in Loan Debt
Natalia J. Garland
Many social workers had to take out student loans in order to finance
their education. The Master of Social Work degree, a two-year program,
can cost tens of thousands of dollars. When those thousands are added
onto the cost of undergraduate education, the total sum of loans can
require several years to pay back. Michelle Obama, wife of presidential
candidate Barack Obama and a graduate of Princeton and Harvard,
recently spoke at a church in South Carolina. She expressed her concern
about loan repayment and the impact this might have on career choice.
Like many young people coming out of college with their M.A.'s and
B.A.'s and Ph.D.'s and M.Ph.'s, coming out so mired in debt that they
have to forego the careers of their dreams, see, because when you're
mired in debt you can't afford to be a teacher or a nurse or a social
worker, or a pastor of a Church, or to run a small non-profit
organization, or to do research for a small community group, or to be a
community organizer, because the salaries that you'll earn in those
jobs won't cover the cost of the degree that it took to get the
[End of quote.]
The N.A.S.W. (National
Association of Social Workers) seems to have reached a conclusion
similar to Mrs. Obama's. In a study entitled, "Social Workers and
Educational Debt," the N.A.S.W. stated the following.
While the amount of educational debt is not confined to a particular
segment of the student population, the implications are vastly
different for those who choose careers, like social work, in which
salaries tend to be lower. Social workers have been identified as one
group of professionals especially burdened by educational debt (Asinof,
2006 Jones & Cohen, 2006; NASW, 2004).
debt affects many life decisions, and can influence or delay home
purchasing, retirement planning, and personal savings (Block, 2006).
Educational debt has also been blamed for deterring students from
public service careers, like social work (Swarthout, 2006; Pew, 2006),
thus increasing pressures on a workforce already facing shortages
(Whitaker, Weismiller, & Clark, 2006).
[End of quotes.]
Depending on their
salary and their money management skills, loan repayment can become
a hardship for social workers. This reality will not change so long as
the cost of education remains high and social work salaries remain low
to mediocre. There are, however, some career and lifestyle adjustments
that might help social workers to continue providing professional care
for others while enjoying some of the good things of life for
(1) Social work students
should consider attending non-prestige schools. There are excellent
but lesser-known colleges and universities in every state. Students
should also consider attending a community college during their
freshman and sophomore years. Community colleges are a bargain. If
you can be humble, then you can save thousands of dollars by enrolling
at your local community college.
(2) Single students
should consider living at home with mom and dad, or with a relative who
lives near the college of choice. College dormitory and meal fees are
expensive. If you will combine living at home with attending a
community college, then you can subtract a few years of loan repayment
from your life's earnings.
(3) Students should not
finance their education with credit cards. It is easy to lose sight of
how much is being spent, and the interest rates are high. If students
do not have enough cash for books, gasoline, or other daily necessities,
then it might be wise to postpone college and build a savings account.
Stay at home and get a job for a year. You will not be able to save
enough money for your tuition, but you can save for books and personal
expenses. Is this unfair? It's reality.
(4) The social work
profession should consider eliminating the M.S.W. as the path to
practicing psychotherapy or clinical social work and all types of
casework. Many colleges offer B.S.W. programs. Years ago, social
workers often came into the profession as a mid-life career change.
They may have already gotten a B.A. in psychology or sociology, or in
unrelated subjects such as history or literature. They needed two
years of graduate work to learn the profession. Younger students also
may not have had the opportunity to study social work as undergraduates.
Specialization in social work seemed usually available at the graduate
Nowadays, students can
major in social work at the undergraduate level. Some community
colleges offer chemical dependency programs, as well as courses in
psychology and sociology beyond the typical introductory course. Even
high schools are starting to offer a course in psychology. A rigorous
college undergraduate program (especially during the junior and senior
years), including supervised fieldwork, could prepare the student for
employment as a beginning professional. Teachers are eligible for
full employment with only a B.A. degree. Why not social workers?
If the M.S.W. were
eliminated as a requirement, then two years of loans and other expenses
would also be wiped out. If a student started at a community college,
then transferred to a university to complete his B.S.W., the cost of
his education would drop dramatically. Although it may sound shocking
to eliminate the M.S.W., we must question if the concept of the M.S.W.
has outlived its purpose. In addition to discussing loans and low
salaries, perhaps we should think about re-structuring social work
education around a viable B.S.W. program. As a consequence, this would
enable more students to enter the profession without making permanent
The removal of the 'old'
M.S.W. does not mean that it would disappear entirely. Instructors of
social work at the college level would still need the M.S.W. The M.S.W.
could be modified to include advanced theoretical and case studies,
extensive research and writing, and development of teaching skills.
