If you’re thinking about earning a Master’s in Social Work (MSW), you have a lot to look forward to: being a part of one of the nation’s biggest social service communities, helping people overcome their most intimidating problems, and making the world a better, more equitable place. But in spite of those positives, you probably also have something a little more immediate on your mind. Money.
Social work isn’t always the highest-paying career, especially at the beginning. College isn’t getting any cheaper. And if you’re in California, many of the places you might find work have a relatively high cost of living. However, one fact stands overwhelmingly in your favor:
California has more financial aid programs for college students than almost any other state.
In the 2016 to 2017 academic year, California distributed $400 more in aid per student than the national average. Over the next few years, tuition costs rose even more. In response, the California Student Aid Commission increased its grant and scholarship budget by $1.4 billion.
As a social work student, you have even more financial aid available to you. Stipends, scholarships, and loan repayment programs can all put the cost of an MSW firmly within your budget.
First Thing’s First: Grants and Need-based Aid for Undergrads
While many of the resources on this list are available to bachelor’s of social work (BSW) and MSW students alike, they’re largely aimed at MSW students. But if you still need to earn your bachelor’s, here are a few financial aid programs that can help you on that stage of your journey.
Cal Grants are a form of need-based financial aid available to California residents. There are three types of Cal Grants, but when applying for it, the state will determine which one you are eligible for. They pay up to $6,000 annually.
The California College Promise program allows students to enroll in any California Community College without having to pay any enrollment fees. They also offer aid for supplies.
Many federal and state-run financial aid programs are only available to residents. Fortunately, the California Dream Act extends college financial aid to undocumented people, U Visa holders, Deferred Action Childhood Arrival (DACA) recipients, or students with Temporarily Protected (TPS) Status.If you don’t have a social security number, you can still apply for California Dream Act benefits. You can even receive additional funding by completing volunteer service hours through the Service Incentive Program.
The Federal Student Aid office of the US Department of Education offers grants, loans, and work-study assistance. These resources are typically need-based, so you’ll likely be required to report income, your family’s income, and other financial information on a FAFSA form. You may also have to fill out a FAFSA form before you apply for state- and school-based financial aid, as well.
Scholarships and Grants
Scholarships and grants are financial aid that doesn’t need to be paid back. Grants are often need-based while scholarships are typically awarded based on merit, academic performance, and other factors.
Graduate students in the California State University (CSU) system can apply for grants that cover, at minimum, the amount of the State University Fee. In 2023, the fee was $7,176 for grad students. To be eligible, you must be a California resident, have an expected family contribution of $4,000 or less, and not be awarded any other assistance to cover fees. Submitting a FAFSA form automatically puts you into consideration for SUG aid.
The California Department of Health Care Access and Information (HCAI) Behavioral Health Scholarship Program
With scholarships worth up to $25,000, the HCAI Behavioral Health Scholarship Program is one of the largest scholarship opportunities for social workers in California. To be eligible, students must be enrolled in six units of classes each semester, maintain a 2.0 GPA, and commit to a behavioral health role in an underserved area for one year after graduation.
Established in 1961, the Davis-Putter Fund supports college students who are active in social and economic justice movements in their communities and demonstrate financial need. In 2023, the maximum award was $15,000, but out of about 30 recipients, the average award was $7,500.
Through the Carl A. Scott Fund, students attending CSWE-accredited BSW and MSW programs can receive $500 to put towards books. Awardees must be enrolled full-time and show a passion for promoting social justice and equity.
In memory of one of the founders, the California Society for Clinical Social Work awards three MSW students scholarships of $1,000. Students must be in their second or last year of studies at a California social work school.
As a field, social work doesn’t just strive to help underserved populations, but ensure they’re represented in their workforce. To meet this goal, the California Chapter of the NASW awards up to 10 $1,000 scholarships to Native American BSW and MSW students. Like other NASW scholarships, applicants must be NASW members. Previous awardees can apply again.
MSW students who specialize in offering mental health and substance abuse services to BIPOC communities can apply for the Minority Fellowship Program administered by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). This program grants scholarships and additional training to students in their last year of study. Although the CSWE doesn’t list how much these scholarships are worth, the Department of Health and Human Services invested $25 million in the program in 2023.
