Online Degrees in Social Work and Human Services

Online degrees in social work and human services help prepare graduates to advocate for, counsel and provide care to those who cannot do so for themselves. Social work and human service graduates are typically responsible for the care and well-being of elderly citizens and children, providing support and assistance to both individuals and communities. They also help immigrants become acclimated with American society. The terms "social work" and "human services" are often used interchangeably as many of the entry-level responsibilities overlap. The difference comes in that many social work occupations require licensing as they work closely with clients and may provide specific counseling services.

Online liberal-arts degree programs in social work and human services help students learn how to build relationships with older adults, children in protective custody or foster care, and individuals with disabilities. They learn about community outreach, mental health counseling, and how to run care facilities. They'll also review the technologies and information systems that help in the care of individuals and communities.

Choosing the Right Online Social Work Degree

Associate degree programs typically take two years to complete. Instruction helps students learn the fundamentals of psychology, evaluate behavioral patterns, and identify diversity issues afflicting society. Through class work, case study and discussions, students hone critical thinking skills as well. Graduates often pursue entry-level positions in social work, such as an assistant to social services counselors.

Learn more about Online Associate Degrees in Social Work and Human Services

Bachelor's degree programs take about four years to complete and are offered in two forms: a bachelor's in social work and a bachelor's in human services management. Typically, a social work program teaches students skills in relationship building, advocacy, and group interactions. Students also learn how to guide clients in battling mental, physical and emotional ailments. A bachelor's in human services management focuses more on helping run organizations and community programs. Graduates of these online degree programs may qualify to become community service managers, social workers or correctional treatment specialists.

Learn more about Online Bachelor's Degrees in Social Work and Human Services

Master's degree candidates can choose between two different programs: the Master of Social Work (MSW) or a master's in human services. MSW coursework tends to emphasize social welfare policy, research methods and human behavior. Students pursuing an MSW usually study how to counsel individuals, groups and families in direct clinical work. On the other hand, a master's in human services is geared towards understanding how to run and coordinate care facilities and social service agencies. Graduates of online master's programs in social work or human services may qualify to become school social workers, or medical and health services managers.

Learn more about Online Master's Degrees in Social Work and Human Services

Doctoral degree students can pursue either a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) or a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Human Services. DSW coursework focuses on training students for roles in clinical settings, leading facilities or organizations that specialize in social work. While the online doctorate in social work may provide the necessary skills to teach in an academic setting, the Ph.D. path typically better prepares graduates for careers as researchers or professors, or for roles in nonprofit organizations creating community programs and social policies. With a doctorate in the field, career possibilities include postsecondary teacher, human services director or public health social worker.

Learn more about Online Doctoral Degrees in Social Work and Human Services

Career Opportunities for Graduates of Social Work and Human Services Programs

Online degrees in social work and human services can provide training in the critical thinking, counseling and care-giving skills required to help those in need. Depending on the degree level, many career paths may open up for graduates, including work in hospice care, correctional facilities, hospitals and schools. Prospective students should contact a school representative for more details on available programs, as well as the admissions process. To take the next step, you can request information from one of the colleges below.

Average Salary
Expected Job Growth
(2014 - 2024)
Healthcare Social Workers159,310$55,51018.5%
Community Health Workers51,900$41,17018.1%
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers114,040$47,88017.9%
Social and Human Service Assistants360,650$34,12016.4%
Social and Community Service Managers126,230$70,87015.7%
Counselors, Social Workers, and Other Community and Social Service Specialists1,941,090$47,22014.7%
Child, Family, and School Social Workers298,840$47,51013.3%
Social Scientists and Related Workers244,820$81,38010.5%
Source: 2016 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2014-24 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov.

People involved in social work and human services devote time and energy to community members who require additional support and emotional assistance. Online associate degrees in social work can impart the fundamental skills necessary to provide basic services that help to improve the overall quality of life of individuals in need. A standard curriculum emphasizes essential support concepts, including how to best utilize community resources. Coursework may also cover the significance of critical listening, which allows students to better discern possible solutions for the problems they will come across. Schools sometimes offer the degree as an Associate in Human Services Management, where instruction focuses on the roles and logistics of human services organizations and workers.

What Does an Associate Degree Program in Social Work Entail?

