In the field of social work, you can do a lot with a bachelor’s degree, like attaining an entry-level job as a mental health assistant or a caseworker. If you aspire to become a licensed clinical social worker, though, you will need to earn an advanced degree eventually.
Why not begin your college selection now? With our list of the top 15 master’s degree programs, you compare the schools with the best reputations in the field of social work. After all, pursuing a graduate degree is an investment in your future. Shouldn’t your education come from one of the top-ranked social work schools in the United States?
1. University of Chicago
The University of Chicago is the top graduate-level social work program in the nation, according to the Social Psychology Network and scores from the Princeton Review’s Gourman Report. The private university also earned the distinction of being tied for third place on U.S. News & World Report’s list of the best graduate social work schools. The publication also ranked the school in a fourth-place tie among the best national universities and the best colleges for veterans as well as 15th among the best value schools. Don’t let the tuition cost scare you away. The School of Social Service Administration, which houses the social work program, offers generous scholarships – of which 95 percent of graduate students enrolled recently received in some form of aid.
The School of Social Service Administration dates back to 1908, which makes it “one of the first schools of social work in the United States.” Today, students at the SSA earn a Master of Arts in Social Work degree, which is equivalent to the more common Master of Social Work degree but emphasizes a combination of interdisciplinary research, studies in social work theory and hands-on social work experience.
The program’s core courses include human behavior in the social environment and social intervention in research, direct practice and programs and policies. Students can choose either a clinical concentration or a social administration concentration, though all students have the opportunity to develop foundational knowledge in both subjects. Field experience, attained by working with one of the school’s more than 600 partner agencies, plays an important part in students’ education during both years of full-time study.
Location: Chicago, Illinois
Enrollment: 9,588 graduate students
2. University of Michigan—Ann Arbor
Tied for first place on U.S. News & World Report’s list of the best graduate programs in social work is the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor. The school’s high score on the Princeton Review’s Gourman Report also led the Social Psychology Network to list it among the top three programs in the nation. The school has also earned a spot on additional U.S. News & World Report lists such as:
- Top public schools
- Most innovative schools
- Best colleges for veterans
- National universities
During their studies, MSW students at the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor choose both a practice method concentration and a practice area minor. Practice methods include community organization, interpersonal practice, management of human services and social policy and evaluation. Practice area minors include aging in families and society, children and youth in families and society, community and social systems, health and mental health.
Students at the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor’s School of Social Work have a number of program length options to choose from. Students with prior social work education can earn their Master of Social Work degree in just 12 months if they qualify for Advanced Standing. Students who attend part-time or need a little extra time to earn their degree can take advantage of the extended degree path or the fifth-term option. The program also allows for enough flexibility that students can incorporate service with the Peace Corps into their education, if interested.
Location: Ann Arbor, Michigan
Enrollment: 15,339 graduate students
Tuition: $24,766 (in-state); $39,692 (out-of-state)
3. Washington University in St. Louis
Also tied for first on U.S. News & World Report’s list is Washington University in St. Louis. The private school, which dates back to 1853, has also landed high spots on the U.S. News list of best value schools and top national universities. Its graduate social work program also ranks among the top in the nation according to the Social Psychology Network, based on scores from Princeton Review’s Gourman Report.
Students enrolled in the Master of Social Work program at the university’s George Warren Brown School of Social Work have the opportunity to personalize their education. All students take graduate-level foundation courses in human behavior, social environment, social welfare policies and services, social justice, research methods and social work practice with individuals, groups and communities. They also take concentration courses which focus on developing their knowledge of social policy, practice methods, evaluation, leadership and social work theory and problems within the context of one of eight concentrations:
- American Indian and Alaska Native
- Children, Youth and Families
- Mental Health
- Older Adults and Aging Societies
- Social and Economic Development
- Violence and Injury Prevention
Students also have flexible elective credits they can use to pursue specializations such as policy, management, research, system dynamics, sexual health and education and social entrepreneurship. Of course, they also gain real-life experience in social work through field education requirements, including 360-hour Foundation Practicum in their first year of study and a 600-hour Concentration Practicum in their second year.
