MSW Programs in California

Written by Sam Medley

If you’ve decided to become a social worker in California, you’re embarking on a journey of endurance, advocacy, and service. Maybe you’re driven to help the homeless, immigrants, children, or just anyone left behind by an often uncaring world. But no matter your passion, earning a Master of Social Work (MSW) can help you become a catalyst for real, meaningful change.

Though some social workers pursue Doctorates, MSW degrees are widely regarded as the gold standard for practicing professionals. Like other types of degrees, though, MSWs are investments of time, money, and work. To help you get the most out of your own investment, here’s what you need to know about the requirements, costs, and education provided by MSW programs in California.

Common Prerequisites for MSW Programs

The specific prerequisites for MSW programs in California vary slightly from one institution to another. However, many programs ask new students to provide details about their:

Remember, these are only common things Social Work Master’s programs ask for. When applying, reach out to the program’s admissions office if you have any questions.

Time Commitments and Different Types of Programs

MSW programs in California are perhaps more accessible than ever. Due to the state’s abundance of programs, students of all kinds can find a program that fits their goals and lifestyle.

The four types of MSW programs you’ll find in California include:

Traditional MSW Programs

These programs are designed for students with a bachelor’s degree in a non-social work field. They usually take around two years to complete on a full-time basis. Most traditional MSW programs require students to complete 60 credit hours of classes.

Part-Time or Extended MSW Programs

Some universities offer part-time or extended MSW programs, allowing students to pursue their degree while continuing to work or manage other responsibilities. The completion time for these programs can range from two to three years or more. These programs typically have a 60-credit-hour graduation requirement.

Hybrid and Online MSW Programs

Whether you’re new to the field or a working professional, hybrid and online programs allow you to take courses whenever and wherever is convenient. New students may be able to earn their MSW in anywhere from 18 months to three years. Hybrid and online MSW programs in California typically have a 60-credit-hour graduation requirement.

Advanced Standing MSW Programs

These programs are intended for students who already hold a BSW. They typically take one year of full-time study and have about a 30-credit-hour graduation requirement. These types of programs can be on-campus, online, or hybrid.

It’s important to check a program’s duration and format before applying. Some programs even offer summer classes that could potentially shorten the time it takes to earn an MSW.

Common MSW Costs in California

The cost of MSW programs in California can vary significantly depending on the specific institution, whether the program is public or private, the program’s duration, and whether you are an in-state or out-of-state resident. Additionally, other expenses such as textbooks, fees, and living costs should be considered.

It’s difficult to put an average cost on MSW programs in California, but the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) lists accredited schools that cost anywhere from about $500 to $1,000 and up per credit hour. Students who enroll in online, part-time, or advanced standing programs may pay slightly different rates. Some schools may fall outside of this range and costs are subject to change.

Wondering how to pay for an MSW program in California? Explore scholarship opportunities and grants that can make your education more affordable.

An Important Note About Accreditation

The CSWE isn’t just a database for MSW programs in California. Since 1952, they’ve been the agency responsible for accrediting the country’s social work education programs. They do this by ensuring each program teaches career-relevant curriculum, hires experienced faculty, and helps students meet all legal requirements to practice in their states. Schools that meet these standards (along with a long list of others) can seek CSWE accreditation.

According to the California Board of Behavioral Sciences (BBS), all licensed clinical social workers in the state must have a degree from or must have completed courses at a CSWE-accredited institution. But whether you want to become a clinical social worker or not, remember that degrees from CSWE-accredited programs are highly regarded by licensing agencies and employers alike.

Foundational Classes And Core Competencies

MSW programs in California typically include foundational classes that provide students with a solid understanding of the core principles and theories of social work. These courses lay the groundwork for more advanced studies and make up about half of an MSW’s 60-credit-hour curriculum. Students who already have a BSW or social work experience may be able to skip these classes if they qualify for an advanced standing program.

Cultural Competence

MSW programs emphasize cultural awareness and competence, preparing social workers to work effectively with California’s diverse populations and respect different cultural backgrounds, identities, and beliefs.

Social Welfare Policy and Services

This class explores the history, development, and current state of social welfare policies and services in the United States and California. Students examine the impact of social policies on individuals and communities and learn to critically analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the existing system.

Social Work and the Law

This course explores California law as it pertains to social work practice. Students learn about their legal responsibilities, client rights, and regulations about their industry.

Specifically for MSW programs in California, law classes will likely cover social work regulations as set forth by the Board of Behavioral Sciences: the agency responsible for overseeing marriage and family therapists, clinical counselors, educational psychologists, and clinical social workers.

Human Behavior and the Social Environment

In this course, students study human behavior and the influence of various social, cultural, and environmental factors on individuals and families.

