Top LCSW Online Programs in 2023

Reviewed by: Megan Kelly, MA, LMHC

Students considering a career in the field of social work can get the most out of their education through the pursuit of a professional license in their field. The most prominent licensed title for professionals in this field is the licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). LCSWs can provide a variety of services to help people cope with difficult life circumstances.

Licensed clinical social workers must go through a designated chain of educational and practical requirements to qualify for LCSW degree licensure in this position. Our team of educational experts has broken this process down below to make your journey to career success a little easier.

Consider an online counseling program: Syracuse University’s CSWE-accredited online Master of Social Work program is preparing the next generation of social work leaders. Learn more.
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How to Become an LCSW: Licensure and More

If you’ve spent any time researching career fields in counseling, you’ve probably noticed a lot of talk about licensure and accreditation requirements. Social work can have a heavy influence on the people being served, making it necessary for providers to abide by certain standards and regulations. Those who’ve completed all of the components required to obtain an official LCSW license are certified to offer licensed clinical social work services.

Obtaining licensure is an important step in becoming a clinical social worker. It can help ensure that practitioners have met all of the requirements set by the state and are aware of the skills that they need before entering the field. If you’re interested in working one-on-one with clients as a social worker, you should review licensed clinical social worker online programs that could result in licensure in the future.

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Earn a Bachelor's Degree

The first step toward becoming an LCSW is earning a bachelor's degree in a related field. Most students hoping to pursue this particular career path enroll in a bachelor's of social work program, but it is possible to be accepted to graduate school with a different undergraduate major.

Earn a Master's Degree in Social Work

Although there are jobs available for graduates with bachelor's degrees in social work, if you want to become an LCSW, you will need to take a step further and complete a master's degree as well. When you choose your degree program, it's important to consider factors like the format and accreditation status.


As you research LCSW online programs, you will likely come across many options. For example, some programs are fully online, while others require that you complete a week or two of classes face-to-face over the academic year. You may also come across programs that are primarily asynchronous, meaning that you complete the work at the time that works best for you, and others that are synchronous and require you to attend virtual class meetings on certain days and times.


Choosing an accredited, licensed clinical social work degree program is an excellent way to prepare for the licensing requirements in your field. Institutions that set licensure regulations do not recognize programs that aren’t accredited. In practical terms, if you earn a degree from a program that lacks accreditation status, you will not be able to meet the requirements for licensure. Different professional fields may require specific types of accreditation, so you should always research what type of accreditation to look for when choosing your program.

The minimum degree you will need to earn to become an LCSW is a master’s in social work (MSW). When you’re exploring possible master’s programs, consider those that have achieved the right type of accreditation for your future licensure.

The starting point for accredited programs is the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). This association regularly reviews educational programs to ensure that the curriculum includes all of the required aspects needed for licensed professionals and is modified as the field changes.

Program Length

Another point to consider is the program length. If you are attending full-time, most programs can be completed within two years. However, if you earned a bachelor's degree in social work, you may be able to enroll in an advanced standing program, which can be completed in as little as one year.

Complete Supervised Clinical Experience

After earning your master's degree, you will need to complete a set number of clinical hours, which differs from state to state. Most licensure prospects engage in this requirement for about two years, but it's important to research the specific number in the state where you plan to work. Some of the experiences you may be required to complete include:

*Assessments and treatments
*Individual and group therapy

The practical components of these requirements were put into place to help you gain the hands-on experience you need while being observed and led by licensed LCSWs in the field.

Take the Association of Social Work Boards Exam

One of the final steps toward achieving your license is the completion of the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) examination. This test is completed after you’ve finished your degree program and supervised field experiences. The examination consists of topics and scenarios that could arise in the field and requires you to think critically and use skills developed during your prior education and experience. Depending on your state, you may be required to take an advanced generalist or clinical exam.

Apply for State Licensure

Once you have passed your exam and met all of your state's requirements, you can officially apply for an LCSW licensure. You may need to periodically complete additional requirements to renew your license.

How Long Does It Take to Become an LCSW?

