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Complete Guide to Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) Degrees

Earning a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) can open the door for you to have a positive impact in your community. While most BSW graduates go on to pursue a Master of Social Work (MSW), the BSW alone can lead to job opportunities in areas such as clinical social work, community engagement and non-profit work, advocacy, and organizing. In all these fields, you may have a substantial impact in your community by helping underserved and historically underresourced populations.

This guide will help you learn more about BSW degrees, including how long it takes to earn the degree, what career opportunities you could pursue, and why the programs are worth your time.

BSW Degree at at Glance

  • In 2016, 20,348 BSW degrees were awarded.
  • Over 90% of students with bachelor’s degrees in social work advanced to MSW programs or had plans to do so.
  • Of the BSW grads going into jobs, 83% found positions where their degree was relevant, although not always required.
  • 77% of BSW grads got jobs working directly with individuals or families.
  • 92% of BSW grads said they would recommend getting this degree to others.

Source: Nationwide Survey of 2017 Social Work Graduates

What Is a Bachelor of Social Work Degree?

A BSW prepares you to enter a career in social work or related fields or to continue your education. While most BSW graduates go on to earn an MSW, the skills you gain in your bachelor’s program can lead to entry-level positions in the field.

A BSW, sometimes called a Bachelor of Arts in Social Work (BASW) or a Bachelor of Science in Social Work (BSSW), provides a foundation in the skills and knowledge necessary to practice social work or work in the fields of social services, social welfare, or other related careers.

While each program varies, here are a few common objectives achieved through a bachelor’s in social work degree:

  • Gain a strong foundation in principles and code of ethics in the social work profession.
  • Develop the skills for successful social work practice, such as case management and client advocacy.
  • Understand and think critically about systems and structures that make up the social services and social welfare system.
  • Develop a critical awareness of social justice issues and social policies and how they affect communities.
  • Recognize a social worker’s (or related professional’s) role in advocacy and policy engagement.
  • Develop a foundation in strong research skills related to social work.
  • Gain knowledge and skills in counseling and psychology as it relates to the social work profession.
  • Provide the space for you to develop confidence and empathy to practice social work successfully and ethically.

What You Can Do With a BSW Degree

The skills and knowledge you gain through a bachelor’s in social work can provide you with an array of career options. While some career paths require a master’s degree, the preparation you receive through your bachelor’s degree can be applied to a variety of jobs.

You may have the opportunity to work directly in social work with a BSW, but a social work degree also helps you develop skills and knowledge that transfer to many professions. Through your degree, you’re likely to gain insights into working in social services, develop the interpersonal skills necessary to work with individuals and families, and build a greater understanding of a community’s social issues. These skills are useful in careers in public health, mental health, community engagement, advocacy, policy, and criminal justice.

Here are a few careers your BSW might prepare you for:

Child and Family Social Worker
These social workers connect families to community resources and social services. Additionally, child and family social workers help ensure children are in safe home environments.

Community Health Worker
In the field of public health, community health workers are essential to bringing public health education and awareness to the community through direct outreach, advocacy, and informal counseling.

Criminal Justice Case Manager
Case managers help individuals as they re-enter society after incarceration. They ensure clients are in safe and affordable housing, have the social connections necessary to thrive, and can secure and maintain work.

Discharge Planner
As patients leave a hospital or a clinic, a discharge planner works to create a plan that ensures their long-term health needs are met.

Family Support Worker
Working on behalf of governmental and social services agencies, family support workers develop relationships with families to help them navigate difficult situations. This could involve assisting with social service assistance applications or guiding them through complex everyday processes, such as personal and financial paperwork.

Mental Health Case Manager
In coordination with a mental health care team, a case manager works directly with patients to oversee their care, including providing baseline assessments and evaluations, managing their files, creating patient plans, and helping to resolve crises.

School Social Worker
A school social worker works in a school setting to help students navigate behavioral and academic challenges and mental health concerns and provide academic and classroom support to students, teachers, and parents.

Social and Community Service Manager
This role serves as a liaison between the community and the non-profit, for-profit, or government agencies that serve an area. You may help identify critical programs and services, ensure the need for those programs, and coordinate and supervise programs.

