The Problem of Student Loan Debt for Social Work Graduates
“I didn’t choose this career for the money,” is a common saying amongst social work professionals and students – a light joke that also recognizes that social workers, along with many other “helping professionals” are not highly-paid positions. Social work student loan forgiveness is coveted by many graduates.
Social workers commit themselves to their field of practice out of a desire to serve, to work toward social justice, to support individuals and communities in their achievement of health and wellbeing. This work, however, remains undervalued and therefore, underpaid in society. Social work graduates are suffering the consequences of the lack of an adequate policy of student loan forgiveness for social workers.
Because social work is a professional degree, requiring a Master’s level education for licensure, social workers embark upon a lengthy and often expensive educational path in order to fulfill their calling.
While some scholarships and government loans are available to assist with educational expenses, many social work graduates, upon completing their degrees and entering the profession, are saddled with significant amounts of student loan debt. Social work student loan forgiveness could alleviate the stress.
Social Work Student Loan Forgiveness
Student loan debt burdens most social work graduates: The Council on Social Work Education’s 2013 report found that 81% of Bachelor’s graduates, 80.5% of Master’s graduates, and 65.5% of doctoral graduates in social work have some amount of loan debt, ranging on average between $31,880 to $42,1491.
These substantial amounts of loan debt are not easy to pay off on a social worker’s salary – about $45,500 annually according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics2. Managing student loan debt on a social work salary is a challenging prospect, and an even more difficult reality.
Social workers often work under the high stress of heavy caseloads, limited resources, traumatized clients, and insufficient organizational support, and on top of that are faced with the added stress of managing one’s personal finances due to student loan debt.
How High Student Debt Impacts Graduates
The issue of student loan debt for social workers does not just impact graduates on the personal level – it is a prohibiting factor for many qualified individuals who would otherwise pursue social work education, in a field that is in constant need of new practitioners to meet the growing needs of society.
Additionally, it means that many private social work practitioners have little choice but to charge higher amounts for their services, rendering those services inaccessible to many potential clients in need. That National Association of Social Workers has demonstrated its full support of Student a policy change to address student loan debt, stating: “NASW is promoting loan forgiveness for social workers as part of its on-going work to improve working conditions, salaries, and other benefits for members of the profession and to ensure that consumers have access to qualified professionals3”
Existing Policy Efforts for Social Work Student Loan Forgiveness
Three existing programs exist to alleviate student loan debt for some social work professionals. These are:
Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program4
Established by the College Cost Reduction Act of 2007, this program forgives any remaining student loan debt after 120 monthly payments (ten years), provided each of those payments was made in full and on-time during a month in which the professional was employed full-time at a government or non-profit agency.
While this policy is a step in the right direction, the ten-year requirement is difficult for social workers to meet due to low salaries and high monthly payments.
National Health Service Corps Loan Repayment Program5
In exchange for two years of full-time service in a community-based site in a designated “Health Professional Shortage Area,” this program gives Licensed Clinical Social Workers $50,000 toward student loan repayment. This program, however, leaves out non-LCSWs in the field, such as community-based practitioners, and job placement is limited.
Higher Education Act6
This act, passed by Congress in 2008, provided an expansion in the loan forgiveness program, including the possibility of debt cancellation – however, that program was never funded, only authorized, and is therefore not an available form of debt relief.
Make Social Work Student Loan Forgiveness a Reality
Social workers should advocate for comprehensive policy change to alleviate student loan burdens on practitioners and ensure the availability of quality care for all. Debt cancellation programs made available to social work graduates would be a clear solution, but advocacy for their funding is needed.
The NASW recommends supporting the reauthorization and funding of the Loan Forgiveness provisions in the Higher Education Act, and supporting the continuance of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program3.
Social workers can also advocate for reduced tuition at social work educational institutions, and support other legislation efforts to forgive student loans and/or limit their payments, as well as advocate for higher salaries across the profession.
Council on Social Work Education. (2013). 2013 statistics on social work education in the United States.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Social Workers
National Association of Social Workers. Loan forgiveness for social workers [Internet]. Washington (DC): National Association of Social Workers; 2016 [cited 2016 May 6].
Federal Student Aid. Public service loan forgiveness [Internet]. Washington (DC): U.S. Department of Education; 2016 [cited 2016 May 6]
National Health Service Corps. Loan repayment [Internet].Washington (DC): U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2016 [cited 2016 May 6]
U.S. Department of Higher Education. Higher education opportunity act -2008 [Internet]. Washington (DC): U.S. Department of Higher Education; 2016 [cited 2016 May 6]. Available from