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Enrollment: 6,959 graduate students
Tuition: $ 39,572
4. University of Washington
Tied for third place on U.S. New & World Report’s list of the best of the best graduate social work programs is the University of Washington in Seattle. The school also place in the top 30 programs on the Social Psychology Network’s list, based on the Princeton Review’s Gourman Report, and its undergraduate social work program is also among the best in the nation. U.S. News also recognized the University of Washington among the top public schools and national universities.
Students at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work can choose from three paths to earn their Master of Social Work. The standard day program takes two years to complete, but students can finish in one year if they qualify for Advanced Standing, or they can stretch it out to three years if they can only commit to studying part-time.
Full-time students spend their first year taking foundation courses two to four days per week in subjects like the history, ethics and values of the social work profession. They learn the basics of social work practice with individuals, families and communities, and they integrate those lessons into real-world practice through field education opportunities. Second-year MSW students take advanced social work courses one to two days per week, spending most of their week in field placements. They can pursue concentrations in administration and policy practice, community-centered integrative practice, multigenerational practice, health practice, mental health practice and children, youth and families practice.
Location: Seattle, Washington
Enrollment: 12,336 graduate students
Tuition: $17,130 (in-state); $29,427 (out-of-state)
5. Columbia University
IMAGE SOURCE: Pixabay, public domain
Ranked second in the nation by the Social Psychology Network based on the Princeton Review’s Gourman Report and tied for fifth place on U.S. News & World Report’s list is Columbia University. The school, which is also tied for fourth place on U.S. News & World Report’s list of national universities, offers multiple options for students pursuing its Master of Science in Social Work degree. In addition to the two-year full-time program and the 10-month Advanced Standing program, students can enroll part-time through the Reduced Residency Program or the Extended Program, or take advantage of the online studies option.
First-year students begin their graduate education by studying social welfare policy, human behavior, direct practice and research. After completing their foundation courses, they delve deeper into one of four concentrations or “methods,” such as Policy Practice, Advanced Clinical Social Work Practice, Advanced Generalist Practice and Programming or Social Enterprise Administration.
In addition to choosing a method, students also choose from one of seven fields of practice:
- Contemporary Social Issues
- Family, Youth and Children’s Services
- Health, Mental Health and Disabilities
- International Social Welfare and Services to Immigrants and Refugees
- School-based and School-linked Services
- World of Work
Throughout their studies, students also complete 1,200 hours of field instruction. Field education in their second year of study focuses on their chosen field of practice, allowing students to gain valuable experience in their field of interest.
Location: New York, New York
Enrollment: 14,731 graduate students
6. University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill
Another top school to offer online graduate study options for aspiring social workers is the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill. Tied for fifth place on U.S. News & World Report’s graduate social work list, the school is also the nation’s first state university, established in 1789.
Students enrolled in the UNC School of Social Work’s graduate program earn their Master of Social Work degree in one (for Advanced Standing), two (for regular full-time) or three (for distance learning) years. Students begin their studies with foundation courses in social welfare policy and services, social work practice, social research and human behavior in the social environment. Then they move on to an advanced curriculum, which includes additional studies in human behavior, practice skills, research and complex social policies. MSW students choose from concentrations in direct practice, self-directed studies and community, management and policy practice.
For students with interdisciplinary career ambitions, UNC also offers dual degree options. In four years of study, students can earn both their MSW and a graduate degree in public health, public administration, law or divinity.
Location: Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Enrollment: 8,211 graduate students
Tuition: $9,142 (in-state); $26,354 (out-of-state)
7. University of California—Berkeley
Since 1944, the UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare has earned the respect of national and international publications – and high ratings to prove it. U.S. News & World Report ranked the school’s graduate social work program tied for seventh place nationwide and its social sciences program 13th globally. The Social Psychology Network ranked the school 12th among America’s graduate social work programs, citing data from the Princeton Review’s Gourman Report. The school’s campus-based undergraduate social work program, too, has an excellent reputation and is ranked the best in the country.