Social Work Licensure After Your BSW

Social work licenses are governed at the state level, and each state has its own educational and supervised hours requirements for different licenses. Some states grant social work licenses to BSW graduates who also fulfill other requirements. These requirements may include  passing the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) exam at the bachelor’s level, having a certain amount of post-degree supervised experience, completing additional trainings in specific topics (which may have been included in the curriculum of your BSW program), and payment of an application fee. The types of licenses available at the bachelor’s level vary by state and can include Licensed Bachelor of Social Work (LBSW), Licensed Social Worker Associate (LSWA), or Licensed Social Worker (LSW). There are generally state-mandated limitations regarding what services a BSW-level licensed social worker can offer—for instance, they’ll likely not be allowed to practice independently in a clinical setting.

There are also states in which you must have at least a master’s degree to obtain social work licensure of any kind. A prominent example is California, where the entry-level Associate Clinical Social Worker (ASW) license—which allows you to begin accruing supervised hours—requires a master’s degree. In such states, earning a BSW wouldn’t allow you to obtain social work licensure directly after graduation—you would be expected to earn an MSW or seek employment in jobs in support or administrative positionsbut not as a full-fledged social worker.

Salary and Career Outlook with a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work

As of 2019, the median pay for all social workers was $50,470 per year, and the number of roles in the field is expected to grow by 11% between 2018 and 2028. However, these numbers cover all social workers with varying levels of experience and education.

ZipRecruiter, a self-reporting site, breaks things down further, providing a range of $41,790 to $56,981 per year for those with BSW degrees. By comparison, those with MSWs make a bit more, with a range of $51,701 to $70,502. In both cases, workers in North Carolina report earning the least, while those in New York say they earn the most.

Keep in mind that not all BSW degree holders work specifically as social workers. Below are a few related careers you might pursue with a bachelor’s alone, along with their respective salaries and anticipated growth levels. Again, this salary data is inclusive of workers of all degree levels, U.S. locations, and levels of experience but includes jobs that don’t require a master’s degree.

Career Title 2019 Median Salary Projected Growth, 2018-2028
Health Educators and Community Health Workers $46,910 11%
Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists $54,290 3%
Social and Community Service Managers $67,150 13%
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors $46,240 22%

All information from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2020)

How Long Does It Take to Get a BSW?

A bachelor’s in social work typically takes four years of full-time schooling. To earn an undergraduate degree, you’ll first take general education courses required by your college or university. The social work program you select will outline the specific coursework required to graduate with a BSW.

If you opt to go to a community college first, you may be able to complete a bachelor’s in social work program at a lower overall cost. You can spend your time in an associate program earning your general education credits or getting an associate degree in social work or another relevant field. You can typically transfer a maximum of 60 credit hours to a four-year institution.

If you already have a four-year school selected, it’s wise to communicate with the school to verify credits will transfer before enrolling. Once the general education credits are behind you, a bachelor’s in social work degree completion program focuses specifically on the subject-matter coursework.

Many schools offer accelerated BSW to MSW programs, which are great for students who want to complete their master’s in social work in less combined time than earning the two degrees separately. These programs are typically open to students with high undergraduate GPAs, and they combine bachelor’s- and master’s-level social work classes throughout the program. These options are often called “4+1 programs” and take five years to complete.

Even if you decide you don’t want to earn a bachelor’s in social work and master’s in social work all together in five years, BSW graduates are often granted “advanced standing” for MSW programs. Advanced standing—for the schools that offer it—means you’ll need to complete fewer credit hours to fulfill the requirements of your MSW than those without BSWs, typically shortening a two-year program to a one-year program.

Admissions Requirements for BSW Programs

Admissions requirements for colleges and universities are fairly universal, though getting into a BSW program may have additional requirements. To get into college, you must have:
While each program varies, here are a few common objectives achieved through a bachelor’s in social work degree:

  • A high school diploma or GED and accompanying transcripts
  • A minimum GPA of 5 or 3.0; if you don’t meet this requirement, it’s worth attending community college first to improve your GPA
  • A specified minimum score on the SAT, ACT, or GRE
  • A completed application, including information about your extracurricular activities and leadership roles
  • A statement of purpose or personal essay

Once you’ve been accepted to an undergraduate program, you may need to apply to the social work program separately, often around the end of your sophomore year. The application process will vary by school. Many social work programs are competitive and require a high GPA in prerequisite coursework (usually psychology or foundations in social work courses) and the submission of an application, a statement of goals, and recommendations from professors or internship managers.

