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Workforce Study: Social Workers and Educational Debt

In the Red: Social Workers and Educational Debt

The 2004 benchmark national study of licensed social workers provided a wealth of information about social workers’ roles and work environments. The study also raised new questions about the social work workforce that required further exploration. Although the 2004 findings pointed to a looming shortage of licensed social workers, there was still much to learn about why this was the case. In what ways did career decision points, educational debt, workplace stressors, and other factors influence the recruitment and retention of this professional workforce? The NASW Membership Workforce Study was an effort to respond to such remaining questions and to gain more insight into the social work workforce. Click here to view the study.

39 comments

  1. For me I paid for my education on my own. Part of the issue I was that the social service job I was employed by did not have tuition reimbursement. It was a struggle, I had to find classes that were in the evening and on weekends. I went part time to school. When I graduated with my MSW, I knew I wanted to get my license. I took a job at a university because I did not find employment as a social worker. I have my LMSW and I want to go for my clinical license. I worked in research in order for me to get my clinical license. I will have to work a part time job or PRN at another agency, it is a struggle.

  2. It was a struggle to get my bachelor’s degree. Raising four children, a full time job and two PT jobs it was a struggle. It would seem with a Master’s degree we would make more money? Plus I have the burden of loans I can’t pay back. I love being a Social Worker but sometimes I feel I made a mistake. I really am not getting ahead and I’m no better off financially now that I’ve invested all the time and money in my education. If I wpuld have gotten a associate nursing degree I’d be making a lot more money. Plus their are more jobs and most all places pay major sign on bonuses and many will pay off school loans. Even the Teachers ahve loan forgiveness programs? I am really disappointed and discouraged. I am consisdering getting a teaching certificate so I can get assistance with my loans.

  3. Tiffanie Williams

    I am currently obtaining my MSW and although I have not graduated, I am preparing myself for the debt that I am going to have to pay off. You would think that with a higher level of education comes higher pay. Not so with Social Services. I browse through possible jobs that pay minimally for Masters level individuals, not too mention that most want you to be licensed, which gives a little bump in pay. I love what I do and I couldnt imagine myself in any other field, but something has got to give. I thought about pursuing my doctoral degree for a split second until I thought about the amount of money I would have to continue to pay back! Educationally hindered by the thought of financial shackles, I am forced to work with what I will have for now. I just look forward to my pay off in the lives that I deal with rather than the loans I took out, as an optimistic outlook towards my social work experience.

  4. Definitely paying down student debt is a struggle. Unfortunately, a MSW Social Worker in Public Child Welfare is not paid as well as other master level professionals. I definitely feel educational debt, workplace stressors, and other factors such as the demanding hours, abuse (verbal) from clients, and stressful deadlines influence the recruitment and retention of this professional workforce. It is very difficult to help families when your strugglilng to meet your personal and family needs as well.

