Survey Shows Black Social Work Students Face Higher Costs Than Others

Published on : December 7, 2020

December 7, 2020, Alexandria, VA– The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) today released findings from 3 years of surveys of social workers completing their master’s of social work (MSW) degrees.  

The report, The Social Work Profession: Findings from Three Years of Surveys of New Social Workers, presents details on where and how new social workers are serving clients and communities across the country. However, a key finding is that the costs to become a social worker are higher for Black students than White students.   

“While we are encouraged to see the strong diversity of race and ethnicity of students graduating with MSW degrees, the difference in costs between students who are White and Black is concerning,” said CSWE President and CEO Darla Spence Coffey, PhD, MSW. “Nearly half of new social workers were the first ones in their family to graduate from college. We must do all that we can to reduce the disparate costs for social work students because we need to sustain this growing diverse population of care providers.”   

The research was completed in partnership with the National Association of Social Workersand the George Washington University Fitzhugh Mullan Institute for Health Workforce Equity.   

Among the many findings in the report, it is clear that social work is an in-demand profession with strong job satisfaction levels that could be higher with increased salaries. Highlighted below are insights into new social workers’ demographic and educational backgrounds, the types of jobs they are taking, the populations they are serving, their experiences in the job market, and more.    


New social workers are predominantly women (90%) and are diverse in terms of race and ethnicity. More than 22% of new social workers are Black/African American and 14% are Hispanic/Latino. In terms of educational backgrounds, nearly two-thirds (66%) of new MSWs received bachelor’s degrees in non-social work fields.   

The study also found that MSW programs equally attract younger, less experienced students and older, more experienced students. Twenty-six percent of MSW graduates had less than 1 year of work experience and an average age of 26, compared to 27% of graduates who had 6 or more years of work experience and an average age of 40.   

The findings reveal that many new social workers are part of the first generation in their families to graduate college. Overall, more than 46% of the 2019 MSW graduates were the first ones in their families to graduate college; this was particularly true for Hispanic/Latinos (73%) and Black/African American individuals (57%).   

Educational Funding and Debt   

The 2019 survey introduced new questions on student educational debt. School-based scholarships (31.8%) and family support (32.1%) were the most common types of funding for graduates, although most respondents (33.6%) reported receiving no financial support at all. Government sources of support were less common; more than 11% of respondents received some form of support from government programs. 
Table30 Nongovernment Financial Support for Social Work Education, 2018 and 2019 only

Despite a variety of funding sources for MSW students, their educational debt at graduation was substantial. Among the 2019 graduates the mean educational debt was $66,000, of which $49,000 was from their social work education.   

Debt from their social work education was, on average, substantially higher for Black/African Americans than for Whites ($66,000 vs. $45,000) and for Hispanics compared with non-Hispanics ($53,000 vs. $48,000). Mean total debt for all education was $92,000 for Black/African Americans and $79,000 for Hispanics. The mean starting salary for new MSWs was only $47,100.
Table33 Educational Debt, by Race, 2019 only

Populations Served  

The majority of new graduates were working by the September after spring graduation. More than four of five respondents employed in social work or social work-related positions were in direct (or clinical) practice with individuals, families, or groups (82%).  
Table2 Type of Job Taken for Those Woking in Social Work or Social Work-Related  Positions

In terms of populations served, more than one-third of new social workers were serving children and families (34.9%). The second most common practice focus was people with mental health disorders, cited by more than a quarter of respondents (25.9%). 
Figure4 Population Served: Main Client Focus of MSWs Working as Social Workers

More Information   

The Social Work Profession: Findings from Three Years of Surveys of New Social Workers, is available for download.


The 2019 Social Work Workforce Study was supported through funding from the Council on Social Work Education, the National Association of Social Workers, and the following social work programs:  

  • Boston University  
  • Columbia University  
  • Fordham University  
  • Ohio State University  
  • University of Chicago  
  • University of Kansas  
  • University of Pennsylvania  
  • University of Texas at Austin  
  • University of Utah  

About the Council on Social Work Education  

Founded in 1952, the Council on Social Work Education is the national association representing social work education in the United States. Its members include more than 800 accredited baccalaureate and master’s degree social work programs, as well as individual social work educators, practitioners, and agencies dedicated to advancing quality social work education.