UC Berkeley’s Master of Social Welfare (MSW) is a research-based program of study that prepares graduates for careers as Licensed Clinical Social Workers. In fact, the school prides itself on having “the highest pass rate of the licensing exam in the state.” The program is intended to take two years of full-time study to complete, and no part-time option is available at this time.
In addition to developing generalist skills and knowledge in the field of social work, UC Berkeley students can specialize in their choice of five concentrations:
- Direct Practice in Aging
- Direct Practice in Child and Family Services
- Direct Practice in Community Mental Health
- Direct Practice in Health
- Management and Planning
Field education is a crucial part of any graduate program in social work. UC Berkeley students are exposed to extensive supervised practice encounters in both a generalist and advanced capacity, gaining hands-on experience during both years of their master’s-level studies. The placement process is highly personal, offering students both opportunities that are well-rounded and that align with their own career goals. First year graduate students spend at least 400 hours in the field, while second-year students commit more than 720 hours to supervised practice. Most of the more than 11,000 graduates have gone on to find fulfilling careers in settings like schools, public programs and community agencies.
Location: Berkeley, California
Enrollment: 10,455 graduate students
Tuition: $21,556 (in-state); $33,800 (out-of-state)
8. University of Texas at Austin
At both the undergraduate and graduate levels, the University of Texas—Austin has earned rankings among the top 10 for its social work programs. Students in the Master of Science in Social Work (MSSW) program, tied for seventh place on U.S. News & World Report’s list of the best graduate social work schools, enjoy options when it comes to their concentrations and curricula. The school has also achieved recognition for its graduate sociology and social sciences programs and earned coveted spots on rankings of the top public schools and best national universities.
MSSW students at the University of Texas—Austin take a foundation curriculum that prepares them for careers as generalist practitioners. Subjects of study include social justice, human behavior in the social environment, social policy analysis, social problems, social work research methods, social work practice and group and organization dynamics. Students can choose to pursue a concentration in either clinical social work or administration and policy practice. In either concentration, they also complete more than 1,000 hours of fieldwork, in which they work with individuals and groups as well as handling administrative projects.
The program length ranges from one year, for full-time students who have already earned a bachelor’s degree in social work that included fieldwork, to three and a half years, for part-time students without a social work background.
Location: Austin, Texas
Enrollment: 11,331graduate students
Tuition: $6,391 (in-state); $12,261 (out-of-state)
9. Case Western Reserve University
IMAGE SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons, public domain
Sixth on the Social Psychology Network’s list, based on scores from the Princeton Review’s Gourman Report, and ninth on U.S. News & World Report’s graduate social work rankings is Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. The private research institution dates back to 1826 and has also earned high rankings on U.S. News & World Report’s lists of the best value schools, best colleges for veterans and national universities.
Students at CWRU’s Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences earn a Master of Science in Social Administration degree. The MSSA is equivalent to an MSW and has been accredited by the Council on Social Work Education since 1919. Its long history makes it “the first professional degree program in social work at a university in the United States.” Like an MSW degree, the MSSA prepares students for professional social work practice and licensure. CWRU offers its MSSA degree program in full-time, part-time, Intensive Weekend and 100 percent online formats, putting a graduate education in reach even for students with hectic schedules.
MSSA students can choose from concentrations in Community Practice for Social Change, which focuses on broad scale social changes, or in direct practice. Those who choose direct practice further specialize in health, mental health for children and adolescents or for adults, aging, alcohol and other drug abuse or children, youth and families. Like social work students in other graduate programs, CWRU students complete field work as part of their curriculum. However, field work for MSSA students is paid at CWRU, making Mandel School “the only social work school in the U.S. that provides ALL on-campus, full-time MSSA students with a stipend for their required work in the field.”
Location: Cleveland, Ohio
Enrollment: 5,860 graduate students
10. University of Pittsburgh
Ranked eighth in the nation on the Social Psychology Network’s list based on Gourman Report scores and tied for 11th place on U.S. News & World Report’s list is the University of Pittsburgh. The university’s other achievements include placements on U.S. News & World Report’s lists of the top public schools, the best colleges for veterans and national universities.