  5. I HAD A WONDERFUL GRADUATE EXPERIENCE WHILE EARNING MY MSW. I LOOKED FORWARD TO BEGINNING A CAREER IN SOCIAL WORK. BUT EVER SINCE MY GRADUATION AND HAVE BEEN EITHER IN THE JOB MARKET OR WORKING, I HAVE GROWN VERY RESENTFUL OVER THE DECISION I HAVE MADE. I REALLY FEEL SHORT CHANGED. MY INSTRUCTORS AND PROFESSORS HAD US THINKING THAT AT LEAST MY PEERS AND I WOULD BE ABLE TO FIND A DECENT JOB/POSITION. THE SW JOB MARKET IS HORRIBLE AND I FEEL CONFIDENT ENOUGH TO GENERALIZE BECAUSE I HAVE BEEN IN TEXAS, MICHIGAN, MISSISSIPPI, AND NEW JERSEY. I ALSO HAVE FRIENDS THAT LIVE IN OTHER STATES WHO SHARE VERY SIMILAR POOR JOB PROSPECTS AND/OR DISSATISFACTION WITH THEIR CAREER EXPERIENCES (AND CHOOSING SW AS A CAREER.) THE SW PROFESSION DOES NOT SEEM TO OFFER ANY INCENTIVES LIKE OTHER HELPING PROFESSIONS DO( LOAN FORGIVENESS PROGRAMS, HIGHER PAY IF YOU WORK IN THE POOREST AREAS OR THE MOST VULNERABLE POPULATION). INSTEAD ONE IS MET WITH LOTS OF POTENTIAL ROADBLOCKS JUST TO WORK LIKE FINDING A SUPERVISOR, FINDING THE APPROPRIATE POSITION ALIGNED FOR YOUR LICENSING. MY INCOME HAS BEEN HIGHER WITH JOBS NOT REQUIRING A LICENSE THAN THOSE THAT DO REQUIRE IT. THERE IS SO MUCH YOU HAVE TO GO THROUGH FOR VERY FEW PAYOFFS. WHEN I MEET PROSPECTIVE MSW STUDENTS, I WOULD FEEL GUILTY IF DIDN’T SHARE THIS OR AT LEAST URGE THEM TO RESEARCH THIS PROFESSION MORE. I WISHED SOMEONE COULD HAVE TOLD ME THAT THERE WERE OTHER CAREERS AND/OR WAYS I COULD HAVE REACHED OR FULFILLED MY GOALS. NEEDLESS TO SAY I AM PURSUING A SECOND CAREER. WHEN I APPLIED TO A NEW GRAD PROGRAM THE CHAIR OF THE DEPT TOLD ME THAT HE FEELS “VERY SORRY” FOR SOCIAL WORKERS AND TOLD ME THAT HE REALLY WANTS TO SEE ME DO WELL BECAUSE I POSSESS ALOT OF SKILLS THAT WILL TAKE ME FAR BUT IN SW THEY DON’T. THAT IS A SHAME!!

  6. I earned my MSW and worked hard to earn my LCSW in hopes of higher pay. However; I was sadly mistaken. I love my job and I care deeply about my consumers, yet the requirements that are set forth by the insurance companies as well as the agency for which I am employed demand that I spend less time with my consumers and more time completing paperwork and less time in psychotherapy. My 40 hour work week easily becomes 55-60 hours which on paper decreases my annual salary even further. The bottom line is Social Workers tend to accumlate college debt for a low paying, highly stressful, 60 hr a week career…. The positive is that I love what I do….

  7. I have a Master’s in social work and my dream was to obtain my doctorate in clinical social work. I started a program but have come to realize with the money involved and the money I still owe 15 years later when I obtained my masters I can’t do it. I have thought about leaving the field but I do love what I do. However, I am going to have to work contractually somewhere to pay off my loans.

  8. I have an BSW and an MSW with approx $50,000 in student loan debt. I worked two jobs and put myself throught college and graduate school. I would not change my career for the world but it is a heavy burden to pay when we are already in a challenging profession.

  9. I have been a Masters Degree Social worker for 8 years. The first 3 years I was at an agency that paper worked you to death with little client time but paid well. I left there to go to a nonprofit that valued client time but wages were poor. I haven’t had a raise in 5 years and the paperwork grows everyday. I have tons of student loans to pay and I can’t make the payments. I am thinking of moving to either a different job, a different state, or to a completely different profession. If I had it to do over I would go into nursing so I could pay my bills and maybe take a vacation.

  10. I graduated with my MSW in 2006 and have been fortunate to continue working with the non-profit agency that I have been employed with now for 6 years. The pay is okay but like most who have posted comments, it is nothing near what I would make if I had a masters degree in nursing or even an associate. I have so much student loans, from grad and undergrad – I will probably pay our mortgage off before there is even a dent in my loans. Not having loan forgiveness opportunities in this field feels like a slap in the face! I enjoy my work but currently am exploring other avenues of employment unless something changes. It is diffiuclt to work with clients who are struggling to make ends meet when I am in the same boat. I know we have the power to make things change, but how long do we have to keep taking this before our voices are heard and our value in this society is acknowledged?

  11. what can be done about this? how can we change this outcome? What is the sense of even going to school if you can’t make a better living when you get out? i am in a social work program right now and don’t think i want to finish with what i have read here. I really want to work with the developmentally diabled and help them to learn to live in society, but this dream does not seem practicle now.

