Social Workers' School Debt Heavy

A new report from the NASW Center for Workforce Studies shows that many social workers are burdened with unmanageable educational debt. The report, "In the Red: Social Workers and Educational Debt," is based on data from a recent NASW membership survey.

"During the past few years, media attention has increasingly focused on the growing burden facing college graduates as a result of debt accumulated from student loans and other educational costs," the report states. "While the amount of educational debt is not confined to a particular segment of the student population, the implications are vastly different for those who choose careers, like social work, in which salaries tend to be lower."

The report comes from a recent online NASW membership workforce survey. The survey was administered through NASW's website from Aug. 30 to Nov. 30, 2007. The survey received 3,653 responses.

Among findings about educational debt were these:

  • Among respondents, 69 percent incurred debt to finance their social work degree. Debt burdens ranged from less than $5,000 to more than $100,000.
  • Fifty-two percent incurred between $10,000 and $39,999 in educational debt, with 31 percent owing between $20,000 and $39,999.
  • More than half of respondents who earned less than $19,999 a year had educational debt that was greater than their annual salaries, and 25 percent of that group had educational debt more than twice their annual salaries.
  • Among those reporting educational debt, 95 percent used student loans, 31 percent used credit cards, and 12 percent described "other" types of debt. (Respondents were able to select more than one answer.)
  • More than one-third of respondents with educational debt had social work salaries of less than $40,000 a year. Of respondents, 22 percent earned between $40,000 and $49,999; 29 percent earned between $50,000 and $69,999 and 13 percent earned more than $70,000.
  • Almost half of respondents (48 percent) described their debt load as unreasonable, and nearly a quarter (21 percent) described it as unmanageable.
  • Respondents who described their educational debt as unmanageable were more likely to be younger than those whose debt was manageable, were more likely to be female than male, more likely to be single than married and more likely to be African American than white.

"Clearly, high educational debt and low salaries are challenges many social workers face," the report states. "This financial burden is experienced by individual social workers, but it also affects the profession itself.

"The social work profession is trying to attract younger people into the field and to increase its racial and ethnic diversity, but these groups are more likely to face unmanageable educational debt," the report continues. "The amount of frustration and dissatisfaction expressed by social workers cannot be dismissed.

"The nation's demographics demonstrate an increasing demand for social workers, but educational debt is pushing people away from a challenging, yet rewarding field," the report concludes. "A choice to pursue a career in social work should not be a decision to live 'in the red.'"

The average age of respondents in the online survey was 45, and 83 percent were female. Among respondents, 86 percent identified as white, 7 percent as African American and 2 percent each as Asian American, Chicano/Mexican American, Native American and other Hispanic/Latino. (Some identified more than one category.)

The survey followed up on the NASW Center for Workforce Studies' benchmark national study of licensed social workers in 2004. That survey offered a wide range of information about social workers' professional work environments and roles.