Social Work Education Levels and Options Guide - 2024

Social Worker License

by Social Worker License Staff

Updated: February 18th, 2024

The education required to become a social worker is arduous, and for a good reason. The job of a social worker is demanding, and they must possess a diversely strong skill set to engage with members of the public. In addition, the world we live in is constantly changing, and technological advancements enable us to gather more scientific data on human behavior and psychology. New norms on what is socially acceptable are established, and social workers must continue their education throughout their careers to effectively assist clients. 

The Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards (EPAS) is used by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) to accredit baccalaureate and master’s social work programs. A competency-based education framework was created for the EPAS. The previous curriculum models that focused on content and structure were replaced with a model that concentrates on the student learning outcomes. 

Each level of education is updated with new information to ensure the successful implementation of concepts and interventions. The social worker demonstrates their competency through knowledge, skills, values, and cognitive and affective processes in practice situations where their critical thinking, affective reactions, and how well they exercise judgment. 

9 Competencies of Social Work Programs

There are nine competencies used in EPAS social work practice to assess the outcome of student learning. Depending on the particular goals of the program you’ve enrolled in, there may be more competencies added, but the nine we’re going to cover here are the core competencies. 

Demonstrate ethical and professional behavior:

Maintaining a professional demeanor and making sound, ethical decisions are mandatory for each social worker. Whether practicing on a micro, mezzo, or macro level, social workers are required to make ethical decisions for their clients based on the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) code of ethics. They must be aware of relevant laws and regulations to utilize an ethical framework for drawing conclusions and decision-making. Social workers have to be aware of the difference between their personal and professional values and not let their personal values influence their judgment. They need to have a solid understanding of the history of social work, its subjectivity, and its role in the profession. They also need to understand how members of other professions can assist them when collaborating on a case.

Anyone looking to become a social worker must also recognize that part of their job is to be a lifelong learner who continuously brushes up on their skills to remain effective. They need to have a firm grasp of technology and use it ethically in their practice. Self-reflection and regulation are ways social workers can manage their personal values while remaining professional. Professionalism should always be a part of their interaction, appearance, and any communication that is sent out. When they are unsure about a particular situation, a supervisor should be consulted for advice.

Engage diversity and difference in practice:

Life experiences shape the way we see and respond to the world. Social workers have an understanding that diversity and difference are crucial when forming an identity. They know that going into a situation may mean dealing with someone who has experienced poverty, oppression, and alienation, or privilege, power, and praise. They understand the different ways oppression rears its ugly head and the forms and mechanisms used to encourage discrimination.

Social workers are to introduce themselves to their clients as learners who have come to be educated. They treat their clients as the experts they are of their own experiences. Because they work with a diverse client base, they must be aware of their biases and values, so they don’t negatively impact their interactions. 

Advance human rights and social, economic, and environmental justice:

Each person, no matter their social or economic standing, should be afforded basic human rights, including freedom, privacy, education, safety, and a satisfactory standard of living. Social workers understand these rights and different methods used to eliminate barriers of oppression within different societal structures. Their job is to protect their clients’ fundamental rights on an environmental, economic, and social level and make sure that goods, rights, and responsibilities are evenly distributed among the population. 

Engage in practice-informed research and research-informed practice:

The use of scientific evidence-based data is important to ensure their interventions will have the desired effect. Quantitative and qualitative research is understood and used to advance and evaluate their practice. Social workers use logic, science, and culturally and ethically informed methods to expand their knowledge. They know how to translate the research to help them form conclusions and make decisions for treatments. Social workers are taught to use critical thinking when analyzing research methods and findings. The evidence is then used to improve policies and service delivery.

Engage in policy practice:

Policies for social justice, welfare, and services are created and implemented at federal, state, and local levels. Social workers understand how the past and present play a role in policy and the delivery of services and how policy development is influenced by practice. They understand their role in developing and implementing policies and participate in creating policies that will improve social work in their specific setting and help create policy that helps to eliminate causes for the need of social workers. Social workers know how to formulate, analyze, implement, and evaluate policy with critical thinking. 