  12. It is extremely discouraging to read some of the comments listed above, but it is all true. I have had my BSW for 10 years now, and currently in school to obtain my MSW. I was hoping that at that level things would be better financially, but apparently not. I am truly saddened, because I love the work that I do but I am afraid that I will become a client of someone else if I am unable to feed my children, pay my mortgage, and pay back ALL of these student loans. This is a scary place to be. Let’s all just hope and pray for a miracle. Good Luck, everyone!

  13. I was glad to see the comments posted as they are affirming to me. I feel burdened by 40,000 in student loan debt and overwhelmed by trying to pay it off – while working in this profession. I echo the words of others posted. I am looking for a new career – one that pays. I encourage my clients to have and practice self care and I am taking my own advice…looking for a new career bec. I can’t afford to be a social worker anymore, though I feel fulfillment in helping others…

  14. I was divorced when my children were 6 months and 3 years old. When they became teenagers, I went back to college and worked full time – it took me 6 years to earn my bachelor’s degree. I graduated at age 49 with $25,000 in student loans. I have been working as a Social Worker with the elderly for the past 10 1/2 years in a non-profit agency. My wages are way below what I would be earning if I had chosen another field. After graduation my student loans were in forebearance for 10 years because I did not earn enough money to make payments on them. Now they total $47,000!! I began paying just the interest of $273.00 a month nearly two years ago and still owe the same principal. I am single, 60 years old, and struggling financially. Why can’t the government have a loan forgiveness program for social workers as they do for teachers, nurses, police officers, etc.? Did you know that if you cannot make your loan payments, they can attach your Social Security checks, wages, etc. ? What an injustice to those of us who have committed ourselves to improving the quality of life for others!!

  15. There is information on loan forgiveness programs for social workers on the NASW website – http://www.socialworkers.org/advocacy/updates/2007/072707.asp.

    The page has details and contact information for many programs such as the Perkins Loan Forgiveness Program, National Health Service Corp, National Institutes of Health (NIH) – Loan Forgiveness for Researchers and various state programs.

  16. It was a struggle to get my MSW’s degree, raising 2 children, a full time job. I have the burden of loans I can’t pay back. I enjoy being a Social Worker and help others to better their life. However, I fell disappointed, my financial status is not doing any better than before, now that I’ve invested all the time and money in my education. It is difficult to work with clients who are struggling with financial issues when I am in the same position. I have 53,000 in student loan debt and overwhelmed by trying to pay it off. In addition I am struggle passing the difficult test to get my social worker licensing. I am really disappointed and discouraged. I am considering another fulltime job at night to get assistance with my loans.

  17. I didn’t have the opportunity to attend college until my children were older and I was divorced. This meant relying on school loans to pay for my education. Realizing the MSW means a little more in pay (approx 4%), I decided I would continue for 1 more year. This puts me in a position of big financial debt. I try to raise 2 children, maintain a mortgage, and pay off loans, I feel so overwhelmed. I cannot understand why this much needed field is so low on the pay scale. I love what I do, but I would not encourage my children to pursue this field unless the pay would be much different. I joke with my kids that the life insurance policy I have will have to be used some day (hopefully 40+ yrs down the road) to pay off my student loan debt. I actually think I should have researched this field more extensively and instead of finding the job I love, maybe I should have went for the pay. There should be more support for this field. Additionally, I find that anyone in my state can call themselves social workers – what an insult.

  18. I’ve had my MSW for 7 years. I’m one of the lucky ones that was able to go from making 24,000 to almost 40,000. I’ve still got over 35,000 in student loans and work two jobs to pay the bills (most months). As social workers, we work very hard to help others – why are we not helping ourselves? What is NASW doing to help push for the goverment to help get our loans forgiven? We need to advocate for ourselves better. Social workers need to stand together and make our voices heard and avocate for OURSELVES!!

