Social workers are in high demand right now. More social workers are needed to meet the growing requirements of children, families, schools, healthcare systems and other areas of society.
Being in demand doesn’t always line up with a salary worth your time, energy and education, however. Social workers have the potential to make nearly six figures in some segments of the career field. They also have the potential for building up six-figures’ worth of student loan debt.
Here’s a closer look at current social worker salaries, including breakdowns based on location and education level.
Requirements to become a social worker
For entry-level social worker jobs, you’ll need a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW), although degrees in related fields may suffice just as well.
Clinical social work positions require a master’s degree in social work (MSW). Typically, earning a master’s degree in social work requires two more years of school, including an internship or practicum.
Every state requires clinical social workers to have a license. Nonclinical social workers often have the same state license requirement or at least a certification requirement. Getting a social worker license requires a minimum of two years of supervised clinical experience and passing a clinical exam.
Social worker salaries
Social workers make more annually than the median national salary. The median annual wage for all social workers, as of May 2019, was $50,470, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Salary numbers vary between the different segments of the social worker field. Healthcare social workers, for example, have a median annual salary of $56,750, while social workers specializing in mental health and substance abuse earn a median salary of $46,650. Student Loan Planner has worked with social worker clients whose salaries ranged from $25,000 to $90,000.
Salaries based on location
Social worker salary also depends on where you live and work. Some areas of the country pay higher wages, likely due to a higher cost of living. Here’s a look at average salaries from several cities for licensed clinical social workers.
Average Salaries for Licensed Clinical Social Workers by Location
|Des Moines, Iowa||$55,000|
|Bowling Green, Ky.||$46,500|
As you can see, social worker salaries vary considerably, even with the same job title, an MSW degree, and a clinical license.
Social worker salaries based on education level
There’s also a salary discrepancy within the social work field based on the highest degree level received. A survey of 2017 social work graduates found that graduates with an MSW earned over $13,000 more annually than their peers with a BSW. The numbers jump even higher when you include social workers with a doctorate or a Ph.D.
Social Worker Salary Based on Degree
|Degree Level||Average Salary|
|Bachelor’s of Social Work||$31,327|
|Master’s of Social Work||$44,418|
|Doctorate of Social Work||$66,500|
While there are opportunities within social work for people with only a BSW, your chances of earning a higher salary increase considerably by pursuing an MSW or higher-level degree.
Social worker student loan debt
Working toward a degree in social work often leads to significant student loan debt. The 2018 Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) Annual Survey of Social Work Programs shows that the average student loan debt for baccalaureate graduates was $28,348. Master’s graduates averaged $45,080 of student loan debt. Most likely, the average debt has increased since the study was conducted.
Here’s a comparison of tuition costs at three popular colleges with MSW degree programs:
|New Mexico State University||$5,753||$17,743|
|University of Washington||$20,828||$34,736|
|University of California, Berkeley||$24,461||$36,706|
Attending New Mexico State University is considerably less expensive compared to both the University of Washington and UC Berkeley.
Keep in mind that this example only accounts for tuition and fees for one year. The above costs don’t account for the second year required for MSW programs. The comparison also doesn’t show all of the other expenses that come with attending college, including:
- Books and supplies
- Room and board (or rent)
- Transportation costs
- Personal expenses
Don’t forget to add in any student loan debt accumulated from undergrad studies. Depending on the college or university you graduate from, you could leave school with six-figure student loan debt.
Repayment strategies for social worker student loans
Social workers have several repayment options available for paying off student loan debt. Choices include student loan forgiveness programs, repayment programs and refinancing.
Social workers and student loan forgiveness
Many social workers with federal student loans will qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). Choosing this path forgives any leftover debt after 10 years if you meet qualifications.
To be eligible for PSLF, borrowers must make 120 qualifying monthly payments while working full time for a qualified employer. Eligible employers include government and select nonprofit jobs. Another perk of PSLF is that the forgiven debt is not taxable.
There are other loan forgiveness programs available for social workers as well. Each program has its own requirements. Options include:
- National Health Services Corp. Loan Repayment Program
- Indian Health Service Loan Repayment Program
- Perkins Loans Cancellation and Discharge
- State student loan forgiveness programs
Check out our Social Workers Student Loan Forgiveness Guide 2020 for more information on each of these programs.
Social workers with private student loans
Private student loans are a great way to fill in the gaps when federal financial aid doesn’t cover all of your education costs. If you have private loans, you can choose to refinance your social worker loans if you can score a lower interest rate. Having a lower rate could cut thousands of dollars off your student loan bill by paying less interest over the life of your loan.
Private loan rates are credit-based, meaning you need to meet certain credit requirements to qualify for refinancing and get approved for a lower rate. If you don’t have good credit, most private lenders give you an option to use a cosigner to qualify. If you decide to refinance your loans, we work with lenders that offer cash-back bonuses up to $775.
Average social worker salary vs. student debt
Social workers don’t have to be overburdened by student loan debt. When you have a solid repayment plan in place, though, you can tackle that burden and alleviate stress over the debt. If you don’t know the best strategy for paying off your social worker student loans, let us help.
Book a consultation with one of our student loan experts. We’ll work alongside you to design the best strategy to save you money, relieve financial anxiety and leave room for your other life goals.