Wednesday, August 1, 2012

MSW Program Rankings

There are a number of rankings of graduate programs in social work and social welfare. I advise caution in letting your choice of school be driven by them. They tend to have the same band-wagon effect on some applicants that the old advertising phrase “seven out of ten doctors recommend...” has on purchasers of aspirin. Keep in mind that rankings are the end result of someone’s idea of what constitutes a good program. That “someone’s” ideas may be based on needs and priorities very different from your own. Beyond that, that someone’s methodology for evaluating or ranking the programs may be less than perfect. Whose point of view they represent is also important.

Having made the above disclaimer, I will add that, when placed in their proper perspective, rankings can be useful. They give applicants a feel for how the school and, by extension, its graduates, are seen, at least within academe.

Rankings generally tend to be done by educators for educators and students. Just how many practicing social service professionals know the rankings or are aware that they even exist is questionable. Those practicing professionals who are graduates of the highly ranked schools know of the rankings, because their schools tend to feature the rankings in alumni publications. On the other hand, practicing professionals outside of academe who are graduates of lower-ranked or not-at-all-ranked schools probably never hear about rankings, because their schools are unlikely to feature a story on rankings in alumni publications. The mainstream press and other media, with the notable exception of U.S. News & World Report (more on this later), are also unlikely to feature stories on rankings of academic programs.

If you plan to remain in academe, whether by teaching and doing research in an academic setting once you have your master’s or by pursuing a doctorate, the ranking of the school you attend may be more relevant. Within academia, the rankings are analogous to the price of stocks in business. The higher the ranking, the higher the “stock.” There are also, from time to time, studies on the amount of research and writings produced at various schools. Within the academic world, those reports are significant. That is the stuff that tenure is made of. Overall, the academic ranking of the program you attend may or may not assist you in securing employment.

Two well-known rankings on social work programs are worth mentioning. They are very different from one another in the methodologies they employ.

The more empirically sound of the two is The Gourman Report: A Rating of Graduate and Professional Programs in American and International Universities (Gourman, J., Sixth edition, Revised. Los Angeles: National Education Standards, 1997). Gourman offers rankings based on specific criteria including, among many others, the age and experience of the institution, qualifications of the faculty, curricular content, and support services and physical facilities. It offers a good starting point for those interested in programs of national prominence.

The second ranking is that of U.S. News & World Report. The inclusion of schools of social work in the magazine’s annual education issue began in 1993. A partial listing of U.S. News & World Report’s current rankings of schools of social work (ranked in 2004) may be found on the Internet at

The methodology employed in determining rankings consisted of a survey of opinions of senior faculty and deans of schools of social work. To what extent the respondents’ loyalty to the schools they attended or where they are employed played a part in their responses is anyone’s guess. Given that the magazine is so widely distributed and known, the results of the survey may become widely accepted by the general public, despite the weak methodology.


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