Engage with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities:

Engagement with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities from all backgrounds is a continuous part of the ever-changing and interactive process of social work. Social workers apply theories regarding human behavior and social environments they’ve learned to facilitate their interactions with clients. They employ tactics to engage diverse clients and understand the influence their personal experiences may have on their ability to provide effective assistance. Empathy, interpersonal, and relationship-building skills are used to collaborate with other professionals when engaging with clients and constituencies. 

Assess individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities:

Part of the ongoing practice of social work is conducting assessments with and for diverse individuals, families, groups, and organizations. They use theories about behavior and the social environment to apply their knowledge of assessments. Data is gathered from clients and interpreted with the social worker’s critical thinking skills. Intervention goals are established based on the information interpreted from the assessment and the client’s values and preferences. 

Intervene with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities:

Social workers use their knowledge about evidence-informed interventions to reach the clients’ goals. Intervention methods are chosen with great care, and the application of negotiation, mediation, and advocacy is introduced to enable effective transitions to reach set goals. Social workers also use inter-professional collaboration when needed to help with client interventions. 

Evaluate practice with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities:

Evaluation is another ongoing component of social work practice. Social workers are selective about the methods used for evaluation outcomes. They perform critical analyses, oversee, and evaluate the effectiveness of their intervention and program processes. After conducting the evaluation, the results are applied to the intervention and programs to improve their effectiveness. 

Evaluating Social Work Programs/Schools

There are several ways to evaluate the quality of a social work program before enrolling. We’ll go over the major questions you’ll want to ask yourself below. 

One thing you should inquire about is the program’s mission and goals. Do they align with the social work profession and your own values? According to the CSWE, the core values of social work are service, social justice, the dignity and worth of the person, the importance of human relationships, integrity, competence, human rights, and scientific inquiry. These are the values social workers commit themselves to uphold and use to frame their pursuit of social and economic equality. 

The mission and goals of the social work program should be clearly stated, and the mission of the institution where the program is held should be included in the context of the program. For instance, the Columbia School of Social Work states that part of its mission is to “interrogate racism.” That makes the school’s focus clear and reveals techniques to combat racism will be learned within the framework of the social work program. If that mission aligns with the goals you want to accomplish in social work, that would be a program you should learn more about. 

On top of making its mission clear, the program should also describe how it intends to address the practice communities from a political, economic, environmental, cultural, social, and demographic perspective. Generalist practice is the term that describes intervening with systems of all sizes, from individuals to organizations to communities. Problem-solving processes are applied by generalist practitioners at every level of social work to support and instill strength and resiliency in clients. 

Baccalaureate programs prepare you to utilize the person-in-environment (PIE) framework in practice communities. It gives you a more accurate method for assessing individuals and groups by observing them in their environments to gain a better perspective on the clients’ problem areas and strengths. The method also allows you to implement a wider range of interventions. 

How those techniques will be used within the community to address immediate concerns should be made clear. That means educators understand the demographics of the practice communities and the issues plaguing them, and they’re able to demonstrate how the nine competencies are incorporated into the curriculum. 

Is the Program Accredited? 

The CSWE takes accreditation very seriously as they want to ensure graduates are equipped to go into the field and practice at a high level. Baccalaureate and master’s programs must be accredited by the CSWE, and states require you to graduate from one of these programs to become a licensed social worker. Application of ethical principles and critical thinking in practice is something all graduates of accredited programs are taught. Social workers learn to analyze research and use critical thinking to effectively engage with clients from all walks of life. 

To ensure the social work candidates will be ready for real-life situations, accredited programs are required to provide field experience. The fieldwork is supervised by more experienced social workers or by others in professions approved by the CSWE. The curriculum isn’t the only concern of the CSWE; they also evaluate the program’s goals and whether or not it’s meeting them. Policies the program abides by and the resources it has access to are also taken into consideration. The CSWE will visit the site to observe the program in action to make sure the students have adequate materials and are being taught within the competency-based framework. 