The University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work offers its Master of Social Work degree at its Bradford and Johnstown campuses as well as its main campus near downtown Pittsburgh. At every campus, students complete both foundational and advanced coursework as well as 1,080 hours of field experience. For students who aren’t content studying just one subject at the graduate level, the University of Pittsburgh offers dual and joint degree programs that award an MSW along with one of the following:
- Master of Divinity
- Master of Public Administration
- Master of Public and International Affairs
- Master of International Development
- Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Social Work
- Master of Public Health
- Juris Doctorate
- Certificate in Secondary Education
- Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Social Work
Upon admission, incoming MSW students choose whether to focus on the Community, Organization, and Social Action concentration or the Direct Practice with Individuals, Families, and Small Groups concentration. Declaring a skills concentration early on allows students to dig deeper into subject matter such as applying research to direct practice, practice with various populations, factors that influence social work practice and advanced theories and strategies in social work practice.
Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Enrollment: 10,034 graduate students
Tuition: $17,292 (in-state); $28,058 (out-of-state)
11. University of Southern California
Tied for 11th place on U.S. News & World Report’s list and ranked 15th by the Social Psychology Network based on its Gourman Report scores is the University of Southern California. The private school’s history dates back to 1880, but the USC School of Social Work prides itself on offering a “21st-century curriculum” that includes studies in today’s social issues and ideas.
Students in the Master of Social Work program can take classes at the USC’s Los Angeles, West L.A. or Irvine campuses. They also have the option of online learning, featuring small class sizes. The School of Social Work is home to three departments:
- Children, Youth and Families
- Adults and Healthy Aging
- Community, Organization and Business Innovation
Besides choosing a department in which to focus their studies, USC social work students can also enroll in dual degree programs in subjects like law, business, public health, public administration, planning, gerontology and Jewish nonprofit management. Students who want to travel the world are in luck, since they also have the option of integrating international study opportunities into their curriculum. Whether they go overseas or stay close to campus, students will gain professional training and experience through field internships in the practice areas that most interest them.
Location: Los Angeles, California
Enrollment: 24,000 graduate students
12. University of Wisconsin—Madison
If you already have a full-time job, extensive family obligations or other time-consuming responsibilities, you might not be able to commit to studying full-time. Fortunately, you can still earn a graduate degree in social work from a top-rated college when you choose a school like the University of Wisconsin—Madison. The university’s School of Social Work offers both full-time and part-time Master of Social Work programs so students can learn at a pace that’s right for them.
Full-time MSW students devote their first year of the program to studying generalist practice. They take coursework in the field of social work, social policy, human behavior, research methods, psychopathology, social work with ethnic and racial groups and generalist practice with individuals, groups and communities. They also engage in seminars that help them apply and integrate the lessons they learn in class with the experiences they gain in the field during the 512 hours they spend in supervised field placement.
In their second year, students have the opportunity to specialize in health, mental health, aging or child, youth and family practice. They will delve deeper into their specialization of choice and into developing their social work skills through advanced studies. To graduate, students must complete 640 hours of field placement work.
Part-time students have an extended timeframe to complete the same course requirements as their full-time peers, as well as weekend class times and a choice of two campus locations. They may also be able to shorten the time it takes to earn their degree through exemption exams and Advanced Standing status, and they may be able to use their current place of employment to satisfy field placement requirements.
Both the University of Wisconsin—Madison as a whole and its MSW program specifically have earned national recognition. The college tied for 11th place among the top public schools and 41st among the best national universities, as ranked by U.S. News & World Report. The publication also ranked the school’s MSW program tied for 11th place among graduate social work degree programs, while the Social Psychology Network listed the program fourth in the nation.
