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Are Social Work Programs Competitive?


The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an overall 13% increase in all types of social work positions from 2019-29, adding over 90,000 jobs. Social workers in high-demand specialties may experience much faster job growth. As more Americans seek help with mental illness and addiction, mental health and substance abuse social workers can expect job opportunities to increase by 17% from 2019-29. The BLS projects a 14% growth rate for healthcare social workers in this same period.

Given the continuing demand for social workers, many students want information about what it takes to earn an undergraduate or graduate degree in the field. Social work degrees provide the necessary training to enter an array of rewarding careers, but gaining admittance into the top-rated programs may prove challenging.

This guide discusses trends in social work education and provides tips to give students a competitive edge in the admission process.

What Makes a Social Work Program Competitive?

Social work programs determine their level of competitiveness by considering variables, such as space capacity, available specializations, test scores, and accreditation. Dr. Kimberly Zammitt, the master of social work (MSW) program director at Minnesota State University, Mankato, observes that competitiveness waxes and wanes in response to changing sociopolitical factors. These include the decrease in high school graduates, decrease in government funding, economic recessions, and economic growth.

According to a 2019 study by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), the landscape for social work education has changed. Enrollment in MSW programs has grown more than any other degree level, and degree conferrals increased by half. The number of MSW programs has increased annually since 2009.

Degree conferrals for bachelor of social work (BSW) programs have increased by more than a third over the past decade, while enrollment has mostly declined since 2013. Enrollment at the doctoral levels remains somewhat flat. While research doctorate degree conferrals continue to slow, practice degree conferrals have increased dramatically, doubling from 2018-2019.

The popularity of online options has also impacted social work education, reflecting Zammitt's argument that social work "is trying to market programs to remain fiscally viable." MSW programs and practice doctorates offer the most distance learning possibilities. Over 80% of MSWs and 64% of practice doctorates feature entirely online course delivery, while fully online degrees make up only 7% of BSWs and 4% of research doctorate degrees.

What is Accreditation and Why is Accreditation Important?

Accreditation ranks among the most important considerations when choosing a school and program. At the institutional level, a regionally accredited college or university has met nationally established standards of academic excellence. Regional accreditation determines financial aid eligibility, transfer of credits, and recognition by employers and schools.

At the programmatic level, prospective social workers should make sure to enroll in a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), verifying the quality of its professional education. Zammitt emphasizes that programs accredited by the CSWE have a competitive edge "due to the licensing requirement in most states that an applicant's social work degree be conferred by an accredited social work program in order to be eligible to apply for licensure."

Before applying to any social work program, students should check the CSWE online directory of all its accredited programs.

Tips for Applying to Social Work Programs

Aspiring social workers applying to the most competitive programsshould take the time to consider what makes them stand out from other applicants. Drawing from her many years in social work education, Zammitt advises students to take advantage of resources offered by their school counselors to help prepare for the college application process and resume preparation.

Zammitt cautions applicants to follow directions carefully, paying particular attention to formatting requirements and page limits for the required essay. Applicants should review the NASW code of ethics policy to provide a foundation for their written submissions. An essay or resume that describes the applicant's previous work or volunteer experiences in social services or a related area demonstrates interest and commitment to social work practice.

Students should discuss what aspects of their educational and career interests to emphasize in their applications with recommenders who know them well. "I think it is important for students to make sure there is a goodness of fit between what their [long-term] career goals are and if the selected program will prepare the student to obtain those," states Zammitt. She recommends attending information sessions and talking directly to social work program directors about tuition costs, funding and internship opportunities, and curriculum requirements.

Undergraduate Social Work Education Trends

The CSWE survey of 469 accredited social work programs reports that the majority of undergraduate students in BSW programs enroll full-time; those attending part time decreased by almost 18% over the past five years. Females make up over 85% of all BSW undergraduates and 64% of students are younger than 25. Almost half of all undergraduates report their ethnicity as white (non-Hispanic) with African American/Black (non-Hispanic) students making up over 22%, and Hispanics comprising17%.

The schools that responded to the CSWE survey reported a combined undergraduate enrollment of 46,530. Over the last five years, their overall undergraduate enrollment has declined by 5.4%. In contrast to the enrollment drops, the number of accredited baccalaureate programs increased by almost 16% over the last 10 years, including a 3.6% spike in 2019.

These schools also reported that they conferred a total of 18,769 baccalaureate degrees -- an average of 40 per program. Although degree conferrals shrank over the past year by slightly over 1%, conferrals have grown faster than enrollment; degree conferrals increased by over 37% in the last ten years but only 6.8% in the last five years.