For full-time students, an online associate degree normally requires two years of study. Students in associate social work and human services degree programs can learn the basic skills needed to enter various assistant level positions working with support providers. Some courses also touch upon global agendas, providing students a wider view of social circumstances that may impact their clients. Some common coursework includes:

  • Psychology and Social Behavior: Students are exposed to the broad concepts of psychology and social interaction. A high-level understanding of the human mind may help students better evaluate behavioral patterns of others. For example, the learned concepts can help graduates recognize premature signs of depression. Early prognosis of the condition and immediate actions to combat the ailment can help guide the client back to normalcy.
  • Social Problems: This course covers various social issues that affect America at large, including homelessness, loss of income, health care access and coverage, marriage and family violence, and child abuse and neglect. In understanding and analyzing these particular problems and possible solutions, future social workers are better able to help clients overcome problematic life obstacles. For example, if a client is a child facing abuse or neglect, social workers can speak to authorities on behalf of the child, helping to relocate the adolescent to a more fostering environment.
  • Race, Ethnicity, and Diversity Issues: Students study the different issues that affect majority-minority relations in America, as well as the various religious conflicts that ignite periodically. In learning about the potential pitfalls of race relations, future social workers can serve as a sounding board for clients wishing to discuss their particular problems. For example, immigrants new to America may not know how to apply to receive benefits they may possibly qualify for, including food stamps and health care. A social worker can walk them through the steps needed to apply for and receive these benefits.

There are also general education courses usually taken along with the core curriculum, helping to develop skills in writing, critical thinking, and utilization of information, to name a few. The credits may also transfer to a four-year institution if they wish to pursue a bachelor's degree in the future. Since different schools may not offer the same general coursework, students should plan to discuss the various pathways to earning an online associate degree with advisors from prospective schools.

Career Outlook for Graduates of Associate Degree Programs in Social Work and Human Services

Graduates holding an online associate degree in social work and human services may pursue jobs as social and human service assistants. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov, 2012), these positions are expected to grow by 28 percent between 2010 and 2020. Overseen by social workers or psychologists who have more experience in the field, these assistants help in various ways including: developing and coordinating treatment plans for clients; supporting clients with everyday activities that they can't do by themselves; and finding available services and determining clients' eligibility for them.

Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counseling is another possible career option for those with associate human services degrees. Professionals in this field are responsible for evaluating the mental and physical health of a client, recommending treatment options, and helping patients develop the skills necessary to overcome their addiction and behavior problems. According to bls.gov, this occupation is estimated to grow by about 27 percent nationally between 2010 and 2020. The employment growth can be partly attributed to the fact that the criminal justice system often prescribes treatment options instead of jail time as punishment for drug crimes.

As the general population grows and ages, the demand for health care and social services workers will increase along with it, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov, 2012). A bachelor's degree in social work and human services allows graduates to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves, by working closely with clients, and building positive relationships with them. Students are taught to carefully listen and respond to various client needs and formulate effective life plans to battle their mental, physical, and emotional distress. Some online programs also offer the degree as a bachelor's in human services management, where coursework focuses more on the organization and coordination of support services programs.

What Does a Bachelor's Degree Program in Social Work Entail?

An online bachelor's program typically takes four years to complete for full-time students. Coursework immerses students in the techniques needed to devise and administer solutions to a multitude of problems faced by clients. Students can also gain the knowledge to guide clients towards improving their overall quality of life. Some possible classes include:

  • Working with Families: This course examines the physical, mental and emotional effects that positive and negative familial relationships can have on a person. For example, students learn how to draw ecomaps in order to help analyze the different interconnections within a family, helping to determine which associations may be harmful. These outlines enable individuals to view what relationships may be affecting their lives in detrimental ways, and learn ways to mend those connections.
  • Dynamics of Group Functions: Students learn about the ways in which successful group interactions occur, the different individual roles in groups, and how both verbal and nonverbal communication can affect groupthink.Coursework provides insights on how to work through disputes during family gatherings or to rectify differences among classmates in school. For example, students learn attentive communication techniques, such as active listening, that help less assertive group-mates feel more comfortable expressing themselves.
  • Working with New Americans: Students examine the various reasons particular cultures migrate to America, where they settle, and the significant cultural modes and feelings of specific ethnic groups. Coursework stresses cultural sensitivity, training students to empathize with and develop an understanding of immigrants new to American society. For example, students are made aware of precarious issues -- such as different religious beliefs and culturally-delicate positions -- that new immigrants bring with them.

Most online colleges require students to complete electives in addition to the core coursework. Many schools encourage students to pick a specialization in order to gain more meaningful insight in a particular topic. For example, students interested in working with children may take an elective in health issues for young adults or classes in juvenile delinquency. These focused topics help students expand their knowledge of juvenile issues and may translate well into professional endeavors.