Social Work Practice with Individuals and Families

After learning how psychological and social issues influence human behavior, students can then learn how to assess client needs, apply intervention techniques, and develop therapeutic relationships. At this level, classes typically focus broadly on how to accomplish these tasks with individuals and families.

Crisis Intervention and Trauma-Informed Care

Many of the people social workers serve have experienced or are currently experiencing some form of trauma. This might include domestic violence, abuse, neglect, or mental health crises. Social workers must be prepared to tailor their approach to these circumstances and help clients through crises on a short- and long-term basis.

Case Management and Client Advocacy

Social workers don’t typically work alone. They must collaborate with other professionals like doctors, therapists, housing agencies, and more. Case management classes teach students how to bring these resources together for the benefit of their clients and how to advocate for their clients’ basic rights. This is especially important for marginalized groups who are virtually cut off from vital services.

Research Methods

This class introduces students to research design, data collection, and analysis methods used in social work research. Because social work is constantly evolving, students need to know how to apply the latest research to their practices.

Ethics and Professional Values

Social workers must protect their clients from harm, maintain trust within the community, and respect their clients’ rights. While this may sound like a tough yet straightforward objective, social workers need a strong ethical framework to rely on in complex situations. In these classes, students explore common professional dilemmas and learn how to make ethical decisions.

Social Work Specializations and Advanced Classes

After completing foundational classes, many social workers choose to specialize in a particular area of their field. While specializations vary by school, here are a few to consider as you explore California’s MSW programs.

Clinical Social Work

Though foundational classes often deal with assessing clients’ basic needs, advanced clinical classes teach students how to diagnose mental health disorders. Because clinical social workers in California need to earn a license before they can practice, the curriculum will likely be informed by the BBS’s licensing laws and regulations. You’ll also likely take classes on specific types of treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy and motivational interviewing.

Child and Family Welfare

In 2020, over 60,000 children were the victims of abuse or neglect in California. To address this widespread issue, future child and family welfare social workers must learn how to recognize and address signs of abuse, navigate the state’s robust family court system, and support families through dire circumstances. Other important topics covered might include child development, the foster care system, and supporting children as they transition into adulthood.

child and family welfare

Mental Health Social Work

Mental health social workers specialize in providing support, counseling, and intervention services to individuals, families, and communities dealing with mental health challenges. However, mental health social workers must also know when to refer their clients to other professionals. Though mental health social workers aren’t necessarily clinical social workers, they still typically take classes that cover mental illnesses, therapeutic techniques, and the effects of medications and environments.

Substance Abuse Social Work

The California Healthcare Foundation estimates that in 2022, around 2.9 million Californians 12 and older suffered from substance abuse issues. In addiction specialty programs, students learn how to use evidence-based interventions to help their clients and their clients’ loved ones. Typically, there are also classes focused on the intersections between addiction, poverty, mental health, and other circumstances.

School Social Work

School social workers support students’ academic and social-emotional needs in and outside of the classroom. Some of their classes may be similar to classes taken by child and family social workers, but school social workers must also learn about school-based interventions, their legal obligations to students, and how to collaborate with educators and families.

Healthcare Social Work

Though California expanded its low-cost healthcare program in early 2023, many people in the state remain uninsured. Healthcare social work classes teach students to connect people to much-needed medical resources, address psychosocial aspects of illness, and provide support to patients and their families. HIPAA regulations and industry-specific laws are also usually included in the curriculum.

Gerontology Social Work

From Alzheimer’s to social isolation, California’s aging population faces unique challenges. Gerontology social workers take classes about the social, economic, and health-related challenges of aging as well as the specific services and laws that aim to protect this vulnerable population. Many students even narrow their focus down to working with hospice and palliative care residents and their families.

Immigration and Refugee Social Work

In 2022, the US Census Bureau estimated that around 27% of California’s 39 million residents were born outside the US. Immigration and refugee social workers play a crucial role in helping these populations navigate the complex immigration system, adjust to a new culture, and overcome various challenges related to resettlement. Some students focus on working with clients from specific cultures and places.

Disaster Response

More than 73,000 acres of California suffered wildfire damage in 2022 alone, displacing families and reducing entire communities to ash.

In disaster response courses, social workers learn how to help individuals, communities, and overwhelmed local agencies by providing counseling and logistical support. As these types of crises continue, environmentally-focused social workers stand to become an important part of the state’s social services community.

Community Social Work

Instead of focusing on individual needs, community social workers assess and address issues that affect large groups of people like homelessness, food insecurity, crime, and a lack of access to proper healthcare services. In community organization classes, students learn how to run and cooperate with multiple agencies that address these widespread challenges.

Policy Analysis and Macro Social Work

Helping individuals is only one part of social work. Another major component is addressing the systemic wrongs and social issues that put vulnerable people in harm’s way. MSW programs teach students how to engage with communities, advocate for social change, and address wide-spread issues at the macro level. These types of courses are particularly helpful for people looking for jobs in non-profit advocacy organizations.

