In Praise of MSW Students Who Combine Work and Study
Working students represent a growing segment of the students enrolled in MSW programs across the country. That trend is evident in the increase in part-time students (from 18% in 2006 to more than 34% in 2019) and by the expansion of educational options to accommodate changing student needs. Indeed, as the number of institutions offering an MSW degree have themselves grown, so too have hybrid and online forms of instruction. By 2019, over one-half of Schools of Social Work offered online and/or hybrid programs, compared with 19% just three years earlier, according to the Council on Social Work Education’s Annual Statistics on Social Work Education in the United States.
The reasons for the increase in students who combine work with school are not hard to find. As education costs have soared, more students at both undergraduate and graduate levels simply cannot afford the expense and future debt of higher education without working—or getting a job as soon as they can after undergrad. While settling on a career in social work has frequently occurred after time spent in the workforce, fully returning to school and interrupting that career, let alone the accompanying paycheck, has become much more difficult for many students.
As the director of an MSW program designed specifically for human services employees for the past 15 years, I have become acutely aware of the difficult balance that work and school entails, of the distinct needs of working students—and of the rich experience they often bring to their studies. Their presence invigorates social work education by strengthening its ties to the community and to the organizations providing services; it offers valuable insights into the needs and realities of professional practice. This is perhaps nowhere as evident as during the present pandemic.
What Working Students Bring
Diversity, in age, ethnicity, cultural, and experiential background, is part of their strength. Many are first-generation students, with a burning desire to give back to their families and communities, to the populations they have come to serve. Their educational motivations are centered in aspirations to improve their effectiveness and impact. They bring into the classroom the dilemmas they face at work, questions about policies that often seem to hinder and oppress more than they actually help, and something of their own efforts to mitigate the problems they are confronted with each day.
These students’ work experience provides a direct link to what is going on out there, to the good, the bad—and what could be better. If we listen to their stories and make good use of the relationships available with the entities that employ them, we can learn what newly minted social workers need to excel in their jobs: the kinds of skills and knowledge that can help them move beyond what is now to what can be—and, as importantly, how to keep their agencies afloat in challenging financial times and able to provide the best services possible.
What Working Students Need
The greatest support often comes from opportunities for students to connect with other working students, build relationships, share resources, and exchange professional knowledge to build a community of learning. Social work education for working students that builds on and adds value to what they have already learned challenges and nearly always transforms what they have thought or done in the past. That transformation can also happen at the heart of our social work educational institutions.
— Ericka Deglau, PhD, LSW, has directed Rutgers School of Social Work’s Intensive Weekend program since 2006. During the pandemic, the hybrid MSW program designed for human services employees transferred its monthly in-person weekend classes to Zoom, and is now gradually moving back to in-person instruction.