Comparing MSW and Ph.D. Admission Rates

Kirk, Corcoran, and Kil (2009) examined data published by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) for the 15-year period from 1990-2004 inclusive.  These data had to do with applications to, and enrollments in, MSW and Ph.D. programs in social work (SW).  The data were supplied to the CSWE by those programs.

Kirk et al. did not have complete data sets for all SW graduate programs for all of those years.  They decided to examine the programs that had submitted at least five years’ worth of MSW or Ph.D. program data during that 15-year period.  This gave them a total of 128 MSW programs and 61 Ph.D. programs.

For each of those programs, Kirk et al. calculated two percentages:  admission and yield.  Admission is, of course, the percentage of applicants who were admitted to a program.  Yield is the percentage of applicants who, having been accepted by a program, actually enroll in that program.  Thus, for example, Kirk et al. found that San Francisco State University (SFSU) has been the most selective MSW program for many years (see their p. 83), admitting just 17.4% of applicants and having a yield of (that is, being chosen by) 87.0% of accepted applicants.

Kirk et al. note that SFSU’s admission and yield figures may stem from certain unusual factors, such as the scarcity of alternatives in the Bay Area during those years.  Certainly SFSU seems to be an outlier:  the next most selective MSW program was Berkeley, with much lower admission (27.5%) and yield (71.8%) rates.  At the same time, Kirk et al. also point out that only two of the ten most selective schools, by their calculations, appear in the top 10 listed by U.S. News & World Report, and only one appears in Feldman’s (2006) ranking of top-ten MSW programs.  It does seem, then, that student selectivity provides, in some cases, a markedly different perspective on MSW program admissions.

Ranked by admission selectivity, Kirk et al. found that the top 10 MSW programs were:

1.  SFSU (17.4%)
2.  U. C. Berkeley (27.5%)
3.  Brigham Young (28.6%)
4.  Southern Connecticut State (33.2%)
5.  U. of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) (34.3%)
6.  U. of Utah (34.7%)
7.  Hunter College (NY) (35.1%)
8.  Rhode Island College (40.9%)
9.  Portland State U. (42.3%)
10.  UCLA (42.4%)

In other words, UCLA accepted 42.4% of its MSW applicants during the years for which data were available.  Meanwhile, the ten least selective MSW programs for which data were available were:

119.  Washington U. (86.2%)
120.  Washburn U. (87.5%)
121.  Howard U. (87.5%)
122.  Missouri State U. (87.6%)
123.  Gallaudet U. (88.9%)
124.  U. of Kentucky (89.7%)
125.  Alabama A&M U. (91.2%)
126.  Our Lady of the Lake U. (91.4%)
127.  Case Western Reserve U. (95.3%)
128.  Walla Walla College (96.8%)

Remarkably, then, Washington University, which was ranked among the top three by both Feldman and U.S. News, was among the least selective of the 128 MSW programs for which Kirk et al. found sufficient data.  By rejecting one out of every seven applicants, though, at least it seems to have been more “selective” than Case Western, which apparently rejected only one out of twenty.  Among the reasons for these peculiar phenomena, possibly it seems shrewd, from a financial perspective, to leverage a school’s top-notch reputation by selling MSW degrees to hundreds of new students each year, at $30,000 per year per student.

Again, as with SFSU, there may be local market reasons and other factors that would explain why such prestigious universities – joined in the selectivity basement by other noteworthy schools (e.g., the University of Pennsylvania, coming in at no. 117, and the University of Denver, in 106th place) – would apparently throw open the doors to almost any college graduate who cares to apply.  Such caveats aside, though, this sort of competition for bodies does appear to be driven (as pointed out by Karger & Stoesz, 2003) by the numbers of new MSW programs created in recent years.  Universities need to make money.  The applicant as a conduit for federal student loans, scholarship funds, and family contributions, may be able to help them with that.

