Associate’s degrees awarded by junior and community colleges typically require two years, or around 60 undergraduate college credits, to complete. That’s half the time it takes to earn a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college, and community college students often spend less than half the tuition costs. While it sounds good to decrease the time and expense of earning a degree so sharply, an associate’s degree isn’t the right option for every aspiring social worker, and on its own, it might not qualify you for the jobs you want. Students should know before they apply what coursework an associate’s degree in social work will cover, what careers will be open to them with this degree and what more they must do if they want to become a social worker.
Associate’s Degrees in Social Work and Human Services
A number of community colleges offer face-to-face and online associate’s degree programs in social work, but there’s a catch. The Council for Social Work Education (CSWE) doesn’t accredit associate’s degrees, only degrees at the baccalaureate level and above.
Generally, this doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker. Much of what students cover in an associate’s degree program is general education coursework that equips them with a college-level foundation in math, science, communication and the arts and humanities. While an associate’s degree program doesn’t cover enough coursework in social work to meet the standards set by the CSWE, it can prepare students for four-year programs that are accredited. At many schools, the associate’s-level programs offered for aspiring social workers aren’t called social work programs at all, but instead, degrees in human services or social services.
The major coursework you take in an associate’s degree program in social work, human services or a related field of study is typically limited to foundational classes. An introductory course in social work and human services will likely kick off your core curriculum, followed by studies in social welfare policy and human behavior in the social environment. Students may also take introductory psychology and sociology courses as well as classes that cover diversity and introductory counseling skills.
For the jobs you would be likely to pursue with a two-year degree in social work, an employer wouldn’t expect you to have a CSWE-accredited degree.
Job Opportunities With a Two-Year Social Work Degree
To become a social worker, you must have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Clinical social workers need a master’s degree. Instead of qualifying you for these positions, a two-year degree in social work primarily prepares you for roles as social and human service assistants. With job titles that include addictions counselor assistant, family service assistant and case work aide, social and human service workers have goals that align with that of social workers, but they work under their supervision and direction. For some social and human service assistants, it can be frustrating to feel that they aren’t able to do more when it comes to helping people in need.
Jobs in social and human service assistance are growing rapidly, with the BLS expecting jobs to increase by 16 percent over a decade, but they don’t pay well. The median salary for social and human service assistants is just $33,750 per year.
Becoming a Social Worker With an Associate’s Degree
Just because you need more than an associate’s degree to hold the job title of social worker doesn’t mean that pursuing a two-year degree is a bad idea. In fact, choosing this route can save you money, since community colleges are typically cheaper than four-year colleges and universities, and it won’t add to the time it takes to finish your BSW. There are a number of accredited degree completion programs that allow students to easily transfer their prior college credits, including an associate’s degree, into a four-year program. If you start by spending two years earning an associate’s degree, qualifying yourself for these entry-level social service roles, you can complete the remainder of your baccalaureate degree in an additional two years and have some relevant part-time work experience to accompany it.
The College Board reported an average cost of just $3,660 tuition and fees at two-year public colleges, compared to $10,230 at four-year public schools and $35,830 at four-year private nonprofit colleges.