MSW Admission Rates Update: CSWE Summary 2010

This post updates some topics discussed in a previous post on MSW admission rates.

That previous post discussed an article written by Kirk, Kil, and Corcoran (2009).  In that article, Kirk et al. used data published in annual reports (Statistics on Social Work Education in the United States) by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). A Google search suggests that the most recent readily available version of those reports is CSWE’s 2010 Statistics on Social Work Education: A Summary.

That Summary document does not provide program-specific data.  It does provide some interesting updates on several matters, though.  The data in that document include certain results from surveys of 197 departments and schools of social work (SSWs) in 2010.  Those SSWs apparently housed 97% of the total of 203 MSW programs accredited by CSWE at that time.


According to those surveys in 2010, as summarized in that document, the programs that responded to the CSWE 2010 survey enrolled a total of 29,997 full-time and 18,387 part-time MSW students.  About 86% of students in both part- and full-time MSW programs were female, as were 87.4% of MSW graduates.  The percentages of students aged 30 or younger declined from about 65% of all students in full-time programs to about 50% of students in part-time programs.  Part-time students were twice as likely to be over 40 as full-time students:  22.7% vs. 11.7%.  Students over 30 (part- and full-time combined) accounted for 38% of MSW students but only 32% of MSW graduates whose age was known.  Racial/ethnic percentages were fairly similar between part- and full-time students:  in both groups, about 64% were white, 17% black, and 11% Hispanic/Latino among single-race/ethnicity MSW students whose race/ethnicity was known.  Among MSW graduates, the percentages were 66% white, 17% black, and 11% Hispanic/Latino.

On the program level, direct practice or clinical concentrations enrolled more than 40% of all MSW students — nearly three times as many as the next most popular program type (generalist and advanced generalist).  It appeared that two groups of subject-matter emphases predominated: families, children and youth; and health, mental health, and addictions.  Concentrations on families, children, and youth appeared to account for about 37 times as many MSW students as did concentrations on disability, and for about 49 times as many MSW students as did concentrations on occupational social work (e.g., workplace, unemployment).  In other words, the scanty data in the Summary document seem to suggest that, for every 100 MSW students studying family-related social issues, only two were focusing on job-related social issues — during the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Few MSW programs required the GRE:  17% required the GRE general test verbal score, and 15% required the math score.  At the PhD level, 11% of programs did not require the GRE.  The Summary document does not disclose average GRE scores.  CSWE may not have requested such information from schools.

Chapter 5 of the Summary document provides demographic information on SW PhD students, based on responses from 90% of SW PhD programs.  78% of newly enrolled PhD students had MSWs.  Males accounted for 25% of applicants and 23% of newly enrolled PhD students.  Among those whose age was known, people over 30 accounted for 52% of applicants and 57% of actual enrollees, raising a question of whether younger PhD applicants were more likely to file applications with multiple PhD programs and/or with non-SW PhD programs, or to decline to attend for other reasons after being accepted.  Similar questions arise in the area of race and ethnicity, where whites accounted for 48% of PhD program applicants, but 61% of enrollees, among single-race/ethnicity MSW students whose race/ethnicity was known.  Table 39 seems to suggest that minorities were more likely than whites to stall out at the qualifying and dissertation stages, perhaps because of poor advising, a relative dearth of suitable mentors or role models, inadequate preparation prior to to that point, or unfamiliarity or intimidation linked to the relatively isolated and individualistic nature of post-coursework doctoral processes in typical PhD programs.  Tables 39 and 40 seem to say that, while males accounted for only 24% of PhD students who had completed coursework, they accounted for 28% of post-coursework PhD students who were receiving financial aid, and that whites accounted for 58% of those who had completed coursework but only 55% of those who received financial aid.  Tables 38 and 41 indicate that, while SW PhD programs responding to CSWE’s survey had exactly 1,300 students in a status of having completed their doctoral coursework and who were actually continuing to be enrolled in their PhD programs, only 308 PhD degrees were awarded.  Given the remarkable indication that one out of every eight PhD graduates had taken 10+ years to complete their PhDs, and that altogether 54% had taken more than five years, it appeared likely that substantial numbers of PhD students simply dropped out of their programs before graduation.