But let us continue with the findings of Kirk et al.  The rankings shown above are by competitiveness; that is, they show the percentages of applicants who are accepted by various schools.  How many of those accepted applicants actually proceed to attend the schools that have accepted them?  According to Kirk et al., the top-yielding schools are:

1.  Alabama A&M (95.7%)
2.  Grambling State U. (92.6%)
3.  Southern University at New Orleans (91.7%)
4.  San Francisco State U. (87.0%)
5.  U. of Utah (86.5%)
6.  Delaware State U. (86.2%)
7.  U. of Louisville (84.8%)
8.  Brigham Young U. (84.5%)
9.  Cal State – Fresno (84.5%)
10.  Cal State – San Bernardino (83.4%)

Certainly there appear to be some geographical factors at work in this list.  Grambling State and Southern are both in Louisiana; U. of Utah and BYU are both in the greater Salt Lake City area, and so forth.  There may be very limited options in such places.  Geography doubtless also influences the situation with the bottom-yielding schools; for example, it may be easier for the person with an out-of-state degree to get a job or be licensed in some states than in others.  The bottom ten, in terms of yield, are:

119.  Michigan State (44.3%)
120.  Wash. U. (42.9%)
121.  U. of Vermont (42.5%)
122.  U. of Wisconsin – Madison (42.0%)
123.  U. of Pennsylvania (41.6%)
124.  Boston College (40.5%)
125.  Simmons College (40.2%)
126.  New York U. (39.4%)
127.  Fordham (36.3%)
128.  Boston U. (34.3%)

Some low-yielding schools may suffer from proximity to formidable competitors.  Perhaps students who apply to Michigan State and the University of Michigan tend to choose the latter if they can get in, and similarly for NYU and Fordam vis-à-vis Columbia.  But it still seems odd that schools as highly ranked as Wash. U. and Wisconsin would be so readily passed over by so many admitted applicants.  There does appear to be quite a gap between some of the ratings cooked up by U.S. News & World Report and the actual preferences shown by students.

An equally compelling conclusion is that MSW programs are simply not very competitive.  Even at Wash. U., for all its prestige, the MSW program has a significantly higher acceptance rate than, say, the university’s MBA program, and a significantly lower yield.  Overall, according to the analysis provided by Kirk et al., MSW applicants are more likely to be accepted than rejected at more than 80% of all MSW programs in the U.S.

At the Ph.D. level, only about one-quarter of the 61 doctoral programs analyzed by Kirk et al. rejected more applicants than they accepted.  But the names of the schools in that top quartile (e.g., Michigan, Chicago, Wash. U.) are much more like what one would expect after reviewing the U.S. News rankings, and the yield rates tend to be 60% or more.  Columbia is a noticeable exception, with an admission rate of 52.1%, below the University of Iowa.  Its yield of 62.1% puts it near the bottom of the pack, far below its crosstown rival, Hunter College (who knew?), whose yield of 96.2% put it at the very top.  In terms of both admittance and yield, the percentages for Columbia’s Ph.D. program are about the same as those for the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities.

The central message from the findings of Kirk et al. is that a simple, straightforward ranking of MSW programs (and perhaps also Ph.D. programs) in social work may be worthless.  Kirk et al. (p. 67) cite Feldman (2006) for the view that “faculty productivity [e.g., articles published] and reputation are separate and distinct phenomena (p. 500) and not necessarily the msot important gauges of success for all schools.”  The findings of Kirk et al. reinforce that conclusion:  student selectivity is yet another indicator of school ranking, and for many graduate students may address considerations very different from those captured in statistics on productivity and reputation.

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  • Liv  On January 25, 2013 at 3:21 PM

    Thank you for this information! It is incredibly valuable for a prospective applicant like myself.

  • Ray Woodcock  On January 24, 2012 at 3:45 PM

    Note an update on this topic.

  • Ray  On November 2, 2010 at 7:05 AM

    Re: Wash U.

    You’ll have to check Kirk et al. and the CSWE data. I might get to it myself, someday, but it’s a peer-reviewed publication, so I assume the reviewers expressed concern about it as well. It’s in Wash U’s interests to paint an image of selectivity, but I have to think they provided accurate info to the CSWE. It’s the accrediting organization.

  • kaytee  On November 2, 2010 at 2:10 AM

    Are you sure wash u’s msw acceptance rate is that high? I’m applying there now and a rep told me they accept about 1\3 of applicants.

  • Jeff Howe  On November 22, 2009 at 1:45 AM

    Very interesting and somewhat counterintuitive, esp. data re: Wash U

  • School of Social Work  On October 13, 2009 at 12:54 AM

    Thanks for sharing this information.
    It helps to get ideas about the performance of social work education since 1990-2004.

    Thanks again !


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