What is the difference between associate’s and bachelor’s social work degree programs?

Key Takeaways:

  • The main differences between an associate and a bachelor’s degree in social work are in terms of duration, curriculum, career opportunities, and further educational prospects.
  • An associate degree prepares graduates for entry-level positions such as social work assistants, case management aides, or community outreach workers.
  • A bachelor’s degree qualifies graduates for more advanced positions such as social workers, case managers, and eligibility workers.
  • There is a significant salary difference between an associate and a bachelor’s degree in social work.

Social work is a noble profession that promotes social welfare and entails helping people from all walks of life. It is a practice-based profession that teaches students to meet people’s basic needs and improve their social functioning, leading to optimal health and overall well-being. There are different types of social work careers, including:

  • direct care worker
  • school counselor
  • family advocate
  • case worker

Jobs in social work may vary in terms of educational programs and requirements, from associates to master’s degree and beyond.

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What is a social work degree? 

Social work degree programs are designed for students passionate about helping others lead better lives despite their challenges and make a difference. The practice-based field combines academics with hands-on learning to prepare students for a complex but rewarding career. A degree in social work prepares graduates to improve the quality of life of the people they serve at every level. This includes:

  • individuals
  • groups
  • family members
  • communities

They often work with underserved communities. But also help community members from all walks of life. Social workers positively impact the lives of the people they serve. Social worker degree programs focus on teaching prospective students to help people overcome difficult life challenges and work one-on-one with clients. Students can choose a necessary social work degree to chart their path to becoming social workers and developing a meaningful and rewarding career. This can include associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s degree programs.

Social work is an umbrella term that includes many specialties within it. These include:

  • Community Social Workers
  • Child, Family Social Work
  • School Social Work
  • Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers
  • Social Work with Military Members and Veterans
  • Disaster, Crisis, and Intervention
  • Medical Social Work
  • Forensic Social Work 
  • Healthcare Social Workers
  • Behavioral Health
  • Human Services

Career choice would determine the right degree path students would choose. Their education, experience, and personal goals may add to their success as social workers. Those wishing to work in a clinical setting go into clinical social work and choose that specialty to become licensed clinical social workers. Clinical social workers manage cases at clinics, hospitals, and related health settings to help patients overcome problems. They may provide clinical services such as one-on-one therapy or other clinical services. 

Many hours of supervised training are required to gain hands-on practice as they work to obtain a master’s degree in social work from a CSWE-accredited school. They may be required to register with the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), a professional organization that sets and maintains professional standards for those in the field.

Those who wish to provide counseling or consultation services to individuals and groups opt for non-clinical social work specialties. They work for social service agencies and community organizations, taking on administrative positions, managing social systems, and overseeing community resources and programs that impact society at large.

Students with a social work degree are trained for success and growth in the field. Employment growth is understandably greater for those who have a graduate degree. Still, associate’s and Bachelor of Social Work degree holders also get into some of the best social work jobs. 

What are the various social worker degree programs?

A college may offer different social work degrees, such as an associate’s degree, BSW, master’s, or doctorate degree in social work. There are also online social work degrees. The social work degree program students choose may depend on their career plans and interests. Different degree levels for social work majors can prepare them for different jobs. Some positions, such as school social workers or licensed clinical social worker, require a master’s in social work. Entry-level positions are readily available for those with only a bachelor’s degree or an associate’s credential in social work online. If you want to be eligible for more advanced position in the field you will need a CSWE-accredited MSW degree.

What are the different types of social work degrees at the associate’s level?

Associate’s in social work programs focus on laying the groundwork for earning a bachelor’s and preparing students for entry-level positions as social workers. Students with a high school diploma can opt for an associate of arts or science in social work. Associate degree holders work in community outreach, home health assistance, or in broader health and community settings. Typically, it takes around 60–70 credits to complete the degree. Average tuition costs for an associate’s in social work vary between $3,156 and $14,587 annually. Financial aid may be available from regionally accredited institutions.

While these degrees for social workers are similar at the core, they differ slightly in terms of approach and specialties offered. The former’s general education requirements focus more on the humanities, while the latter focuses more on hard sciences and math. Both of these prepare students to transfer into a bachelor’s program in social work. The degree typically takes two years to complete and covers introductory coursework in psychology, social work practice, and sociology.

