program is based solely on community partnerships. The program hopes to teach students about social issues in urban areas through a social and economic justice standpoint. Graduates from the program have moved on to work in all kinds of jobs including non- profit management, health care, and public welfare services. GSU’s curriculum encourages students to strengthen communities as well as build them. It teaches students to be critical thinkers and excellent communicators.
GSU’s location in downtown Atlanta awards endless opportunities for social work as the school itself is set in an urban area. Georgia State is the 2nd least expensive program on the list, following UNC Charlotte. With a livability score of 74 Atlanta is a great city with lots of things to do. Atlanta has a stable housing market and beautiful weather all year round. However, Atlanta has a violent crime rate 234% higher than the rest of the state of Georgia. With a median household income 6% lower than Georgia but a cost of living 12% higher than Georgia this leaves many people in Atlanta with jobs that do not make enough money for the city they live in and Atlanta is a very expensive city to live in. That being said, low tuition rates at GSU may make for a little more room in the budget for housing.
8. University of Wisconsin – Green Bay,WI
The MSW program at UW offers full time and part time options for students. Full time options can be completed in 2 years or 1 year for those who already have a BSW. Part time options can be completed in four years or two years for those who already have a BSW. The University of Wisconsin provides great resources for students looking to volunteer. A list of volunteer positions is frequently updated on the school’s website. Many students are very active in the social work club at Green Bay. Joining clubs like this is a great opportunity to add to your resume and network with colleagues.
UW offers a child welfare stipend to students who have an interest and commitment to working in child welfare. It also offers Licensed Clinical Social Worker credentialing to students who are looking to continue their education past their MSW. The school offers a social work club to students and the club is very active in the community.
Green Bay has a livability rating of 75. The city does experience a crime rate 22% higher than Wisconsin, has a low median household income and pretty rough winters. However the cost of living is fantastic at 8% lower than Wisconsin.
The University of Iowa offers two MSW programs, one is in Iowa City and the other Des Moines. The Iowa City program concentrates on family centered or integrated practice. The focus of this program is family systems and making social change in the U.S. and Internationally. If you earned a bachelor’s degree in social work you only need to complete 48 semester hours. If you earned a BA in a field other than social work you complete 60 credit hours.
University of Iowa’s program in Des Moines has a different focus than the program in Iowa City. The Iowa City program offers students opportunities in policy advocacy and students are able to access state government and learn about state offered services. Because Des Moines is such a large city students have a wide variety of fieldwork placements which help students learn which area they’d like to go into.
Iowa City has a livability score of 81. The cost of living in Iowa City is low and there is a lot to do in the city but it does have some cold winters so weather is one downside to living in Iowa City. Iowa city was rated #6 in education. This is almost as high as Ann Arbor, our city with the U.S. World & Report #1 MSW program. Des Moines Iowa was rated #2 on a Forbes list of best places for businesses and careers. It is also #35 in job growth making it a great city to graduate in!
UT Knoxville is one of the highest ranked online MSW programs. The same professors who would teach the MSW program on campus teach the online program so you are assured a good quality education and faculty. UT even offers three courses of study for online students making it that much more flexible with your schedule. The first option is the online advance standing program which is for students with a BSW and can be completed in 12 months full time or 18-24 months part time. The online full time program is a typical 60 credit program which takes two years to complete. The online extended study program is a part time program where you take six credit hours per semester for three to four years.
For those who are not able to attend school at an on campus setting UT Knoxville is one of your best options. It is an extremely affordable degree considering its high ranking on U.S. News & World Report.