How to Earn an Associate’s Degree in Social Work
Social Work Associate’s Degree at a Glance
Degree Type:Associate of Science, Associate of Arts
Duration:2 to 3 years
Total Credits:Around 60–70
Tuition and Fees:Average of $3,156 a year for public schools to $14,587 for private institutions
Aid Eligible:Yes, for accredited programs
Many people may primarily think of social workers as providing services to families in need or working with seniors—after all, it’s a field where soft skills such as empathy, listening, interpersonal communication, and problem-solving make a difference.
But according to the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), the reality is that social workers are the largest providers of mental health and substance abuse counseling in the country.
As the critical need for these services continues to grow, especially for veterans and first-time drug offenders, so will the need for social workers. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that the employment of social workers providing this type of care will grow by 13% through 2029, with an estimated 90,000 new jobs.
The reality is that social workers are the largest providers of mental health and substance abuse counseling in the country.
For students who want to work as a social worker but aren’t ready to commit to a bachelor’s degree, earning an associate’s degree is a relatively quick and inexpensive way to get started in this fast-growing field. With just a couple of years of education, you can hold a variety of assistant-level jobs in social and human services.
Getting started can sometimes be the hardest part, but armed with our guide to earning an associate’s degree in social work and where it can take you, you’ll go from registration to job search with ease.
AA vs. AS in social work
Some of the biggest factors people consider when pursuing an education are how much time will it take and how much money it will cost. In addition to considering these factors, you’ll need to choose which type of associate’s degree you want to pursue and get a good understanding of what’s expected.
When researching associate’s degrees in social work, the most common option you’ll see is the Associate of Arts (AA); Associate of Science (AS) degrees are also available, but rare. Both of these options are designed with coursework comparable to the first two years of a bachelor’s education and are meant to be transferable to a four-year college.
The primary difference between these degrees is that an AA puts a greater emphasis on the humanities, while an AS has more requirements for science and math. Typically, the AA also tends to have more general education overall, making it more easily transferable to a bachelor’s program. All that said, you don’t need to worry too much about the title of your degree, as the majority of the coursework will generally be the same and prepare you for further education or entry-level assistant positions.
To earn your associate’s degree, you’ll need to take general education classes in math, English, and history, as well as courses specific to social work and other electives in order to graduate. The exact classes you’ll take will depend on your program, but you can expect to study:
- Social work basics
- Social work practice
- Social welfare
- Human behavior
Many programs also tailor their coursework further, with classes that could help you advance your knowledge of a certain type of social work. If you know you have a particular area of interest, you could look for programs that offer courses such as:
- Case management
- Chemical dependency
- Child development and abuse
- Criminal justice
- Family dynamics
- Gender and sexual orientation
- Group counseling
- Stress management
Though not as common, some associate’s degree programs also require an internship or other fieldwork on top of the classroom coursework. During these placements, you’ll work at a site under the direct supervision of a licensed professional, gain valuable on-the-job experience, and potentially make yourself more competitive when applying to four-year colleges or jobs. Ask the school’s program coordinator if it’s offered or if they have other resources to help you find an internship on your own.
What to Look for in a School
One of the most essential factors in selecting a school is to look for accreditation, which verifies that your school has met the national standards for quality education. By attending an accredited school, you may be eligible to receive federal financial aid and be more likely to transfer your credits should you choose to pursue a bachelor’s degree.
The easiest way to check accreditation is to search the database offered by either the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). The school you choose should be accredited by one of the following six regional commissions, both of which are recognized by the department and the CHEA:
Find Accredited Schools
Ask important questions
- Does the coursework cover any specialty areas I’m interested in?
- Will my associate’s credits transfer to a bachelor’s degree?
- What qualifications do the faculty have?
- Is an internship or field placement required?
- Are classes offered part time, in the evenings, or on the weekends?
- Does this program offer job placement assistance?
- What kinds of jobs do graduates of this program find?
- Is tuition assistance or financial aid available?
Choose a format: online or traditional classroom?
In addition to accreditation and resolving other issues, you’ll also want to consider what educational format fits into your lifestyle and learning needs. Whether you want a more traditional experience or you’re looking for online classes to take at your own pace, you’ll cover the same material regardless of format.
- Classroom: In a traditional classroom program, you’ll attend classes on campus at a set time. Some students find that this format helps them to stay on track and enjoy being able to interact in person with their professors and other students.