Calculations Based on Total Applications, Acceptances, and Enrollments

Table 10 in the Summary document states that, in 2010, MSW programs received a total of 48,440 applications and accepted 30,006, for an overall acceptance rate of 62%.  In other words, about three out of every five MSW applications were accepted.  The acceptance rate was somewhat higher for part-time (typically somewhat older, and presumably more experienced) applicants:  68%, as compared to 60% for full-time applicants.  Table 10 also states that a total of 20,069 new students enrolled in MSW programs.

These numbers imply that there were between 20,069 and 48,440 applicants.  Assuming no bookkeeping irregularities, there could not have been fewer than 20,069 applicants, because that’s how many people actually enrolled.  And there could not have been more than 48,440 applicants, because that’s how many applications were received.

Of course, if there were 48,440 applicants, then each applicant filed one application.  On the other extreme, if there were 20,069 applicants, then the average applicant filed 2.4 applications.  This the range in which the average number of MSW applications per applicant must fall:  between one and 2.4 applications per applicant.

If time and money permitted, some applicants could have filed larger numbers of applications.  It is likely that some nervous applicants did file three, five, or more applications.  It wouldn’t take many nervous applicants to push up the average number of applications per applicant.  In other words, if you had to guess whether the average applicant filed one application (the minimum possible) or 2.4 applications (the maximum possible), you would probably be safer guessing 2.4.

These numbers begin to narrow the possibilities.  One thing worth noting is that, in fact, nobody filed 2.4 applications.  Most MSW applicants apparently filed two applications, but surely some filed just one application, and some filed more than two applications.  The numbers who filed more than two would taper off as you go upwards:  the number who filed three applications would be larger than the number who filed four applications, and so on.  (Possibly the greatest numbers of people filing more than two applications would be those who were most and least qualified — the former, on the theory that they would be most focused on their own academic success, and the latter, because they would have reason to fear that nobody would want them.)

To flesh out these speculations, suppose 20% of applicants filed one application, 60% filed two applications, and 20% filed more than two applications.  Suppose, moreover, that people in that last group filed an average of 3.3 applications.  In that scenario, a hundred applicants would give you 20 + (60 x 2) + (20 x 3.3) = 206 applications.  Rounding it off, you’ve got 2.1 applications per applicant.  That’s not pushing the ceiling of 2.4 per person, so it’s plausible.

If the average applicant filed 2.1 applications, then there were about 23,000 MSW applicants in 2010 (i.e., 48,440 divided by 2.1).  As noted above, those applicants garnered a total of 30,006 acceptances, or about 1.3 acceptances per applicant — that is, 1.3 acceptances for every 2.1 applications — producing, again, successes in 62% of all applications.

Another question is, how did that estimate of 23,000 applicants become converted into 20,069 actual enrollments?  Those numbers imply a 13% attrition rate.  At that rate, about one out of every eight applicants did not enroll in an MSW program.  The two possibilities seem to be that either they weren’t accepted anywhere, or they were accepted in one or more MSW programs but they didn’t enroll anywhere.  The former category would include those whom all SW admissions offices considered ill-suited, for any of a variety of reasons (e.g., pathologically scary, uncomfortably straightforward).  The latter category would include (a) those who experienced some major change of heart or life and (b) those who were hedging their bets in case they didn’t get into some other kind of graduate program (in e.g., clinical psychology) that interested them more.  (That last possibility poses the likelihood that there are some MSW students for whom SW was not a first choice.)

Splitting the difference, within that 13%, would imply that an estimated 93% of MSW applicants (i.e., about 21,400 out of 23,000, in this scenario) were accepted into at least one MSW program.  In other words, the 62% acceptance rate implied by the CSWE data applies to applications, not applicants.  Applicants put in more than one application, on average, and that boosts their chances of getting at least one acceptance.  This outcome appears consistent with the views of critics who charge that MSW programs have largely moved to an open admissions policy.

