By: Robert Blundo
Fall 1995, Vol. 2, No. 2
Is My Degree Accredited?
by Robert Blundo, Ph.D., ACSW
University of North Carolina at Wilmington
Many students are presently attending bachelor's level social work programs not accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). This is quickly changing as programs and their institutions are moving toward accredited status. As of this past February, CSWE has listed 393 accredited baccalaureate programs and 28 programs in candidacy.
What is Accreditation?
There are two basic accreditations for any BSW program. First, there is the accreditation maintained by the college or institution for the conferring of the baccalaureate degree. Usually, a regional and a state commission or association of higher education grants this accreditation to the institution. This means that a bachelor's degree (BS or BA) with a major in social work or a BSW degree is an accredited undergraduate degree. It meets the same standards as any other degree conferred by the college or institution. The second type, a supplemental or additional accreditation, is for a specific field of study. A commission or council concerned with that particular area of study confers this additional accreditation. For example, many business schools within college settings maintain accreditation from the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business. This secondary accreditation is important. It standardizes the basic curriculum and structure of the programs so that graduates are recognized by other institutions as having completed a comparable course of study.
It is this supplemental accreditation that is conferred by CSWE. All accredited BSW programs have a social work curriculum that follows CSWE guidelines for educating students as generalist social work practitioners. To meet the accreditation standards, the program must fulfill additional CSWE requirements. There are requirements for (a) the number and experience of social work faculty, (b) the program's autonomy in carrying out its goals and program planning, (c) the program must have its own budget, and (d) the program must have authority in hiring and promotion of its faculty and must be assigned support staff. These requirements place considerable demands on small colleges and departments. Many can meet the curriculum requirements but struggle to meet the structural requirements of CSWE.
Our society is demanding accountability and justification of the work done by many in the helping fields. Many states are establishing licensing or certification requirements for individuals who want to use the title of social worker and perform certain social work tasks. Graduating from a CSWE-accredited program is increasingly a part of meeting these standards. This is particularly important regarding the MSW degree and less significant (depending on the state) for the BSW degree.
What is Candidacy?
The road to accreditation is hard and time-consuming. To begin with, the college or institution must decide to undertake the effort. It requires a commitment of funds to support the staff and to possibly hiring new social work faculty, depending upon the size of the program. The faculty must dedicate considerable time to researching and writing up the feasibility study documenting the need for the program in the community. Later, a detailed description of the program's structure within the college, faculty qualifications, and content and objectives of the curriculum must be completed. Usually, this takes one to two years. A member of the commission on accreditation reviews these eligibility documents and recommends or does not recommend that the program enter candidacy. If the program is found in compliance to proceed toward accreditation, the program is accepted into candidacy. This acceptance starts a two-year process during which further elaborate descriptions of the program and curriculum are documented and hopefully approved. Accreditation is awarded if the program meets all the requirements.
What Students Need to Know and Do
It is important to specifically ask if your program is accredited by CSWE. If the program is not accredited, ask if they are in candidacy and when they expect to be accredited. If the program is in candidacy and you will graduate after the accreditation date, then you will have graduated from an accredited program.
If, however, the program is in candidacy and does not expect to be accredited before you graduate, then ask specifically (this is very important) if the curriculum will change significantly from the curriculum you are now taking prior to accreditation. If the curriculum under which the program receives accreditation is changed significantly, the program cannot "grandfather" you in as having graduated from an accredited program. Only if you graduate from the program with substantially the same curriculum as that to be approved for accreditation will you be seen as graduating from an accredited program.
It is important to find out if the state in which you want to practice at the BSW level has licensing or certification requirements for BSW social workers. If they do, then it is important to find out the consequences for not graduating from a CSWE-accredited program in terms of specific job opportunities. Contact those agencies or services you would be interested in working for and ask specifically about your circumstances and their employment policies. Many agencies hire individuals with bachelor's degrees other than the BSW. In these situations, accreditation would not be an issue in terms of that specific agency and job description.
If you graduate from a program in candidacy, it is most likely that graduate schools will consider you as if you had graduated from an accredited program. Check this out with each school to which you apply.
If you graduate from a nonaccredited program, graduate schools will not penalize you for admission into the regular two-year MSW program. Those programs that have advanced standing will not accept you into advanced standing. Many of these programs have limited enrollment in advanced standing and graduating from an accredited BSW program will not guarantee you acceptance into advanced standing.
Accreditation is an important issue for students. I do think that at the bachelor's level, it should not be the only reason for selecting a program or transferring out of a program. It is important to look at the curriculum, faculty, and field opportunities. This is particularly so if you plan to attend graduate school. Accreditation does not guarantee that you will have the best learning experiences. Do not panic. Ask the questions listed above and think of your plans before making a decision about the program.