- Online: You’ll attend all your classes by signing into a website with an online format. Often, online classes allow you to complete work and listen to lectures on a more flexible timetable, making it a great option for students who are working, have family obligations, or can’t get to campus. Keep in mind, however, that if your program has an internship or fieldwork requirement, you won’t be able to complete it online.
- Hybrid: A hybrid program combines both classroom and online learning. In a social work program, this might take the form of students completing their general education courses online but coming to campus for classes in their major.
Admission Requirements and Prerequisites
The large majority of associate’s degree programs are what are known as open enrollment, meaning if you apply, you’ll be accepted, but you must have your high school diploma or GED. For that reason, most programs won’t require you to submit scores from the SAT or ACT. However, at most schools, incoming students take a placement test to assess their skills in English and math. This helps determine which level of classes you can take or if you need development courses to sharpen those skills. If you do have scores from the SAT or ACT, you may be able to submit those in place of taking the test.
At some schools, programs such as social work might have additional requirements such as a minimum GPA, essay, or letter of recommendation.
As long as you attend an accredited school, you can be eligible to receive federal financial aid to help cover the cost of tuition. The first place to start is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) , which the government uses to determine what, if any, loans, grants, or work-study programs you qualify for. Your school and other organizations might also use the FAFSA as part of the application process for the many scholarships available specifically to social work students.
You might also be able to get tuition assistance from an employer, especially if you already work in healthcare, social services, or human services. Typically, you’ll need to work for an employer for a set period of time to take advantage of a benefit like this, and you may also need to get certain grades in your classes.
Schools sometimes allow you to pay your tuition using a payment plan. This allows you to split the cost of your tuition into several payments over the course of the year, rather than paying the entire amount at once.
With an associate’s degree in social work, you’ll be able to work in a variety of human services, social services, healthcare and even teaching jobs. Most of these jobs will be on the assistant or associate level and work under a supervisor and are an excellent way to gain experience. According to the 2019 statistics from the BLS, salaries for community and social service jobs range from $27,550 to $79,850.
Advancing Your Education and Career
If your associate’s degree makes you want to pursue further education and advance your career, the next step is to earn your Bachelor of Social Work (BSW). With this advanced degree, you’ll be able to take on direct-service positions such as a caseworker, substance abuse counselor, or human resources manager. Keep in mind, however, that if you want to work independently as a clinical social worker, you’ll need to earn a master’s degree.
Some community colleges have relationships with local universities that allow you to directly enter the third year of a BSW program if you have your associate’s degree.
If you’re interested in applying your credits toward a Bachelor of Social Work, you’ll need to make sure your credits will actually transfer. Talk to an advisor about your intended four-year school to make sure you’re taking the classes required for admission.
Most states only grant social work licenses on the bachelor’s and master’s level, however Ohio, Massachusetts, Michigan, and South Dakota offer an associate’s level license. With an associate license, you won’t be allowed to provide direct social work services, but you can take on related responsibilities such as intake assessment and referral, case management and outreach, and education and advocacy. An associate license also isn’t enough to grant you permission to work in clinical settings and is typically designed to be a stepping stone to an advanced license.
If you do live in one of the states that offer an associate social work license, you can apply after graduation through the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). You’ll need to pay a fee of $230 and take a multiple-choice licensing exam. The questions on the test vary, so scores are scaled based on the difficulty of the items on your version of the test. Depending on your jurisdiction, a passing score may be 70 or 75, but these equate to the same level of performance on the exam.
Social Work Licensing by State
Professional Resources, Blogs, and Organizations
Social work is a constantly evolving field, and staying on top of current trends is an important part of your professional development. Even as a student, you’ll give yourself a serious advantage by staying in the know. Check out some of the popular social work professional organizations, websites, social media pages, and podcasts.
The National Association of Social Workers: Job board, professional articles, conferences, and awards
The American Sociological Association: Member-only job board, conferences, and networking events
The Society for Social Work and Research: Networking opportunities, conferences, and job boards for both students and professionals
Social media feeds & podcasts
The National Association of Social Works Twitter feed: A great way to stay up to date on current social work trends and news
The Council on Social Work Education Twitter feed: Keep current on educational reform, student loan forgiveness, accreditation, and more
The Social Work Podcast: Social workers discuss a wide range of topics from self-care to best practices for case management