Related:

What is an Associates Degree in Science?

What are the different types of social work degrees at the bachelor’s level?

A bachelor’s in social work is the most popular degree program. It is the minimum educational option for students to start a career in social work. It prepares students to work entry-level, non-clinical work. Typical coursework includes topics like social work practice, intercultural social welfare issues, and introduction to psychology. The different BSW degree options include 

  • BSWBachelor of social work program – Designed for students who wish to work as generalist social workers in larger organizations immediately upon graduation. 
  • BASWBachelor of Arts in social work program – It is a generalist, liberal arts degree as well that includes general education content in addition to social work topics.
  • BSSWBachelor of Science in social work program – It emphasizes research methods in social work, offering more intensive practicum/internship requirements and more math or science courses than a regular BSW.

The degree typically takes four years to earn and usually incorporates a practicum. Depending on a particular state, a bachelor’s in social work can lead to various positions for social workers, such as case managers or public health social workers. It can also grant students advanced standing in social work graduate programs.  

What is the difference between an associate's and a bachelor's degree in social work?

Associate degree vs. bachelor degree program: which is better?

Pursuing an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s credential is a personal decision for each student, depending on various factors. One of the most fundamental differences between the two is the time it takes to earn the two degrees. Typically, a student can earn an associate’s degree in two years or a bachelor’s in four years unless they attend the course part-time. While an associate’s degree will be faster to get than a bachelor’s, one must keep in mind that part-time students take longer to earn their degrees. 

Once an associate’s degree is completed, students can transfer to a bachelor’s program with any transfer credits earned in the program. Students can check with their school’s credit transfer policies to see if it is possible to fast-track their bachelor’s and complete their social work education sooner. 

Students can prepare for a career in a specific field by enrolling in a highly-skilled vocational or technical program, which is one way to get an associate’s degree. With this training, they can get into entry-level jobs as social workers. They can also choose a general studies approach to earn transfer credits and simultaneously gain an associate’s degree. They can choose a major or not, depending on their preference. 

On the other hand, a bachelor’s program allows students to choose a major and complete a final project. They need to complete about two years of general education before they get to coursework in their major. Students can explore elective studies in a bachelor’s program, which can form a minor that complements their major. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people who have a bachelor’s earn more and have more job options than those with an associate’s degree.

What is the difference between an associate's and a bachelor's degree in social work?

What will you learn in an associate’s in social work program? 

The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) states that social workers are the largest mental health and substance abuse counseling providers for diverse populations in the country. An associate credential in social work prepares students for this role to help thousands of people in their line of work. 

The degree lays the foundation for further studies to advance their education to a BSW program and then master’s level or post-graduate education to gain more specialized knowledge. Prospective social workers are trained to conduct research studies on sociological topics and pursue licensure for jobs. Students learn from typical coursework like:

  • Addictions
  • Child protection
  • Counseling
  • Disability
  • Child abuse
  • Probation
  • Family Services
  • Violence
  • Client Advocacy
  • Employment Services
  • Administrative Procedures
  • Human Behavior and Ethics
  • Social Welfare
  • Community service
  • Mental Health Disorders
  • Community Social Work
  • Social Welfare Policy
  • Healthcare Policy
  • Social Justice Program Development

Prospective students pursuing an associate degree online benefit from flexible program formats so that they can study and work simultaneously. This type of social work program can help them get jobs like social work assistants, aides, administrative positions, or advocates in social service agencies or healthcare settings. Some schools offer online associate programs in accelerated formats, allowing students to graduate sooner than the usual period.

What is the difference between an associate's and a bachelor's degree in social work?

What kind of jobs can I get with an associate’s in social work?

Earning an associate credential in social work allows graduates to consider entry-level roles in the field and advance their degrees to broaden their job opportunities.

An associate’s in social work provides the foundational skills and knowledge necessary to pursue entry-level jobs across the field. These job opportunities in social services include social work assistants, case management aides, mental health assistants, and community outreach workers. A more advanced degree, such as those obtained from MSW programs, may be necessary for a licensed social worker to work in private practice. Some social workers with private practices have a doctoral degree.

How is a regular degree different from an associate’s in social work online program?