However, the D.S.W. would probably fall into disuse. Practitioners who
desired education beyond the B.S.W., and who were able or willing to
spend the money, could consider institute training as well as the 'new'
M.S.W. There are also various certificate programs which would allow
acquistion of specialty areas (such as problem gambling, sexual
addiction, hypnosis, etc.)
(5) The social work
profession should consider eliminating or revamping the state social
work boards as systems of government regulation. Government, whether
state or federal, should not control the profession by dictating the
education requirements and standards of practice. This would mean
eliminating or revising the state licensure process, including any
requirements of continuing education credits. Not only would this
reduce the expenses of social workers and their employers, but it would
place control of the profession back into the hands of practitioners.
(6) Insurance providers,
Medicare, and Medicaid should reimburse private practitioners
according to the patient's therapeutic needs and choice of therapist.
The insured, not the insurance provider, should have authority over
how, when, and where benefits are to be used. Therapists, not the
insurance provider, should recommend the type and length of treatment.
There should be minimal insurance forms for billing and for
documentation of treatment progress. A reduction in paperwork would
enable therapists to tend to other essential duties.
(7) Social workers
should be encouraged to engage in private practice, whether as
individuals or as teams. Private therapists should be allowed to work
from a home office without zoning restrictions or building
specifications. So long as the patient is safe and comfortable, and
his confidentiality is intact, this should suffice as an appropriate
environment for therapy. A home office would eliminate the expense of
leasing office space as well as transportation to and from the job.
Individual practitioners could also choose to do their own secretarial
and bookkeeping work.
(8) B.S.W. programs
should include a required course on how to succeed in a cash-fee-only
private practice. Social work students should gain knowledge of the
business aspect of their profession, and should be empowered to free
themselves from insurance companies and government control.
(9) B.S.W. programs
should include faith-based elective courses to attract students who
are religious or who have conservative values.
(10) Students should be
paid for their fieldwork assignments. Although still in training,
students provide a service to the agency by carrying a caseload and by
contributing their ideas at staff meetings. Students should not be
exploited for their labor simply because they are students.
(11) Social workers who
take jobs in agencies that serve children or the elderly should be
eligible for loan forgiveness. Helping society's most vulnerable
populations can be stressful even for dedicated workers. Loan
forgiveness would act as an incentive to enter those jobs and would
eliminate the stress of loan repayment.
(12) Students should
plan to work full-time after graduation. If a student is studying
social work for the purpose of supplementing the family income with a
part-time job, then the educational investment might not return the
expected monetary supplement.
(13) Businesses should
be encouraged to offer discounts to social workers. There are some
office-supply stores, bookstores, and department stores that offer
10-to 20-percent discounts to teachers, or that have a cash rewards
program especially for teachers. Some stores do this for a
time-limited period, and some do this on an annual renewal basis.
There are also car dealerships that offer special deals to military
personnel and their families. The advantage to the business is that
they create a loyal customer base. Although a 10-percent discount may
not sound like much, it adds up when you need to buy a computer or
(14) Social workers
must know how to manage their money and live within their means. So
long as agency salaries remain low to mediocre, social workers must
cope with that reality by adjusting their lifestyle to their paycheck.
It might mean taking a thermous of coffee to work instead of buying a
latte at the corner deli, driving an economy car instead of a dream
S.U.V., or taking a weekend trip instead of a European vacation.
Today's adjustments might prevent tomorrow's bankruptcy. If you can
tolerate lifestyle simplicity, and balance your professional identity
with an inconmensurate budget, then you might be able to achieve
financial survival as well as job satisfaction.
(15) Finally, the social
work profession needs to figure out ways to procure higher salaries.
The H.M.O.'s seem to have ruined a profession that already lacked
societal respect and decent pay. Back in those days (early 1990's),
social workers probably should have gone on strike, much like some
teachers and nurses have done to bring public awareness to their
plight. Unless social workers develop clout, and unless society
understands how the profession improves the general welfare, then
salaries are not going to increase. So long as the profession remains
conceptually stuck in M.S.W.'s, state licensure, and bureaucratic
agencies, we will not move forward in our ability to help others and to
live without financial strain. (Written 05/12/08: bibliography available.)
[NOTE: For other essays
on similar topics, see Practicing Therapy Without a License
(written 07/24/06), C.E.U.'s and M.S.W.'s
(written 05/22/06), Ye Olde Social Worker
Until we meet