With all of that said, how long it takes to become a licensed clinical social worker ultimately depends on how quickly you can amass the needed number of supervised practice hours and how quickly you can complete the licensing exam. For most people in this field, after completing your degree programs, becoming licensed takes a minimum of two years and no more than six years.

What’s the Difference Between an MSW and an LCSW Degree?

An MSW is a master’s in social work, which can serve as the foundation for a career as a licensed master social worker (LMSW) or licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). The specific requirements for these licenses differ by state, but an LMSW typically works in a case management role, while an LCSW has more extensive clinical experience and expertise. As a result, LCSWs are often more involved in working with clients in a therapeutic setting.

Clinical Social Work Degree Programs

Social work can lead to many fields responsible for providing well-rounded services to the general public. At the master’s level and beyond, social work professionals can blend skills from both social work and counseling to provide optimum services to clients with extensive needs. To meet the requirements of the LCSW in your state, you should begin by choosing a degree program in the area that most interests you.

The CSWE currently accredits degree programs with a wide variety of specializations. Your choice of specialization could lead you to more specific career options in the future, making this an important step toward your overall success. Most social work professionals interested in including counseling on their resumes choose to pursue an online clinical social work degree before seeking certification. You may also want to choose other specializations that help you learn more about the groups that need the most care in your area.

Online Master of Social Work – Clinical Social Work

The online MSW in Clinical Social Work can be an excellent choice for upcoming professionals interested in pursuing their license as an LCSW. This degree program includes components relevant to observing, diagnosing, and treating common mental health issues presented by clients, as well as some of the practical and ethical concerns present in the field of social work. It can provide you with a variety of skills that can be applied when working with diverse groups in your geographical area. For counseling, consider a clinical mental health counseling degree.

Online Master of Social Work – Child and Family Social Work

The desire to work with children and families encourages many different people to pursue MSW programs. If you’re interested in working with children and families going through difficult circumstances in their personal lives, an online MSW in Child and Family Social Work may be the right choice for you. The skills learned in this program could be exceptionally helpful to you as you transition into an LCSW in the future.

Online Master of Social Work – School Social Work

One way to take control over your future career is by choosing a degree program that focuses on the skills social workers need in your chosen field. If you have the desire to work in school systems with children in need, an online MSW in School Social Work could be a great choice for you to consider. Blending your knowledge of social work with the requirements of U.S. school systems can help you qualify for open positions in your area. You may also read the guide for school counseling degrees, a similar area but in counseling.

LCSW Certification Options

Since social work is a diverse field, you can choose to add on many different certifications during your career. If you’re interested in the counseling component of the LCSW distinction, you should look into certification programs that can further your skills in the practice of counseling in your area. Mental health and related specialization options can provide you with more insight into some of the common ailments and issues in the field; this can lead to more informed decision-making and treatment options in the field.

If you’d like to keep your options open as a social work professional, choose certification options that are relevant to social work agencies in your community. Having an educationally diverse background alongside your license can help you achieve positions that many social work professionals in your area have sought out. Some certifications you can pursue include:

  • Mental Health
  • Clinical Social Work
  • Psychiatric Social Work
  • Youth Social Work
  • Geriatric Social Work
  • Family Social Work
  • Substance Abuse Social Work
  • Healthcare Social Work

Licensure Requirements

Every state has its own set of requirements for licensure as an LCSW. In most cases, the licensure requirements include:

  • A master’s or doctoral degree in social work
  • A minimum of two years of experience in postgraduate clinical experience, which often ranges between 3,000 and 4,000 hours of supervised work
  • A passing score on the required licensing test
  • Completing renewal requirements, which are often a set number of continuing education hours every two years

Taking into account the time to complete your degree, clinical experience, and licensing exam, it typically takes between six and eight years to become an LCSW. A key point to remember is that this licensure applies only to the state in which you originally apply. Because licensure requirements are location-specific, if you, at some point decide to move and take on a position in a different state, you may need to complete additional requirements to obtain new licensure.

Available Careers for an LCSW

One of the most popular reasons to choose social work is the variety of professional fields that are available. Because there are so many people in need of the assistance of social workers, there is a wide range of employers and concentrations that you can pursue.

