Despite having an advanced degree and being respected as somewhat of an expert, I barely get by due to student loan repayment.
—respondent to NASW survey
I believe that unmanageable debt, poor preparation for job negotiations, and low salaries in the social work profession make the...profession untenable.
Practically no one pursuing higher education comes away without some accumulation of loan debt before graduating college or graduate school. The debt tends to be more burdensome for social work graduates than others because their salaries, as a rule, are lower.
According to In the Red: Social Workers and Educational Debt, a 2008 report released by the National Association of Social Workers and the NASW Center for Workforce Studies, educational debt is one of the factors that influence recruitment and retention in social work. The survey, which was a follow-up to the 2004 benchmark study by NASW, was administered online over a three-month period and received a total of 3,653 responses.
As 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 lowered....” Further, the report says, “Educational debt has also been blamed for deterring students from public service careers, thus increasing pressures on a workforce already facing shortages.”
Among the respondents, 69% had incurred debt to finance their social work education. Debt burdens ranged from less than $5,000 to $100,000—with 52% owing between $10,000 and $39,999. Ninety-five percent reported that the debt they had incurred was for student loans, 31% had used credit cards to finance their education, and 12% listed “other.” Forty-one percent of those who had incurred debt were solely responsible for their household income, and more than a third of respondents (36%) with educational debt had social work salaries of less than $40,000 a year. Only 13% earned more than $70,000.
When the survey report compared educational debt amounts with annual salary levels, the report found that 53% of respondents who earned less than $19,999 had educational debt that was greater than their annual salaries. Twenty-five percent had debt more than twice their annual salaries.
Furthermore, nearly a quarter (21%) described their debt load as “unmanageable.” Those with such debt are more likely to be younger, female, single, and African American (more than Caucasians). Sixty-seven percent of those with unmanageable debt earned less than $49,999 a year, compared with 54% of those with manageable debt.
Intae Yoon, Assistant Professor at the School of Social Work, College of Human Ecology, East Carolina University, conducted a survey of his own of BSW and MSW graduates to understand better how they finance their degrees and how much debt burden they have upon graduation. He also wanted to explore how social work educators help students to avoid accumulating unmanageable debt.
After his research, which he hopes to extend further with more respondents, Yoon concluded that another debt they often end up with is of greater concern.
“Yet to me, the more serious concern is students’ credit card debt,” Yoon says. “There is a serious national trend, in which more and more students are using credit cards, especially during the current recession. It’s very hard to get private educational loans.”
For example, 11.1% of the BSW graduates had a minimum of $10,000 in credit card debt. And among those who used credit cards to finance their BSW education, 42% indicated that the availability of these cards was either “very” or “extremely” important to cover their educational expenses.
In the case of MSW counterparts, about 20% indicated that credit cards are very important to cover their educational expenses. Sixteen percent of them have at least $10,000 debt upon graduation.
Yoon continues, “In the case of credit cards, there is no forgiveness. The interest rate is much higher than that of loans. In the case of federal education loans, there’s a 6-month grace period; with credit cards, you have to pay back immediately.”
On the plus side, though, social work students are eligible for some loan forgiveness programs after they have paid off at least part of their student loans.
The College Cost Reduction Act of 2007 allows federal student loan borrowers to choose an income-based repayment program, which is up to 15% of their discretionary income. For social workers and professionals in nationally needed areas, educational loans can be forgiven possibly after repaying the loans for 10 years with no default after signing up for the program.