Dividing these numbers among the 197 MSW programs that responded to CSWE’s 2010 survey suggests that the average program (including its branch campuses, if any, and its part- and full-time programs) received 246 applications, accepted 152, and enrolled 102.  At an estimated 2.1 applications per applicant, most MSW programs would have been competing with just one other program for the average applicant.

This seems to be a very different situation from applications to programs in competitive professional fields, where students commonly speak of applying to at least five or ten schools (in medicine, perhaps as many as 15 or 20) — some where you are a sure bet, some where you’ve got a fair shot, and some “dream” schools where your chances of getting in are 10% or less.  Similar discussions are common in many other kinds of graduate programs as well.

People seem to apply to fewer schools, regardless of field, when they are pretty sure of getting in somewhere, either because their credentials are excellent or because the field is not very competitive.  People also apply to more schools when they want to reserve multiple options, perhaps using the time after acceptance to examine program differences, funding, and other details more closely.  In that regard, the low numbers of applications per MSW program applicant seem to imply that most applicants don’t see much practical difference among different programs.

It is likely that the smallish number of MSW applicants who would have applied to three or more programs would be found especially at the most highly sought-after MSW programs.  Those few applicants could generate a false sense of demand for those programs.  Suppose, for example, that, out of 23,000 applicants, the 300 who filed the largest number of applications were responsible for an average of six applications each.  Suppose, moreover, that 250 of those 300 were highly qualified and relatively well-financed applicants who felt that they just had to get into one or more of the programs that were hardest to get into (implying that the other 50, out of those 300, filed so many applications because they feared, or were finding, that they were not being well received in most places).  The total of 1,500 applications filed by those 250 people, distributed among a few prestigious or geographically desirable schools, could inflate the numbers of applications received by those schools.  Some schools on the receiving end of this frenzy would have to accept a larger number of students in order to wind up with their desired numbers of actual enrollees.  They would have only one chance in six of being chosen by those 250 applicants who filed six applications each (and similarly among applicants who filed three, four, or five applications).  Phenomena of this nature may help to explain why, as noted in the previous post, a top-ranked school like Washington University would have to accept so many applicants, and would be chosen by so few.  The situation would be very different in a highly competitive profession, where applicants would have a very small chance of being accepted at any top-ranked program, and would therefore be much more likely to enroll in any top program that did accept them.

Some of the foregoing MSW-related calcluations could also be done for the PhD application data in Table 10.  The Summary document indicates that, in 2010, those 197 SSWs (or, more precisely, the SSWs among those 197 that had PhD programs) received a total of 1,729 PhD program applications.  Table 4 states that a total of 63 programs offered the PhD, so PhD programs apparently received an average of 27 applications each.  Of those 1,729 applications, 575 (33%) were accepted.  Those 575 acceptances yielded 411 enrollees.  As above, it is not clear how many applications the average PhD applicant filed, or how many accepted applicants decided to go into some other field instead of SW, but it might be possible to assemble some plausible speculations.  For instance, there had to be between 411 and 1,729 applicants, meaning that the average SW PhD applicant could not have filed more than 4.2 applications.  The most desirable programs (in terms of such matters as career opportunities, doctoral funding, and faculty quality) surely received a disproportionate number of applications.  And so forth.

The Summary document provides information on other topics.  For instance, for the programs that provided relevant information, Table 14 indicates that about 70% of SW faculty were female and about 71% were white.  Table 17 says that only 72% of full-time faculty (17% of part-time faculty) had doctoral degrees.  Table 21 says that full-time faculty spent only 15% of their time on research.