Undergraduate student loan debt has risen over the last decade. Graduates of BSW programs owed an average debt of $24,683 in 2009 compared to $29,323 in 2019.

These trends impact the competitiveness of BSW programs, according to Zammitt, as schools adjust their fiscal capacity in response to declining enrollments, resulting "in an overall decrease in the historical competitiveness seen among social work programs."

Most Popular Undergraduate Social Work Programs

The racial, gender, and age compositions of undergraduate student populations have changed across higher education. BSW programs have responded to these shifts by offering academic specialties that appeal to the interests of these changing demographic groups, addressing emerging social issues, and anticipating future employment opportunities.

According to the CSWE report, the most popular undergraduate certificate programs offered by BSW programs reflect these trends: child advocacy, child protection, or child welfare ranks as the most popular certificate, offered by 50 programs responding to the CSWE survey. Undergraduates at 28 schools can pursue concentrations in aging, geriatrics, or gerontology, while 27 schools have added programs in addiction or substance abuse. Nine programs offer school social work concentrations.

Zammitt argues that BSW programs gain a competitive advantage by offering programs that "endorse a specialized concentration, such as an upcoming treatment modality (e.g. trauma informed and mindfulness programs), a focused practice area (e.g. clinical and social justice/advocacy programs), or geographical emphasis (e.g. urban and rural focused programs)."

Graduate Social Work Education Trends

Of the 226 MSW programs responding to the CSWE survey, over a third of the 68,793 students attend part time. Females and non-Hispanic whites make up the majority of all enrolled students. Over the past decade, enrollment in MSW programs has increased by close to 35%. The number of accredited programs has increased at a faster pace, growing by 50% over the same period. Degree conferrals have kept pace with both enrollment and the expansion of accredited programs, with a 50.7% increase since 2009.

The majority of MSW programs have developed options for online learning. Although only 30% of the responding programs offer the majority of their coursework fully online, over 90% of these MSW programs deliver both required and elective classes in hybrid formats.

Compared to MSW programs, doctoral programs admit more students over 30 and slightly more males. Enrollment in practice doctorate programs has outpaced research doctorate programs each year from 2015-19, but the rate has flattened over the last year. Practice degree conferrals have doubled between 2018 and 2019. In contrast, research doctorate degree conferrals have continued to slow through 2019.

While practice doctoral programs have adapted to online course delivery, with two-thirds of their programs offered almost completely online, the majority of research doctorate programs offers coursework using entirely in-person formats.

These graduate enrollment trends, especially at the master's level, reflect the increasing demand for social workers across the United States. Zammitt predicts at least stable enrollment to continue as positions expand and as students with degrees from other fields decide to pursue social work careers. She cites "an increase in students returning to our graduate social work program who are making career changes from completely different fields, such as journalism and music."

Most Popular Graduate Social Work Programs

Because of its versatility, social work education offers an array of opportunities to serve diverse populations and types of issues. The most competitive MSW programs provide students with the chance to focus their studies in a particular area of specialized practice. Over half of the MSW programs participating in the CSWE survey report that advanced generalist and child, youth, and family specialties rank as the most popular practice areas, in line with national trends. The remaining practice areas among the top five include mental health; aging, gerontology, or multigenerational; and school social work, reflecting some of the most in-demand specializations across the United States.

As the need for social workers continues across different settings, many employers look for MSW graduates with certifications in addition to the required state licensure in clinical social work. Earning a certification offers prospective social workers a competitive edge, demonstrating their advanced level of training and competency in specific areas of practice. The most prominent certifications for MSW programs in the CSWE survey align with some of the fastest-growing areas in the social work profession. Among the top five, certificates in aging, geriatrics, gerontology, and school social work rank as the most popular followed by addiction or substance abuse; child advocacy, child protection, or child welfare; and trauma.

Meet Our Contributor

Dr. Kimberly Zammitt

Dr. Kimberly Zammitt

Dr. Kimberly Zammitt, Ph.D., LICSW, is a professor and the MSW program director at Minnesota State University, Mankato. She is a licensed independent clinical social worker (LICSW) and has over 20 years of clinical social work practice experience in community behavioral health, child and adolescent behavioral health, and geriatric behavioral health. She maintains a local practice specializing in trauma and attachment issues, birth to age five, and couple's counseling using Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) and Mindfulness-Based Interventions. She currently teaches many of the advanced direct practice courses in the MSW program at Minnesota State Mankato. Her research interests are in the area of Mindfulness-Based Interventions, trauma, GLBT issues, and cultural responsiveness.