BSW Coursework

Completing a bachelor’s in social work typically requires completing around 120-128 credits, including general education and social work courses.

Once you’re accepted into the social work program, you’ll complete core subject-matter courses, social work electives, and fieldwork (see more about that below). Examples of core courses or common elective courses in social work include:

  • Introduction to Social Work
  • Foundations in Human Behavior
  • Human Behavior and the Social Environment
  • Research Methods
  • Social Welfare Policy and Services

While most schools offer similar core coursework, individual schools’ course offerings can give you a sense of the approach of their specific programs. For example, some programs offer classes like:

  • Institutional Racism
  • Military Social Work
  • Service Learning in the Social Work Profession

Specialty Concentrations

While most social work majors are general, there some programs grant opportunities to concentrate on areas such as child and family studies, child life or child welfare, or LGBTQ+ studies. You could also opt for a focus through earning a minor or second bachelor’s degree.

Fieldwork in BSW Degree Programs

Almost all BSW programs require the completion of fieldwork in the form of a practicum or internship. The experience is usually accompanied by a seminar that requires in-classroom time and synthesis of the experience along with a certain hour requirement in the field.

Students often seek out their own fieldwork, but many social work programs have relationships with organizations, so you won’t be completely on your own. Fieldwork can give you experience in a variety of settings, including clinics, community-based organizations, and government agencies.

Online BSW Programs

The increasing number of BSW online programs may make completing your degree more convenient. Many programs are fully online, except for fieldwork requirements, which must be completed in person. Others have some occasional on-campus requirements, such as an orientation at the beginning of the program or an annual intensive where you’ll travel to campus and meet with other social work students and faculty.

Some programs offer synchronous online courses, where everyone attends live online classes at the same times every week. Others are asynchronous, where presentations or lectures are posted online, and you have a certain amount of time to complete activities associated with that class session.

You’ll likely have a similar experience whether you attend your courses online or in-person. Of course, there are some drawbacks to attending online classes, such as not having face-to-face time with instructors. But you’ll still have one-on-one mentoring with faculty, the ability to connect with your classmates in a meaningful way, and guidance regarding your fieldwork experiences.

Degrees Related to the BSW

While earning a BSW may be the first step on the most direct path to a career in social work, other degrees could allow you to apply for social work jobs or MSW programs. Here are a few related degrees to consider:

Psychology
Many social workers focus on mental health, and a degree in psychology gives you a strong foundation in that area.

Sociology
Sociology provides a theoretical and macro-level foundation in societal structures and how they impact people, which can be useful for social workers.

Public Health
A background in public health can help you better combine the foundations of health and healthcare systems with the inter-relational aspect of social work.

Criminal Justice
Social workers are involved in almost every aspect of the criminal justice system, including prevention and re-entry programs. This degree could provide foundational knowledge about how the criminal justice system works, theories of crime and crime prevention, and issues specific to juvenile offenders.

Political Science
A background in political science can give social workers a better understanding of the systems and structures of politics as they relate to social welfare and social services.

Is Getting a BSW Worth It?

Though the decision to pursue a particular degree is always a personal one, those who earned BSW degrees overwhelmingly say the program is worth it. As noted in our Fast Facts, an astonishing 92% of BSW grads said they would recommend getting this degree to others.

Some other advantages to earning a BSW degree include:

You may be able to apply for initial social work licensure.
On a practical level, this is important as this allows you to enter the field soon after graduation. Initial licensure doesn’t always allow you to practice the full scope of social work, but it may allow you to begin your career.

It might be easier to enter an MSW program.
While most social work master’s programs don’t require an undergraduate degree in the subject, having the bachelor’s gives you a leg up over the competition. Thanks to your BSW program, you should also have enough foundational knowledge to understand your coursework and likely won’t have to take undergraduate or introductory classes to make up for gaps.

It’s a gateway to other related careers.
Even if you don’t go directly into social work, perhaps opting for counseling or earning an alternative-path teaching license, your social work background may allow you to ensure you’re serving communities effectively.