Every year, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Foundation awards $4,000 scholarships to MSW students who have a passion for serving American Indian, Alaskan Native, and Hispanic or Latino populations. Applicants must be NASW members and submit an essay, a statement of merit, and two professional reference statements.
Named for a social worker who advocated for health rights in African American communities, this scholarship is awarded to six MSW students who share that same passion. Applicants must be members of the NASW. While awards are based on yearly contributions to the fund, six scholarships of $4,333 were awarded in 2023.
While there are many state and national scholarships available to MSW students, California is home to some of the country’s oldest, biggest, and most highly-recognized MSW programs. Most have scholarships funded by private donors and local social service partners. As you explore your options, don’t forget to see what each school has on offer. Your dream school might be more affordable than you think.
Many MSW programs in California have partnerships with social service agencies that allow students to earn income as they earn their degrees. Unlike scholarships though, stipend programs typically require students to sign a contract to work at a certain social service agency for a certain amount of time after graduation. These programs also typically offer unique fieldwork and training opportunities.
The California Department of Health Care Access and Information (HCAI) offers graduate-level stipends worth up to $25,000. Many types of mental health students, including MSW students, are eligible. To receive aid, students must agree to work in a community-based behavioral health setting for one year. Through this program, Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs) and Associate Clinical Social Workers (ASWs) can also receive student loan repayment assistance.
Based at UC Berkeley, CalSWEC is a statewide partnership between social work schools and social service providers. Together, they aim to both improve social work education and fill the California social service workforce with highly-trained professionals. To meet this goal, CalSWEC organizes three types of stipend programs:
MSW students who enroll in these programs can receive annual stipends of up to $18,500, go through additional training, and must commit to working at a partner agency for two years. 20 schools, including many CSU and UC campuses, offer CalSWEC stipend programs.
GSWEC is a partnership between eight LA-area Graduate Schools of Social Work and 13 local gerontology service providers like Alzheimer’s Los Angeles, The VA of Greater Los Angeles, and the Motion Picture Television Fund. Along with matching students with fieldwork placements in their diverse network, GSWEC also provides annual stipends of $4,000 and up.
Finding Other Stipend Opportunities
While this list includes some of the largest stipend programs for MSW students in California, many schools have partnerships with agencies in their local areas that provide similar funding.
For instance, CalOptima Health recently invested $5 million into a stipend program at CSU Fullerton. And through the HCAI’s Social Work Education Capacity Expansion Program, MSW programs can apply for $1.5 million grants to expand their programs and support more students. The demand for social workers in California seems to be growing steadily and students of all kinds stand to benefit.
Loan Repayment Programs
Even if you qualify for a scholarship, stipend, or need-based financial aid, you may still have some student loans to pay back. Fortunately, California and the federal government offer loan repayment assistance programs to public service professionals like social workers.
Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs), substance abuse counselors, and other licensed medical and mental health professionals can receive up to $50,000 in funding to help pay off student loans. To receive aid, you must commit to working in a federally-designated California Health Professional Shortage Area for two years. You can receive additional funding by extending your commitment.
California’s LMH program is similar to the SLRP program, but with slightly different requirements. Practicing LCSWs, Associate Clinical Social Workers, behavioral disorder counselors, and substance use disorder counselors may be eligible to receive $30,000 in loan repayment assistance if they work in a:
Recipients must agree to a two-year contract in an eligible facility and provide at least 32 hours of direct patient care a week.
Through this federal program, graduates who get jobs in government agencies and eligible non-profit organizations are eligible to enroll in the Department of Education’s PSLF program. After making the equivalent of 120 monthly payments under a qualified payment plan (like SAVE, PAYE, IBR, and ICR plans), the remainder of your Direct Loan may be forgiven.
The NHSC is a federal organization that provides healthcare services in underserved communities. Social workers who sign a two-year service agreement at an NHSC-approved site in one of these areas can receive up to $50,000 towards student loan repayments. Agreeing to additional years can garner more aid. There are also programs for substance abuse specialists and professionals who work in rural communities.
Still need to crunch some numbers? Explore social work salaries across California and common costs associated with earning an MSW.