South Dakota to Offer MSW Program for First Time

Things are about to change for the only state in the nation that does not offer master's level training in social work education.

Thanks to a grassroots effort started by the NASW South Dakota Chapter, state lawmakers in March approved funding for the creation of an MSW social work curriculum at the University of South Dakota. The program could start as early as fall 2010. South Dakota has been the only state in the nation not to offer an MSW either by a private or a public university, said NASW South Dakota Chapter Executive Director Joan McMillin.

"I can't tell you how many people have come up to me and said they would stay here if they could only get an MSW here," McMillin said. Those in the state who wished to advance their training in social work to the master's level had no choice but to travel or live out of state, McMillin explained. Such efforts proved inhibitive for many, however, due to the expense and time for travel or to live elsewhere. Another hurdle included paying more for out-of-state tuition.

"People have made huge sacrifices to get their MSWs," McMillin said. Additionally, she said, many who did obtain their MSWs, ended up not returning to South Dakota to work.

Dennis Pfrimmer, South Dakota Chapter president, said getting an MSW program started was important to the future welfare of South Dakota's citizens.

"As the baby boomers get older there will be a need to increase social services here," he said.

The effort to launch an MSW program dates back to the 1990s, McMillin said. However, a 2007 grant from NASW's Social Work Reinvestment initiative helped turn the goal into a success story.

"Without the social work reinvestment funds, we would never have been able to do this," the executive director said. The chapter was able to hire a consultant and draft a workforce study on the need for an MSW program. Published in 2008, the study specifically outlined how important the program was to South Dakota's future.

"It explained that the state is ill-prepared to meet either today's needs or future needs for social work services," McMillin said. It noted that the number of students who obtain their MSW degree out of state and return to practice is not sufficient to meet the increasing employer needs to comply with federal, state and insurance regulations that require services by MSW-level professionals.

Employers in the state also indicated in the study that there is an overwhelming need for social workers with master's level training and certification. State employers were also losing out on receiving Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement due to not having enough MSW-level staff members. The need was reinforced by the fact that South Dakota's age 65-plus population is expected to increase by 46 percent by the year 2020.

The workforce study, along with social work supporters making their cases at different town hall meetings in the state, helped convince lawmakers in South Dakota that an MSW program was vital; they approved its creation in March.

The university's board of regents estimated the program will cost $475,000. Lawmakers approved appropriation funding for up to half of that amount from the state's general fund. The other half will have to be dedicated by the university's board of regents, McMillin said. The next step is to hire a director and field work supervisor before taking in students, which could possibly occur as early as next year.

"We're excited about it," Pfrimmer said. "We're expecting a lot of folks to participate in it and that's important since many of us with MSWs are approaching retirement age as well."