  19. I have come to believe that, as social workers, we need to take responsibility for our own situation. This is the only way we can be empowered to overcome it. A “poverty mindset” is threaded throughout the systems we work for and it is ingrained in our own belief system — it is about how we value who we are and what we do. It manifests itself in our paychecks. In fact, it seems that most social workers and the systems we work for find it somehow immoral and repugnant to think that social workers should actually deserve to make a decent living, let alone be paid as educated professionals. This is not the most significant issue for me, however. I believe that this poverty mindset pervades our systems of care and the end result is that our clients don’t get the best of what we have. They get workers who are overworked, overwhelmed and underpaid and who often take their own issues out on those they are supposed to help. How invested are workers in empowering their clients to reach heights that they do not believe they, themselves can ever reach? Abraham Lincoln said that the best way to help the poor was to not become one of them. Stand up & value yourselves, Social Workers!

  20. On one hand, reading these comments makes me feel slightly better about my impossible amount of student loan debt (the principal is $68,000!), simply because I’m not alone in my pain. On the other hand, this small sampling of the challenges facing our profession breaks my heart and scares me. What are we going to do? Social workers are uniquely qualified to do amazing, helpful, important work with our clients, but our low wages, paperwork demands and shrinking resources, are turning off potential social work students and causing talented social workers to leave the field. Loan forgiveness and more scholarships for social workers and sw students won’t solve all of the problems, but they would go a long way towards reducing our stress and bringing the best and brightest into the field.

  21. Lillian Alexander

    Wow, I have read all the comments abouts the field of SW and I got to the last comment and I say Thank You! I was hearing a lot of negative feed back from some of the SW in the field. For those who wished they went into Nursing, well be prepared to Not paid enough as well. They work long hours and have a lot more reponsiblity. I start my SW career path in the fall.. look forward to helping those in need and not becoming one of them.

  22. I will be graduating this December with my BSW. I am very much looking forward to beginning my career, and making some money (at least more than what I make now, pt). However, I do realize that social workers are not paid as well as other professionals in other fields. I believe it is very sad, that we are not as respected as other health and human service fields, but as my professor told me, there are two possible reasons why we don’t get paid well; 1) it’s a female-dominated industry (and we all know that women make approx. 0.80 to every 1.00 for men) 2) we deal with people that society looks down upon. Furthermore, I work is viewed as something that people do out the kindness of their heart, chartitable work, so why should we get paid, for doing “charity work.” Regardless of that, we should be paid more, society does not understand our work, and devalue us. I really am proud of myself for pursuing a higher ed degree, but why should I continue to struggle to pay student loan debt, when I am struggling to get through college, I don’t want to do that for the rest of my life! Although, my student loan debt after graduation would be around $12,000, after reading all the comments above as well as other comments about the pay of social work jobs, I am beginning to feel discouraged about pursuing my Master’s degree. It’s a good thing that I have also been thinking about pursuing a Master’s in Higher Education as well. NASW and professional social workers need to do something about this problem, it’s sad to hear people say they are looking for another profession, giving up what they love, just so they can choose something that may make them unhappy career-wise, but better of financially. Something should be done about this.

  23. Candra,

    In 1992 after completing my BSW at Georgia State University, I was hired as a child protection worker for GA at the whopping 1649.00 per month. When I left my employer in 2005 I had moved to 2916.66 per month. I did not go into social work for the money, but for the compassion and doing what I love. The low salary I had was to cover rent ,utilities, car pymnt,and then had to start paying for the liability coverage on my vehicle when our then-governor dropped coverage of personnel using their cars to conduct the business of the state, protecting children.
    Those in control of the funding for higher education and repayment of student loans, must be made aware of our struggles. Please join other social workers in getting the HB’ passed by contacting your US representatives.

    Also, the University of GA has a dual degree MSW/M.Ed in Adult Education program that may be of interest to you.

  24. Social Work Advocacy

    Higher Education Act Reauthorization – 6/12/2007–Introduced. College Cost Reduction Act of 2007 – Amends the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA)
    http://capwiz.com/socialworkers/issues/bills/?bill=10051871

    H.R. 5447, The Dorothy I. Height and Whitney M. Young, Jr. Social Work Reinvestment Act – To establish the Social Work Reinvestment Commission to provide independent counsel to Congress on policy issues associated with the recruitment, retention, research, and reinvestment in the profession of social work.
    Send a letter to YOUR Senators in support of S. 2858!
    http://capwiz.com/socialworkers/issues/bills/?bill=11274081
    Send a Letter to YOUR Representative in support of H.R. 5447!
    http://capwiz.com/socialworkers/issues/bills/?bill=11030061