Career Outlook for Graduates of Bachelor's Degree Programs in Social Work and Human Services

Online bachelor's degree programs in social work and human services are designed to teach students how to navigate and respond to socially and culturally sensitive problems. Degree holders may find themselves pursuing a variety of rewarding careers. Those interested in becoming child, family or school social workers, for instance, can use their training to help protect the rights of adolescents and help families find resources for child care, food stamps and health benefits. Graduates might also seek employment as social and community service managers, designing welfare programs and managing communal assets for large and small neighborhoods alike. According to bls.gov, these occupations are projected to grow 20 percent and 27 percent nationwide, respectively, between 2010 and 2020.

The master's in social work can prepare graduates for leadership roles in public, private and nonprofit agencies committed to the promotion of social and economic integrity among communities at large. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov, 2012), demand for qualified social workers should remain relatively high due to a rapidly aging baby boomer population and a shift in correctional policies for drug offenders, among other reasons.

Individuals interested in earning a master's degree can choose from two main tracks: the Master of Social Work (MSW) and a master's degree in human services. Coursework in MSW programs helps prepare students for careers in clinics or private practices, while the human services degrees train students for careers based on community service and broad social issues.

The MSW is further broken down into two different paths. Those who already have a bachelor's in social work can often qualify to enter an accelerated program designed to take less time to complete -- typically from one to two years. For those looking to earn a master's degree without having a bachelor's in social work, some schools offer a longer track that usually takes around three to four years to finish. Both paths train students to enter the field of clinical social work.

The master's in human services degree is broken down into two paths as well: the Master of Arts in Human Services and the Master of Science in Human Services. These degrees differ from the MSW as graduates usually pursue careers in counseling, public health, community outreach, and marriage and family therapy.

What Does a Master's Degree Program in Social Work Entail?

Earning either master's degree takes a varied amount of time. Those qualified for the accelerated MSW may take around one to two years to complete the program, while the regular-length program can take anywhere from three to four years to complete. Individuals who are trying to earn a master's in human services can typically complete their degree program in two years. The coursework provided will vary greatly depending on which degree students are interested in pursuing.

MSW coursework is designed to train students to qualify for private, direct practice opportunities and clinical positions, as well as more general social work. Some examples of courses include:

  • Individuals, Family, and Groups: This course trains students in evidence based assessments, preparing students to make informed, evidence-based decisions. It can also teach students the theories of group formation and function. For example, graduates can learn how to set aside biases and initial judgments and only form ideas about clients based on information given during interviews and discussions.
  • Analysis of Social Policy: A historical background of social welfare policy is taught, and students are encouraged to examine the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches to social work. For example, students can take a look at current policies to discuss their benefits and see where they can be changed to fit the evolving world of social welfare advocacy.

In addition to the coursework needed to complete the MSW program, field work will also need to be done. Many online programs ask that students travel to the school's campus to complete this field work, but some say that the practicum can be done closer to home. Current social work employees cannot use their place of employment to fulfill this requirement. Also, students looking to earn an MSW degree to perform clinical work will need to be licensed by their particular state.

Coursework in either of the two human services master's degree programs focuses more on broad social problems and how to fix them. Some of the possible courses include:

  • Social Psychology: This course examines the impact of social rules and norms on behavior in individuals and groups. For example, students will learn how behavior that is acceptable amongst friends and family may not be acceptable in the workplace.
  • Administration in Human Services: Students can learn the skills necessary to manage individuals, implement policies, and work with other organizations within the field of human services. For example, students can learn how to plan a large event on a tight budget, maximizing the resources and people they have available.

While two different masters's of human service degrees are offered, there is often little difference between the Master of Science and the Master of Art programs. Some positions will require licenses in addition to the master's of human service degrees. Students looking to fill roles as counselors or therapists should consult state websites to find out the licensure rules.

Career Outlook for Graduates of Master's Degree Programs in Social Work and Human Services

Graduates who earn an online master's degree in social work may qualify for an assortment of careers, including positions as school social workers and health care social workers. School social workers collaborate with teachers and parents in order to help students who are performing below expectations, as well as helping students who display aggressive behavior, a tendency to bully others, or are absent from school at a high frequency. Health care social workers help patients comprehend a diagnosis and adjust their lifestyle accordingly. They also provide patients with information on pertinent services and partner with doctors in order to explain the mental and emotional effects that certain illnesses may have. According to bls.gov, nationwide employment for school social workers is expected to grow by 20 percent in the 2010-2020 decade while growth for health care social workers is estimated to be about 34 percent in the same timeframe.