Location: Madison, Wisconsin
Enrollment: 9,002 graduate students
Tuition: $11,870 (in-state); $25,196 (out-of-state)
13. Boston College
Students at the Boston College School of Social Work have plenty of options that allow them to earn a Master of Social Work degree that prepares them for their goals and the fulfilling social work practice career of their dreams. First, they decide whether to specialize in clinical or macro social work. They also choose a concentration, which will dictate the coursework they take in the classroom and the real-world experiences they gain through advanced field placement opportunities. Concentrations include:
- Children, Youth & Families
- Global Practice
- Health & Mental Health
- Older Adults & Families
Since 2013, the School of Social Work has also offered students the chance to earn certificates in a subject area of choice as well as declaring a concentration and specialization.
- Child Welfare
- Latino Leadership
- Neuroscience & Social Work
- Policy & Community Organizing
- Refugees & Immigrants
- School Social Work
- Veterans & Military Families
In addition to its appearance high on U.S. News & World Report’s list of the best graduate social work programs, Boston College has also landed spots on the publication’s lists of the best value schools, best colleges for veterans and national universities. The private university remains affiliated with the Roman Catholic Jesuit religion that founded it in 1863. Both part-time and full-time study options exist.
Location: Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts
Enrollment: 4,400 graduate students
14. Fordham University
You want more than classroom lectures from your graduate school program. You’ll get plenty of hands-on experience at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Social Service. The private university’s Master of Social Work (MSW) degree program was ranked 11th in the nation by U.S. News & World Report and earned accreditation from the Council on Social Work Education. As part of their studies, Fordham MSW students will complete 1,200 hours of supervised fieldwork.
Students in Fordham’s MSW program start their graduate education with foundational courses in subjects such as social policy, human behavior in social environments, human rights and social justice, generalist practice and research. They can also choose from concentrations that include clinical practice, research and leadership. After completing their foundational courses, students take advanced classes and field experience roles that align with their degree concentrations.
Besides high rankings and extensive field experience opportunities, Fordham University offers study options that provide flexibility. The school’s Lincoln Center, Long Island and Westchester campuses all offer MSW courses. Students can also pursue a degree through Fordham’s online and hybrid programs. The school also features several plans of study, including:
- A standard two-year program
- An extended three- to four-year program for part-time students
- An advanced standing/transfer program for students who have already completed part of their field experience requirements
- A program designed for experienced social service practitioners.
For students interested in multiple degree paths at the graduate level, the school offers joint degree options that allow for the opportunity to earn their MSW concurrently with a degree in public health, divinity, psychotherapy or law.
Location: New York, New York
Enrollment: 6,431 graduate students
15. Virginia Commonwealth University
Rounding out our list of the top Master of Social Work programs in the United States is a public institution with a long history of excellence and plenty of program format options to make a graduate education attainable. Students at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Social Work can choose from four different program formats to earn the degree they need at the pace that works for them:
- A one-year, three-semester campus-based program for full-time students who enroll with Advanced Standing after recently earning a Bachelor of Social Work degree
- A two-year, full-time campus-based program for students enrolled with regular standing
- A three- to four-year campus-based program for part-time students enrolled with regular standing
- A four-year hybrid distance learning MSW program that combines online and on-campus instruction
The school also offers dual degree/certificate options that allows students to earn a second graduate degree or certificate in a subject like law, public health, divinity, aging studies, nonprofit management, school social work practice or gender violence intervention.
Students in Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Social Work spend their first year studying foundation courses before choosing a concentration and beginning specialized courses in either clinical practice or administration, planning and policy practice. They also gain extensive hands-on social work practice experience through supervised field education opportunities working with one of VCU’s more than 500 community partners.
Besides being tied for 11th place on its list of the best graduate social work programs, Virginia Commonwealth University also ranks among U.S. News & World Report’s lists of the top public schools and national universities. The School of Social Work is preparing to celebrate a major milestone – its 100th anniversary, coming up in 2017.
Location: Richmond, Virginia
Enrollment: 5,451 graduate students (417 in the MSW program)
Tuition: $12,759 (in-state); $24,607 (out-of-state)
Editor’s Note: This list is based on a combination of rankings of graduate degree programs in social work from publications such as the Social Psychology Network, which is itself based on scores from the Princeton Review’s Gourman Report, and from U.S. News & World Report. Additional information on individual schools’ curriculum, history, enrollment and tuition rates were obtained from these school’s official websites.