  25. I have an MSW and I see some “alarms” that tell me that Social Workers for the good of their patients, as well as themselves need to be unified and confident. We are low paid. I have been working for agencies in which people with much less education have reaped the financial benefits, while we have not. Also, they have supervised social workers without being social workers. Some understand our role, others do not. I believe that in large organizations, it would benefit patients and management, as well as Social Workers, to have at least one Social Worker on the management team. Also, I believe that we need to speak out about the quality of care that can be delivered if Social Workers are so poorly paid. Some social work pay (for graduate level social work) is so low that their children receive free and reduced lunch at school. Does it make sense that highly educated professionals have to use the safety net to survive? I also agree that we need to leave our poverty/victim mindsets behind. Some of this will require that we get out of our comfort zone and educate the public about our scope of practice and our worth. We are not just an afterthought. But, the most alarming trend I see is that we are being marginalized. There are fewer and fewer Social Work jobs because some people do not see that Social Work as a profession that takes specific eduation and experience (as well as talent, ability and social skills). Many see Social Work as something anyone can do because they think Social Workers “just talk to people”. I do not wish to criticize or downgrade anyone in any other discipline, but I am concerned about non-Social Workers being given Social Work jobs. The general public is not being served well in this situation and are perhaps endangered (largely due to abuse being left unreported because the non-Social Workers do not see themselves as mandated reporters and feel they can pick and choose what to report if children or the elderly are at risk.) I also believe that it is dangerous to place people that are highly trained in one profession (for example nurses and teachers) in Social Work jobs and then assume that they will know how to handle social work issues. Don’t get me wrong, I do not want to downgrade these individuals. I just believe that they should stay in their own scope of practice. If Social Workers try to cross into nursing or teaching (which most of us are not seeking to do anyway) their systems are set up to prevent it. Maybe Social Workers should do the same.

  26. I am in the midst of a Social Work program myself. This is something I have dreamed about doing since I was young. I have always wanted to be in the Social Work field so that I may help prevent children from being abused and neglected. Not once had I thought about making a lot of money. To me, it was just the satisfaction of knowing that I can help a child. Now after reading all of these comments, for the first time ever, I feel as though I am going to have to re-evaluate what is best for my family. If it means changing to a career that I didn’t particularly want in the first place, but the pay could help me outlive my student loan debt, then I may have to take that route. I am extremely discouraged at this point, but I have to think about what will help my family- not hurt them. And by hurting them, I mean getting stuck with student loan debt up to my eyeballs. I’m already struggling as it is. It is very disheartening to hear that Social Workers get so little respect and are valued so little. I wish all of you the best.

  27. Hi
    I have obtained my MSW in 2001 and missed the grandfathering period. I cannot work at a hospital/therapist because I do not have my LMSW. I need to earn more money topay off my student loans and have failed the test twice by two points each time.Is there anyway that there can be another grandfathering period again or lower the scoring so that many more of us can pass. NYS higher education is making a bundle fromus.
    Please help.l

  28. amanda valparaiso

    all i can say is – GET OUT WHILE YOU CAN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  29. Take out a Perkins Loan. based on your work as a social worker you may have the entire loan amount cancelled based on your employment. Talk to your financial aid officer to see if your state /school has special loan programs for individuals going into your profession. A Perkins Loan has cancellation benefits for school teachers, nurse or medical tech, law enforcement. /check it out

  30. I agree, I have taken the test for licensing 2X’s and if I do not pass I will go to be a lpn it takes 11 months. You can freelance and it is more lucrative. The stress is unbearable and all I can think about is I have 10 months to pass. I have 69 thousand in student loans. That test is unbelievable, it cant be everyone way everyone is failing. Now I have to pay 50 a week for tutoring, this is impossible.

  31. I would like some input wth this: I am applying to social work school and am frustrated by the cost, which I believe drive men from the profession. Men are especially atuned to these issues because statistically we are more likely to be the higher earner and grow up being told by society that we need to breadwinners. I only know women in the field and they all have parental support or their husbands earn much more than them. (I realize this is not the case with many of you posters). I think schools like Columbia count on this and perpetuates the disempowerment of women and men. Private social work schools are still 90% women and business schools 75% men. This unfortunate reality limits the opportunities of men and women. I hope no one feels I am saying this is always the case. Do people feel it often is or that this dynamic keeps things the way they are?