Learn about the Graduation Rate

One of the reasons the CSWE requires accreditation is to ensure schools aren’t just handing out diplomas but requiring their students and staff to put in the necessary hours to gain the knowledge needed for the profession. A good way to measure the effectiveness of the program is to check the graduation rate. Graduation rates are good indicators of how invested educators are in supporting their students, and they give insight into the quality of the program’s curriculum. 

Find schools in your state and filter them by graduation rate.

Currently, the national average for graduates from 4-year colleges is 46.2%. You’ll want to choose a school that falls within that range or higher as they most likely have more resources available to keep students on track as they complete their degree. Academic advisors are crucial to a student’s success. The guidance they provide ensures students take the courses needed to fulfill the degree requirements so they can graduate on time. The transition to college can be a confusing time for new entrants, and having someone create a clear path to achieve your academic milestones is a much-needed service. Some schools have mentorship programs where you can work with an experienced social worker when you have questions or need an extra push to cross the finish line. 

Does the School Have an Active Job Placement Service?

The point of obtaining a social work degree is to secure a job in the field. Inquire with the school to discover if they offer job placement services once your graduation date is near. Post-graduation placement is also important. To gain licensure in most states, you’re required to complete an internship or find paid work at an organization dedicated to providing social services. 

Your program advisors should have this information on hand for you to review so you can make the best choice for your career. They should also have the job placement statistics available for you to review. 

Learn of your Salary Prospects

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, social workers earn an average of $48,410. Upon graduation, you can expect to begin earning about that much, but there are other mitigating factors. The state you’re in may pay higher or lower than the national average, and the specialty you choose to work in will determine your salary. 

Explore social worker salaries in your state.

For instance, child, family, and school social workers in Los Angeles, California, earn an average annual salary of over $60,000. Healthcare social workers in the same city earn an annual salary over $85,000. If you’re taking out loans to pay for school, before you select a program, you should perform a cost versus debt analysis to determine whether the program will allow you to earn enough to provide basic life necessities and pay off your debt. 

Sort Schools by Tuition

Private institutions are more expensive to attend than public colleges and universities. And in-state students will pay less than out-of-state students. Also, private institutions may be for-profit or nonprofit, and that makes a difference in how much tuition will cost as nonprofits tend to be higher. 

Find schools in your state and sort by tuition.

The average cost for an in-state student to attain a BSW at a public institution is $40,000. That cost almost doubles for private for-profit institutions, which can cost $72,800 or more. Private nonprofits can cost upwards of $150,000 to receive a BSW. According to the CSWE, the average loan debt for baccalaureate graduates in 2020 was $27,264 and $47,965 for graduates of MSW programs. The bottom line is you should shop around for the best option and assess whether the cost is comparable to other programs and whether it makes sense to take on the future debt. 

The Professor to Students Ratio Has an Outsized Impact on Learning

Student-to-professor ratios are another consideration to keep in mind as you research social work programs. A ratio of 1:25 is acceptable for baccalaureate programs, and 1:12 is sufficient for graduate programs. When professors have a smaller class size to educate, students will receive personalized attention from the faculty during classes. But, if the school has a high number of research faculty members, they won’t be in the classrooms. Be diligent in asking questions and examining the information so you won’t get the wrong impression about the school’s teaching environment.   

Something else you’ll want to look for is whether the program has a system for evaluations and assessments of the program’s efficacy. Just as social workers must use evidence-based data to determine whether their methods are working, a school should conduct regular evaluations to determine if their students are applying the social work competencies as taught. That involves examining the learning outcomes from the past and present. 

Social work is a dynamic field, and discoveries are made each year to advance the profession. You want the program you attend to be aware of the new policies and practices in the field, so you are well-prepared to handle real-life situations. The quality of the program strongly depends on feedback from students, faculty, collaborators, and community members. Listening to suggestions and making adjustments that align with the nine social work competencies will ensure the program is continuously providing the necessary tools and skills students need to embark on a successful career as a social worker.