Social work is more than a job. It’s a chance to impact someone’s life for the better — whether that’s helping them overcome addiction, finding resources for those with a mental illness, or helping a child escape abuse. Social work has become especially crucial in California, which faces a shortage of behavioral health professionals, according to a recent CalMatters report.
Social workers — particularly Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs) — play a major role in supporting and providing resources to those facing mental health issues. If you’re thinking of becoming an LCSW, you’ll need to earn a master’s in Social Work (MSW) degree before applying for your license. Obtaining an online master’s degree in social work also can lead to a better-paying job, opening the door to careers as a case manager, researcher, or administrator.
While earning your MSW online means you can choose from various programs, you’ll want to pick one that meets California’s social work licensing requirements. You’ll also want to ensure the program you choose is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Fortunately, California has numerous online MSW programs with CSWE accreditation.
To help you understand your options and make an informed decision, we’ve compiled a list of the best online MSW programs in California. This guide can also help answer any questions regarding financial aid, the admission process, licensure requirements, job opportunities, and income potential.
College Spotlights: 2024’s Best Online MSW Programs in California
Before determining which online MSW degree program will help you achieve your goals, it’s important to consider degree concentrations, the number of credits required to graduate, and fieldwork requirements. Tuition cost can also play a major role in your program choice; most colleges and universities offer some form of financial aid options you’ll want to look into. Additionally, many online MSW programs offer the choice of enrolling either full- or part-time, helping you fit your education into a busy schedule.
To help you start your search, we’ve put together a list of the best online MSW programs in California.
The University of Southern California (USC)
USC’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work offers a fully online MSW program for full-time and part-time students and only requires 48 credits (about 16 months) to complete.
This CSWE-accredited program allows students access to interactive coursework anytime online and through a mobile app. Students can also access the university’s libraries throughout their enrollment and beyond, as well as technical and academic support through graduation.
The online MSW program has the same admissions requirements as the on-campus program. To make the admissions process even easier, you won’t need to take a Graduate Record Exam (GRE) to apply. You will need to upload your statement of purpose, résumé, two letters of recommendation, and an official transcript at the time of application.
Tuition costs range from $2,137 per unit (for students enrolled in 14 units or less) to a flat rate of $31,734 (for students taking 15-18 units per semester). Additional fees may apply.
- Adult Mental Health and Wellness
- Children, Youth, and Families
- Military Populations and Settings
- School and Educational Settings
- Social Change and Innovation
- Advanced Standing
- Traditional (on-campus)
University of the Pacific
The University of the Pacific offers two online MSW programs: An accelerated hybrid program and an advanced standing hybrid program.
The accelerated, CSWE-accredited program requires 55 credits to be completed within 16 months in four straight trimesters. Meanwhile, students with a bachelor’s in Social Work (BSW) can apply to the advanced standing program, which requires 32 credits (12 months) to complete.
Although this program is hybrid, The University of the Pacific has campuses in Sacramento, San Francisco, and Stockton. Fieldwork can be completed with placements anywhere in Northern California, as well.
To apply, you’ll need to submit a personal statement, two to three letters of recommendation, and an official transcript showing you completed the prerequisite courses. If you don’t hold a BSW, don’t worry. You can apply to the accelerated program, so long as you have a bachelor’s in the liberal arts (BA). Additionally, this program doesn’t require a GRE score.
The program costs $1,483 per unit, and financial aid is available.
- Advanced Generalist
- Clinical Practice
- Diabetes Care and Management (sub-specialization)
- 16-month Accelerated Hybrid Program
Cal Poly Humboldt
The hybrid MSW program at Cal Poly Humboldt has a unique focus on working in rural and Indigenous communities. Students are taught to build a disciplined, compassionate, and caring ethical practice by collaborating and building upon existing strengths within the field.
The CSWE-accredited program, which only offers one specialization, is designed to decolonize mainstream social work education practices. Cultural humility, critical reflection, and social action for justice are a few concepts students will learn throughout their coursework.
This unique program offers advanced standing for both full- and part-time students who have already earned an undergraduate degree in the field. With students only required to attend three on-campus sessions out of the year, this hybrid program is mostly online. Tuition is set at $510 per credit.
- Full-time, On-campus (Regular or Advanced Standing)
Types of Master of Social Work Programs in California
What You Can Do with an MSW in California
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the field of social work is expected to grow by 9% in the next eight years. On average, about 74,700 jobs are projected to open up each year for the next several years as many retire or leave the profession.
Local government agencies (excluding schools and hospitals) usually offer the highest-paying jobs, with many social workers earning a median annual wage of $50,390.
Obtaining a bachelor’s degree is the most common requirement for an entry-level, nonclinical social worker position. However, if you’re pursuing a career in clinical social work, then you’ll need an MSW, particularly in California.
An online MSW program in California prepares you to work in a chosen specialty and helps you meet the requirements for licensure. It could also help you nab a better-paying job.
Home Healthcare Social Worker
Home healthcare social workers help individuals and families cope with chronic, acute, or terminal illnesses by providing them with psychosocial support. They also provide counseling and advice to family caregivers.
|Median Annual Pay
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2023
Social and Community Service Manager
Social and community service managers work with community organizations to evaluate and oversee community programs or services. They may also provide recommendations and coordinate outreach efforts to raise awareness of these programs. A potential employee will at least need a bachelor’s degree, but some positions may require an MSW degree.
|Median Annual Pay
Source:Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2022
Licensed Clinical Social Worker
If you want to pursue a job as an LCSW, you need to hold a graduate degree and a license. In this field, you’ll help clients manage mental health issues through psychological counseling and therapy. You’ll also assess your client’s medical conditions and create treatment plans for them.
|Median Annual Pay
Source: Indeed.com, 2023
Understand Social Work Licensing in California
California only offers one type of social work license: a license for clinical social work (LCSW).