  32. Thank you all for sharing so honestly and openly. I think it is heartbreaking that the pay scale for social workers is so paltry.

    I do not blame men or lack of them for this. I blame society as whole- all of us. The low pay scale for social workers is a reflection of what is valued in our society. Caring about others is not a higly regarded asset in western civilization. Athletic ability, beauty, entertainment are “what people want.” That is why business majors will prosper- not because they are males.

    Western society wants the “shiney” things- not the important things. Its sad but true.

  33. I currently a student that completed my B.A. in psychology, I was recently accepted into a MSW program. Initially I thought that was great because I was always advised its better to get your MSW rather than LPC b/c the MSW is more versatile..however after much research it seems that’s the only thing it is. I’ve always wanted to work with children, but in the Social Work field when you work with children you make NOTHING, and the job conditions are horrible. The good thing is the loan repayment program, up to 50,000 for 2 years in a need location. However after thinking of this, it seemed crazy. First I graduate with a MSW…then I have to work under someone’s supervision for 2 years, just to qualify to take the LCSW exam, and then once I’m a LCSW I can apply for the loan repayment program, and spend another 2 years of my life working somewhere just for the sole purpose of paying my loans back. So thats 2 years for the degree, 2 years for the supervision hours, 2 years for the loan repayment program (if I’m selected)..so after 6 years..I could finally apply for a job that I ACTUALLY want to do, and I still may end up making pennies if I work with the population I have a passion for (children/adolescents)..or I could put my passion aside and work with a population I really don’t want to (Veterens) just to make a decent salary..but I would really not like my job..Do you see what I’m saying..I’m 23…I would be like 29 just starting my “CAREER” that I love but make little money, or 29 starting my “CAREER” that I hate but making possibly okay money at the VA….No thanks..I’m choosing a different path…LIFE is too SHORT!!

  34. Sad to hear comments a social worker speak of others creating their own financial problems from someone who is on their second bankruptcy in a very short period of time. Money motivating those in the profession is a real mistake.

  35. I am changing careers because of the pay, I didn’t know that I would have to suffer for wanting to help others. I can help people in other fields that pay better and have more respect. I can not wait to not be a social worker anymore. I hate hearing social workers have to pay their dues and work for less pay, why?? I refuse to take a job making less I know what I am worth.
    Even with the poor economy I was able to make decent pay at my last job but looking for a job now I only found one place (didn’t get the job they hired within their own company)who is willing to pay that same wage. Also, I don’t agree that BSW need to have License but that appears to be the norm now! I have found that MSW do not make more than I do so no point in going on in social work. I wish I had known what I do know prior to going to school I would have not had all the way difficult and stressful jobs that I have had. At least I don’t think I would have, who knows. But I am sooo excited to go back to school to go into a field that is paid more and valued more.

  36. Try working in social service in nursing homes for 7 years…it’s such a disparity!

  37. wow, thank you for the heads up.

  38. it is such a disgrace that people end up suffering financial consequences when all they wanted to ever do was help others in any way, shape or form. I have that desire, but im sure there should be some other way thats less stressful than being a social worker..thank you everyone for your truthful testimonies. and God Bless all of you

  39. Part of the helping professions’ problems with pay has to do with the absence of real, evidence-based research to prove the efficacy of our interventions. The profession has too-long focused on obtaining government funding for services that have done little to decrease the social ills for which the services are designed. Truthfully, all I’ve seen in two decades of NASW membership is whining when public funding is cut without much effort to demonstrate newer effective methods of eradicating the need for our services.

    NASW ignores newer areas of growing Social Work practice, such as health care quality and industrial social work. We “non-traditional” Social Workers STILL do Social Work, but are not pigeon-holed into care management, child welfare/protection, women’s services, mental health services, school social work, or any of the other historical practice specialties in the profession.

    I said it in a NASW practice summit and at Delegate Assembly—it’s time to update the profession, not remain in the 1960’s.

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