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New online master of social work program addresses critical workforce needs

UNC School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is now accepting applications to a new online master of social work (MSW) program which launches in January 2024.

The new Carolina program, offering a curriculum accredited by the Council for Social Work Education, adds a robust online offering as a fourth pathway for prospective students — including working professionals — who are interested in completing a master’s degree in social work from the School. Online students will be taught by the same renowned faculty and complete the same coursework as in-person students.

The online MSW equips students with the skills and knowledge for a successful career in social work and related fields. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, social workers with a master’s degree versus a bachelor’s degree alone earn 25% higher salaries.

Given that North Carolina is facing an estimated shortfall of nearly 24,000 social workers over the next seven years, this new, flexible degree program will help to shore up the state’s critical workforce needs, said UNC School of Social Work Dean Ramona Denby-Brinson. She noted that the need is particularly dire in the areas of child welfare, aging, disabilities and especially among needed practitioners in mental and behavioral health.

“With fewer than 800 students, on average, graduating annually from the 12 master of social work programs within the UNC system, our ability to address the increasing needs of the vulnerable and marginalized individuals who live in our state is limited,” said Denby-Brinson, a nationally recognized expert on kinship care and the incoming president of the Society for Social Work Research. “As a School, we must do more to increase the number of professionally trained social workers to support and strengthen the overall well-being of North Carolina’s residents.”

In expanding its degree options to include a virtual format, UNC School of Social Work will join many other accredited MSW programs across the nation, including other institutional peers with Top 10 schools of social work that offer students a virtual path to a master’s degree in social work. In particular, the program is expected to target non-traditional students within North Carolina and the Southeast who because of life circumstances, such as job requirements and location, cannot shift busy schedules or obligations to attend graduate school full time in Chapel Hill.

Such an expansion is necessary to broaden the educational opportunities for residents in every corner of the state, Denby-Brinson added.

“The world has changed dramatically, and we are changing with it,” she said. “The online program is one way that we can broaden the workforce and make sure that we’re preparing practitioners to work in all parts of our state and to serve in communities where they are most needed — regardless of whether they can get to Chapel Hill for classes. Today, we’re delighted to begin accepting applications from prospective students in 44 North Carolina counties — from the mountains to the coast — and 21 states across the country who’ve already reached out to us to learn more about the program.”

The online MSW program is designed to mirror the existing campus-based MSW program in academic curriculum, faculty engagement, quality, rigor and outcomes. To graduate, students must complete 62 credit hours in coursework online and two internships within the community. Moreover, like students from the School’s campus-based MSW programs, graduates of the online program will be prepared for direct practice, management of nonprofit and public agencies, community practice, and leadership positions, said Tina Souders, the School’s director of digital learning and instruction.

“This new program offers people a great opportunity to earn an MSW from a nationally respected school of social work with a 103-year history, all from the convenience of their own homes,” said Souders, who leads the School’s online program.

Online MSW classes will include a mixture of live instruction delivered by the School’s faculty and academic content and course work that students will have the flexibility to complete each week during a time that is convenient for them, Souders said. Having the option to choose where and when they learn, especially for professionals trying to balance school with other responsibilities, including a job and family, is crucial, she said.

The School expects to enroll 30 students in January 2024 and another 30 in August next year, with an anticipated maximum enrolled capacity of 215 by 2027.