Advanced Research and Program Evaluation

As people’s needs change, social service programs must follow suit. Advanced research classes teach students how to not just conduct research, but use their findings to improve social services at every level. Though the majority of social workers in California take on front-line or administrative roles, some work in vital teaching roles at universities and data analysis jobs in organizations of all kinds.

Other Types of Specializations and Advanced Courses

This list of specializations offered by MSW programs in California isn’t exhaustive. As the state’s population surges and more social issues arise, more groups of people will need help with their own unique challenges.

If you’re not sure what direction to take, consider pursuing advanced generalist studies to develop a toolkit you can use to help people of all kinds. At many schools, this involves taking classes within multiple specialties as well as advanced courses about topics like case management, social work administration, and legal issues. It can also be a great choice for future social work administrators and supervisors.

However, some schools offer more highly-focused social work specialty programs. For instance, more schools are offering courses about racial inequity, LGBTQ+ advocacy, and climate justice. Even if you can’t enroll in a program that offers a full range of courses about these topics, you may be able to talk to program faculty about designing a schedule of classes that fits your needs. You may even be able to combine advanced generalist courses with a practicum experience at an organization whose mission aligns with your calling.

Theory Meets Practice: The Practicum Experience

In Master Social Work programs, classroom learning is only the beginning. Before you graduate, you’ll put everything you’ve learned to the test during a practicum — a hands-on experience that many students say is the most formative, enriching, and challenging part of their education.

A practicum is a lot like an internship in that students work with social work agencies and receive class credit hours. But unlike internships, practicums are often mandatory in social worker schools. In fact, the CSWE requires all accredited MSW programs to include a 900-hour or more practicum into their curriculum. Some schools require more. If you have a BSW or enroll in an advanced-standing program, your prior experience may reduce this requirement.

Practicum Placements

Fortunately, most MSW programs in California have long-standing partnerships with multiple types of social work agencies. You’ll likely work with a faculty advisor on securing a placement that fits your goals.

MSW students in California can complete their practicums by working at:

Ultimately, it’s up to program administrators to approve your practicum placement site.

Duties and Field Supervision

At your practicum site, you’ll have a chance to observe social workers in action. But more importantly, you’ll be able to apply your knowledge to different roles in the social services system. At the same time, you can get a better idea of what kind of career you want to pursue after graduation.

While specific duties vary between agencies, here’s a few roles you might take on:

If you’re new to the field, doing any of these jobs as a student probably seems intimidating. But in CSWE-accredited programs, students carry out these duties under the direct supervision of a field instructor — a qualified social worker who works closely with students and their schools. Your field instructor will also provide guidance and assessments throughout this process. Depending on the program, your field instructor may meet with you on an individual basis or in groups with other students.

Practicums for Online MSW Students

Students who complete online or hybrid MSW programs usually have the same practicum requirements as their on-campus counterparts. Faculty can help these students find enlightening fieldwork opportunities in their local area and meet with them in online meetings.

Master of Social Work: CSWE-Accredited MSW Programs In California

Now that you know all the ins and outs of MSW programs in California, you can feel confident as you take the first step towards your new career. To get started, here are a handful of CSWE-accredited MSW programs around the state that offer a surprisingly diverse number of specialties and formats.

Azusa Pacific University

School of Applied Behavioral Sciences
Formats: Full-time, part-time, or advanced standing. On-campus.

azusa pacific university

MSW in Clinical Practice with Individuals and Families

MSW in Community Leadership and Program Administration

Also offers:

California State University, Los Angeles

School of Social Work
Formats: Full-time and advanced standing. On-campus.

MSW in Advanced Generalist Studies

Also offers:

Fresno State University

Department of Social Work
Formats: Full-time and part-time. On-campus

fresno state university

MSW in Child Welfare

MSW in School Social Work

MSW in Behavioral Health and Integrated Practice

Also offers:

Loma Linda University

School of Behavioral Health
Formats: Full-time, part-time, and advanced standing. On-campus and online.

MSW in Advanced Clinical Practice

MSW in Advanced Generalist Studies

Also offers:

San Jose State University

School of Social Work
Formats: Full-time, part-time, and advanced standing. On-campus, online, and hybrid.

san jose state university

MSW in Advanced Generalist Studies

Also offers:

University of Southern California

Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work
Formats: Full-time, part-time, and advanced standing. On-campus, online, and hybrid.

usc - university of southern california

MSW in Advanced Generalist Studies

MSW in Integrative Social Work

MSW in Mental Health and Wellness

MSW in Children, Youth, and Families

MSW in Social Change and Innovation

MSW in School and Educational Settings

MSW in Military Populations and Settings

Also offers: