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Social Workers
in Loan Debt

Natalia J. Garland

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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 job.
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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).

Staggering educational 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).
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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 themselves.

(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 level only.

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 lifestyle sacrifices.

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 new tires.

(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 (written 08/19/02).]

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2008 Natalia J. Garland