Summary Totals and the Findings of Kirk, Kil, and Corcoran

The article by Kirk et al. (2009) cited in the previous post provides numerous points of comparison with the Summary document and the foregoing discussion.  Kirk et al. found dramatic fluctuations in the numbers of applications to MSW programs — due, perhaps, to the growth or shrinkage of job opportunities, or to changes in prevailiing career philosophies in the context of current economic conditions.  They also found, however, that the numbers of MSW program admissions and enrollments, while still fluctuating, were more stable.  During the 1990-2004 period, they found a 13% decline in the number of students admitted into the average MSW program, and a 15% decline in the average number of new enrollments.  This was consistent with the concern that the numbers of MSW programs were rising faster than the numbers of people willing and able to attend such programs.

Numerically, Kirk et al. found that, at their peak in the mid-1990s, the average MSW program had accepted 148 applicants, dropping to lows of between 106 and 112 in the early 2000s.  In 2010, the 30,006 acceptances by 197 MSW programs (above) imply an average of 152 acceptances per program.  This seems to mean that, by 2010, the average program had returned to its mid-1990s peak size — had grown, that is, by about 40% from its low point.  That seems to be supported by enrollment data.  According to Kirk et al., the average number of new enrollments per program declined from about 84 to 62-67 between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s.  But the figure of 20,069 enrollments in 2010 (above) implies that those 197 MSW programs enrolled 102 students each, on average — a near doubling of enrollments per program, reaching a level well above even the mid-1990s peak.

These results call for a review of my calculations (above) and a closer look at the approach taken by Kirk et al., to verify whether I am on the right track.  Tentatively, it appears that the supply of programs may have most dramatically outstripped demand around 2001, but that demand has been trending upwards since then.  I would also like to look at CSWE’s full (i.e., not summary) data for the past 10 years, time permitting, assuming I can get access to its reports.  That step would also provide an update on the findings of Kirk et al. regarding individual MSW and PhD programs.  At the moment, it seems that, in recent years, there may have been a greater student appetite for MSW programs than Kirk et al. and others anticipated.

Whether all those MSWs are getting jobs, or are instead piling up in a rapidly growing glut, is still another question to examine further.  As a brief glance at that question, in 2004 (p. 85), the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expected the number of job openings for social workers to rise 22% by 2014.  Even after allowing for attrition, a total rise in job openings of 22% over a ten-year period would not seem to justify a 40% jump in the numbers of acceptances or a doubling of enrollments.

In today’s terms, the BLS would characterize that 22% rise, projected back in 2004, as “much faster than average” growth in employment.  But in 2010, BLS had dropped back to projecting “faster than average” growth for hiring of social workers — that is, growth of 14% to 19% — by 2018.  So there is some prospect that MSW programs bulked up during the mid-2000s, in response to a public sense that social workers would be among those benefiting from the wealth flowing to the health care sector, and that they have continued to draw applicants at a torrid pace despite significant shrinkage in those applicants’ career prospects.  This interpretation suggests the likelihood of a sharp reduction in MSW program enrollments within the next few years.

Pending a look at CSWE’s detailed data, it appears much has changed since the 1990-2004 period covered by Kirk et al.  It does not appear, however, that the admission rates that Kirk et al. calculated for individual MSW programs would have decreased.  To the contrary, it preliminarily appears that such programs may have achieved unexpected success in searching for warm bodies to fill significantly larger MSW programs.  Despite a relatively minor increase in the number of programs (from 186 in 2004, according to Kirk et al., p. 72, to 203 in 2010), the number of newly enrolled students has more than doubled.

Given that 80% of MSWs graduate with student loan debts (Table 13), and that the median debt is over $32,000, it appears that expansion-minded MSW admissions offices may have served as the conduits through which greatly enlarged and cumulatively enormous amounts of federal money have flowed into universities.  Assuming SSWs have taken care to hire adjunct and other junior faculty without significantly increasing the numbers of tenured professors or investing much in new buildings, a given university (especially those not among the elite) should be fairly well positioned to collapse an inflated MSW program to a fraction of its size whenever the MSW enrollees and/or their loan funds dry up.

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