Graduates of an online master's program in human services may qualify for many careers as well, including positions managing probation officers and correctional treatment specialists. Probation officers supervise individuals who have been placed on probation, crafting rehabilitation plans for them and writing detailed reports on their progress. Managers of correctional treatment specialists coordinate rehabilitation plans for individuals to try and follow once they are out of prison and off parole. They take charge in helping offenders find housing, jobs, and mental or drug-abuse treatment if needed. The field of probation officers and correctional treatment specialists, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is expected to grow by 18 percent nationally between 2010 and 2020.

A doctorate in social work and human services can help prepare students to run social service facilities, conduct research, or teach at the university level. There are two main degrees that can be earned by those pursuing a doctoral degree in social work and human services: a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), and a Doctor of Social Work (DSW). The Ph.D. focuses on preparing students for research positions, or for leadership roles in developing social welfare programs and policies in both public and private entities. The DSW typically combines theory and practice to prepare candidates for advanced clinical positions or leadership roles in clinical and behavioral health fields, as well as working as drug and rehabilitation counselors.

What Does a Doctoral Degree Program in Social Work Entail?

Graduate programs in social work and human services usually take anywhere from three to seven years to complete. Most schools require that prospective students have a master's degree in social work or a related field before applying for a Ph.D. or DSW program, as well as at least three years of professional experience.

Ph.D. degree programs focus on preparing students to enter research related positions. Some courses provide instruction on the different methods of research used in social work, such as qualitative or quantitative. Others help students build foundational skills in research tools as well as the philosophy behind scientific research as a whole. Students also receive training in analyzing the current policies directing social welfare practices, helping potential graduates think critically about where the field is now, and where it may be going in the future.

The DSW degree is designed for students interested in leadership roles in clinical settings, or who wish to enter the teaching world and train the next generation of social workers. Courses teach students the history and development of clinical practice and its possible implications for future social policies. Students learn the methodologies of proper research and data analysis, using information systems and technologies to better study, understand, and improve social care in communities. For students who are interested in becoming educators, some online colleges offer classes on how to best teach the theories and practices specific to social work and human services. For example, students might learn how to use case studies to show examples of real life situations, which can help turn abstract ideas into information that's easier to relate to.

Both degrees culminate in a dissertation, a paper based on original research, study and analysis of a problem in social services. Doctoral candidates, along with their department chair, choose a panel of faculty members who review the information and conclusions formed through the research. The student must successfully defend the dissertation to the panel as well.

Depending on the school, online students may be required to complete clinical hours or community-based research at a local facility. Some schools allow students to use their current place of employment to fulfill this requirement. There may also be residency requirements for online programs. Some of these are in person; others may be completed online. Students should speak to an academic advisor to find out more about residency and clinical hour details.

Career Outlook for Graduates of Doctoral Degree Programs in Social Work and Human Services

Graduates of online doctoral programs in social work may be qualified to help design services and programs, or manage individuals in settings such as nonprofit organizations, government agencies and senior centers. By applying the theoretical concepts of human services as well as the research and analytical skills learned through their doctoral program, graduates can implement change in the lives of individuals, and the system of human services as a whole, streamlining organizations and services to make them more effective. Some individuals may be interested in becoming postsecondary teachers, an occupation the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov, 2012) estimates will grow 17 percent in the U.S. between 2010 and 2020. Graduates looking to take a more hands-on approach with their degree may be interested in running a mental health care facility. Mental health counseling is expected to grow 36 percent nationally between 2010 and 2020.

Association of Social Work Boards, http://www.aswb.org/
"Mental Health Counselors," Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-2013 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/mental-health-counselors-and-marriage-and-family-therapists.htm
National Organization for Human Services, http://www.nationalhumanservices.org/
"Postsecondary Teachers," Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-2013 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/postsecondary-teachers.htm
"Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists," Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-2013 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/probation-officers-and-correctional-treatment-specialists.htm
"Social and Community Service Managers," Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-2013 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/social-and-community-service-managers.htm
"Social and Human Service Assistants," Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-2013 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-and-human-service-assistants.htm
"Social Workers," Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-2013 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Community-and-Social-Service/Social-workers.htm
"Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors," Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-2013 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/substance-abuse-and-behavioral-disorder-counselors.htm

Earning a degree online is gaining legitimacy. I think today people believe a college degree is a college degree. I would definitely recommend it if it works for you and fits your schedule. - Michael Ribas 
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