Regular social worker degree programs are taught on campus and face to face. Students attend classes either as day scholars or living on campus in a dorm. They interact directly with their teachers and peers and typically complete the program in two years.

Online programs are different, and this includes online social work programs. For example, associate degrees in social work online allow the flexibility of format, which significantly benefits distance learners and working professionals who wish to work and study simultaneously. Most of the time, the college offers an asynchronous format for these online programs so students studying to be social workers log in and learn at their own time and pace. Social work students enrolled in an online program also have the option to stretch their schedule to graduate in more than two years if need be or pursue an accelerated format to graduate sooner with an online social work degree. For instance, most programs may also offer online students certain support services like tutoring and career resources.

What will students learn in a BSW degree?

A Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) provides students with the knowledge and skills to succeed in the field of social services as social workers. They get a broad foundation for generalist social work practice and can specialize in a particular area they can pursue as advanced studies. BSW degree teaches students to focus on underserved or oppressed populations and serve as professional social workers to individuals, groups, families, and communities.

Typical coursework for an on-campus or online bachelor’s degree includes topics like:

  • Social Work & Social Change       
  • International Development with Grassroots Organizations
  • Social Work and the Military
  • Social Work and Disability Studies
  • Child Welfare Issues & Trends     
  • Dementia Care for Older Adults   
  • Social Work with Women
  • Assessment of Mental Health Disorders
  • Social Welfare Policy And Economic Justice
  • Human Behavior And The Social Environment
  • Applied Social Statistics
What is the difference between an associate's and a bachelor's degree in social work?

What can you do with a social worker degree? 

A social work degree can lead to various jobs for social workers that may be clinical or non-clinical in nature. The former includes jobs in clinics and hospitals, while the latter may include work in a nonprofit organization. 

A bachelor’s in social work is suitable for entry-level positions upon graduation and also gets an opportunity to become licensed. An associate degree in social work lays the foundation for these jobs and further studies in the social work field. Typical jobs for students earning this degree include:

  • Correctional Treatment Specialists
  • Mental Health Assistants
  • Social Work Teachers

Major industries that employ social workers and social services professionals include the following:

  • health
  • education
  • government agencies
  • nonprofits
  • mental health services
  • community health

Typical bachelor’s in social work careers include: 

  • Adolescent Specialist
  • Adoption Specialist
  • Adoption Program Coordinator
  • Case Management Aide
  • Case Manager
  • Child Advocate
  • Children’s Service Worker

Job prospects for degree seekers and aspiring social workers are good, and the demand for them is on the rise. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that social work jobs will grow at a rate of 9 percent through 2031, faster than average. Licensed social workers in clinical positions and those in applied specialties have the potential to earn more and grow in their careers faster. Social workers in mental health, health care settings, and substance abuse programs may experience the most growth due to the rising demand for therapeutic services. 

Nonclinical social workers may work with specific groups of people. They could pursue careers in diverse settings like:

  • community centers
  • nonprofits
  • mental health clinics
  • healthcare facilities
  • government agencies

They can work with related agencies to provide assistance to people in distress, including vulnerable populations and those with mental illnesses. For example, they may work as caseworkers and help clients cope with trauma or tragedy. They may refer patients or elderly individuals for social and community services, educational programs, and support groups.  Jobs in metropolitan areas with high living costs also tend to pay more, but the demand for social workers in rural areas is also growing. Social workers who complete master’s degree programs (i.e., MSW programs) may also have better job prospects, such as clinical and research positions.

How to choose the best social work education programs?

Whether online or on-campus at an accredited college, social worker degree programs prepare students for licensure in their respective states and jobs across the country in the social work field. Choosing the right social worker degree can be a challenge with many options and choices of schools. It is essential for students to do thorough research about the school, the degree, the curriculum, the time it takes to graduate, and the associated costs.

Students should consider all options before investing time and money into particular social work educational programs. These include the types of social work degrees offered and the choice of specializations. The latter may differ between an associate degree in social work and a BSW degree. They must also consider the format, flexibility, and type of student support offered, which could again differ between associates and bachelor’s degrees.

Next, they have to research the school, programmatic accreditations, and the cost of the educational programs. Students interested in social work programs should note that the cost differs between schools, especially public and private universities. These considerations are essential, particularly for busy professionals who need a good blend of cost and flexibility in their social work education programs.

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