Career Settings

Obtaining your license as an LCSW can help you to get the job of your dreams in state agencies, mental health facilities, or even in the field of education. Your role in these organizations can vary depending on your expertise and certifications. There are several possible work environments for social work professionals.

Mental Health Facilities/Offices

In these settings, LCSWs can work with individual clients to assist them with working through common stressors in their lives or even with complex mental health disorders. While working in mental health organizations, LCSWs can be providers of regular therapy or specialized mental health interventions designed for a number of emotional needs.

Child/Adult Welfare Agencies

State agencies such as the Department of Children’s Services or Adult Protective Services often employ LCSWs who work with their clients on a daily basis. Social workers can help children or adults who have experienced trauma from neglect or abuse by providing support during their initial move into state custody or during the healing process. LCSWs can also work in conjunction with foster care agencies to ensure that children receive regular and thorough mental health treatment during their experience.


LCSWs in the healthcare field can provide support to individuals in the midst of invasive health-related procedures or when needed for generalized patient care. Some professionals in this field may work on staff in psychiatric departments of hospitals, healthcare clinics, and even retirement facilities to help patients manage daily issues or symptoms of their disorders. If you have an interest in working in a fast-paced environment with new clients, this could be a field for you to consider pursuing after receiving your license.


Children in school systems all over the U.S. can benefit from having LCSWs on staff. Some school systems employ professionals in this field in an effort to promote positive mental health for enrolled students and preventive assistance relating to self-esteem, bullying, and drug abuse. LCSWs interested in this type of work should seek out requirements for professionals in the field of education before enrolling in a degree program.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker vs. Therapist

In considering career paths, it’s helpful to note the distinctions between licensed clinical social workers and therapists.

The term “therapist” is broad and may encompass licensed social workers as well as psychologists and psychiatric care providers. Not all therapists are LCSWs, but those who wish to become therapists may benefit from the advanced training and licensure required to become an LCSW.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) Salary

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), as of May 2021, the median salary for a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) is $50,390 annually. Note that the annual clinical social worker salary may vary based on a number of factors, including:

  • Type of facility/workplace
  • Years of experience
  • Geographic area
  • Level of education
  • Specialization

For example, according to the BLS, the median salary for a healthcare social worker is $60,840, while the median salary for child, family, and school social workers is $49,150.

The BLS also projects job growth of 9% for social workers between 2021 and 2031, which is faster than the projected average for all occupations.

NASW Standards and Guidelines

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) provides a series of guidelines that describe best practices for social workers. Their guidance ensures that social workers and employers are fully aware of what services they should be providing. The NASW standards cover topics like:

  • Technology
  • Cultural competence
  • Clients with substance abuse disorders
  • Supervision
  • School social work services
  • Family caregivers of older adults
  • Palliative and end-of-life care
  • Continuing education
  • Social work in healthcare settings
  • Child welfare
  • Case management
  • Safety in the workplace
  • Social work with adolescents
  • Services in long-term care facilities

The NASW strongly recommends that both experienced social workers and those who are new to the field review the standards and guidelines to ensure that they are offering the best possible services to clients.

Become an LCSW With a Clinical Social Work Degree

If you want to help people through difficult life circumstances and make a positive impact on your community, becoming an LCSW may be a good choice for you. You can look through a variety of programs based on specialization and what type of career you want. Take a look at different programs, specific courses, and schools that offer that program. Explore some available resources, and start your career in social work today.

List of Programs

Syracuse University 🗹 Online 🗗 Masters

Fordham University 🗹 Online 🗗 Masters

University of Southern California 🗹 Online 🗗 Masters

University of Denver 🗹 Online 🗗 Masters

Our Lady of the Lake University 🗹 Online 🗗 Bachelors 🗗 Masters

Case Western Reserve University 🗹 Online 🗗 Masters

Simmons University 🗹 Online

Howard University 🗹 Online

Northern Kentucky University 🗹 Online 🗗 Masters

Baylor University 🗹 Online 🗗 Masters

Capella University 🗹 Online Masters

MSW - Social Work
CSWE Accredited
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