According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), becoming licensed allows you to perform clinical social work and psychotherapy. To obtain a license, you’ll first need to earn an MSW degree from a CSWE-accredited school.
You’ll also need to register as an associate clinical social worker and obtain at least 3,000 hours of supervised work experience. Those hours of supervised work should be completed within a minimum of 104 weeks and be submitted with the application for licensure.
Additionally, you’ll need to submit your fingerprints to the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI and pass a criminal background check.
You’ll also need to complete additional coursework and then take the California Laws and Ethics Exam. You should note, however, that some online MSW programs already include the additional coursework required for a license within the curriculum.
Sounds tedious, right? Well, the good news is you don’t need a license to be employed as a social worker in California — so long as it’s non-clinical work, of course. But, if you’re still interested in getting a license, then you can visit the California Board of Behavioral Sciences website for more details.
Budgeting for Success: Costs for Online MSW Programs in California
According to a 2022 Forbes article, California is one of the most expensive states in the country to live in (second only to Hawaii). Since tuition and living expenses can get costly, you should evaluate your resources and create a payment plan for your education.
Fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application to see if you qualify for financial aid. Reach out to your school’s financial aid office and apply for any scholarships it may offer. You can also apply to private scholarships, fellowships, and work-study programs. See if your employer also offers tuition assistance.
How Much Your Online Master’s in Social Work in California Might Cost
|No. of Credits
|Est. Tuition Cost
Frequently Asked Questions About Online California MSW Degrees
How do online MSW programs in California assess applicants, and what factors are considered during the selection process?
Admission requirements vary among programs, which is why you need to get your ducks in a row before you start applying. Nowadays, online applications are standard and quick to process. Either way, staying organized and creating a checklist may help you in the long run. Be sure to submit the proper documents correctly and on time.
Here’s a look at just a few things you’ll likely need to apply to your MSW program of choice:
- A BSW or a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts
- An official transcript showing you’ve completed prerequisite coursework
- At least two letters of recommendation
- A personal statement (or two)
- A résumé with past and current social work experience
- Exam scores for either the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) (for those whose native language is not English)
- GRE score
- A 3.0 GPA
How do you meet fieldwork requirements for online MSW programs in California?
Fieldwork is an integral part of the curriculum for social work students. It allows students to apply theoretical knowledge to their social work practice and prepares them to enter the workforce as professionals.
Although you can do your coursework remotely, most (if not all) online MSW programs require you to complete a certain number of hours of in-person training with real clients under the guidance of a supervisory practitioner.
However, some schools, such as USC Online, offer students a chance to complete a virtual field practicum. In these sessions, an actor will portray a client, providing students with a clinical simulation.
How much time does it usually take to earn an MSW degree online in California?
The time it takes to complete an online MSW program depends on the school and the number of credits you take in a semester. Usually, full-time students can complete a traditional on-campus program within four semesters, or two years.
Moreover, if you decide to enroll as a part-time student, it may take you longer to complete the program. Most program websites expect part-time students to complete their coursework and earn their degrees in three years.
However, many online programs allow students to earn their degrees in less time through advanced standing. Usually, those types of programs take about a year to complete.
Can I complete my MSW degree entirely online in California, or are there on-campus components?
It’s rare to find an online MSW program in California that’s strictly online. Many programs allow social work students to complete their coursework remotely but are required to complete in-person fieldwork or a practicum.
Only one school, USC Online, was found to have a virtual fieldwork study. So, if you’re planning on enrolling in an online MSW program, expect to spend some time on campus or at a designated site completing fieldwork.
Are there any restrictions for out-of-state students looking to enroll in California's online social work master's program?
The majority of online MSW programs require students to reside in California, mostly because of the fieldwork experience or practicum requisite.
Moreover, each state has its own licensure requirements. If you’re planning on obtaining licensure somewhere else, check to see what you’ll need from that state before you apply to an online MSW program in California.
Social Work Student and Professional Resources in California
- California Board of Behavioral Sciences
The state’s Board of Behavioral Sciences is the governing body that issues social work licensure. On this site, you’ll find a detailed breakdown of what you need to do to obtain your LCSW.
- California Society for Clinical Social Work
This organization works to advance and promote clinical social work, both in practice and within the profession. It also advocates for social work policies before the legislature and other regulatory agencies. On this site, you’ll find links to mentors and therapists.
- The California Health Care Foundation
The California Health Care Foundation is an independent, nonprofit philanthropy that works to improve the healthcare system so that all residents have the care they need. The organization focuses on making sure the system works for those from low-income communities.
- National Association of Social Workers (California Chapter)
Founded in 1955, the NASW is the largest membership organization of professional social workers in the world. You’ll find links to the site’s career center, workshops, and articles on advocacy work and social work policies.
This site was created to enable social workers and the public to critique and improve the way the profession and general social issues are portrayed in the news media and entertainment industry. Here, you’ll find links to documentaries, expert interviews, and articles based in Hollywood.