If you are searching for social work degree programs, chances are you have come across the term “CSWE accredited.” It’s a term used everywhere by schools and degree programs (or so it seems), but it’s not really explained that well. This guide covers what the CSWE is (it’s short for Council on Social Work Education) and it breaks down all that you need to know about the CSWE and how this organization is committed to furthering the field of social work.
IN THIS GUIDE
What is the CSWE?
Along with developing national standards for undergraduate and graduate social work degree programs and certifying educational programs, CSWE promotes national and international collaborations to further develop the field of social work research, practice and education in order to improve services that social workers provide to clients.
For example, the China-U.S. Collaborative was a 5-year joint project between the CSWE, the China Association of Social Work Education and the International Association of Schools of Social Work to develop graduate social work education programs in mainland China.
According to the CSWE website, the vision of the council is “to ensure a well-educated social work profession equipped to promote health, well-being and justice for all people in a diverse society”.
The mission of the Council on Social Work Education is “to advance excellence and innovation in social work education and research by providing leadership, ensuring quality in teaching and learning, and strengthening the capacity of our member institutions.”
Five goals of the CSWE
The Council on Social Work Education has five goals that describe its important role in social work education and the future of our profession:
- Provide leadership for the future of social work education
- Promote quality teaching, learning, and scholarship to prepare graduates for the future of social work practice
- Support the career development of students, faculty members, and administrators
- Foster a diverse, interconnected, and inclusive community of social work educators
- Ensure that CSWE provides exceptional value to its members and member institutions
The first training school for social workers was founded in New York in 1898, and additional schools across the Northeastern United States began in the next decade, The Association of Training Schools for Professional Social Workers, later called the American Association of Schools of Social Work (AASSW) began in 1919. By 1932, the AASSW developed formal accreditation procedures for educational programs in social work. However, the AASSW only wanted to allow graduate schools as organization members. This led to the development of the National Association of Schools of Social Administration, or NASSA when it was believed that a generalist approach to social work education could help eliminate social worker shortages.
The confusion of two systems eventually led to both associations losing their authority to provide accreditation. From there, the National Council on Social Work Education was developed and became the sole accrediting agency for social work educational programs when the AASSW and NASSA dissolved in 1952.
Though CSWE initially started out accrediting only master’s degree programs in social work, in 1974, they began allowing undergraduate social work programs to apply for accreditation. Due to their focus on improving the quality of education for students wanting to go into direct social work practice, the CSWE does not offer accreditation opportunities for social work programs at either the associate or doctoral level. In June 2020 CSWE voted to pilot the accreditation of practice doctoral programs, those that offer a Doctorate of Social Work (DSW), which focuses on social work practice versus the Doctorate of Philosophy in Social Work (Ph.D), which focuses on research and teaching. This pilot program has not yet begun.
Some of the highlights in the history of CSWE include:
- The Journal of Education for Social Work (now the Journal of Social Work Education) was first published in 1965
- CSWE was the first national accrediting body to have an affirmative action standard
- International projects include fostering student exchange programs worldwide, organizing seminars for schools of social work in Central American in 1962 and in 2004 founded the Institute for International Social Work Education to promote an international perspective in social work education while also promoting collaboration between international practitioners and scholars.
- Multiple task forces have been created to research and develop resources for improving education around working with minority populations including race, gender and sexuality
- The National Center for Gerontological Social Work Education was established in 2004 to prepare social workers wanting to work with the aging population
- 2006 saw the establishment of the Center for Diversity and Economic Justice to advance social justice issues for individuals and communities
The role of CSWE in social work education
As you can see, historically, the Council on Social Work Education focused on improving the preparation of the social work profession through multiple education initiatives. The council continues to evaluate programs, conducte research and help to develop guidelines for improvement. CSWE remains at the forefront of ensuring equality and progressive thinking for both the members of the profession and the individuals, families, and communities served by social workers.. The standardized curriculum found in social work programs today would not be around without the CSWE. All of this results in the CSWE being a highly regarded entity within the field of social work, and accreditation from this organization is a badge of honor.
What is accreditation and why is it important?
Within academic circles, accreditation simply means that a program has met certain guidelines with its curriculum, program offerings, student support and opportunities, and facilities.
This means that if you attend an accredited educational program, it has passed a series of evaluations to prove that it has met strict requirements and offers only the best education for its students. A CSWE-accredited school of social work means that it is committed to the highest standards and you can be assured that the curriculum, the faculty, and the options for field placements are considered among the best. Completing your education at a CSWE-accredited program will solidly prepare you for a social work career.
How do schools become accredited by CSWE?
The accreditation process is long and detailed, with multiple steps spanning the course of years. Applying for accreditation is a huge undertaking for a school of social work, and that in itself demonstrates the commitment to excellence by the program. The first level that schools reach is called “candidacy.” The steps involved in becoming approved for candidacy include:
- The school completes a letter of intent that describes the program, its strategic plan and projected budget. In addition, a candidacy eligibility application is a report that lists each of the six CSWE eligibility standards and the school must submit documentation that all standards are being met. In addition, an application fee is due to CSWE.
- When CSWE determines that candidacy eligibility has been met, the school is approved to complete a benchmark report. This report is a detailed (approximately 150 pages) self-study completed by the school administration and faculty, describing its compliance with each accreditation standard and reporting any areas that have been identified as needing improvement. The plans to address any deficiencies also need to be described in detail.
- After this benchmark report has been submitted, the Council on Accreditation (COA) committee at CSWE reviews all of the documentation provided and sends feedback and requests for edits or revisions to the school.
- Once the draft benchmark report has been approved, the school moves into pre-candidacy status.
- Next, a site visit is scheduled. During the visit, a reviewer from CSWE travels to the campus and meets with various stakeholders including the school’s administrators, community advisory board members, student body representatives, field placement coordinators and supervisors and faculty members to gather a holistic view of the program and document areas that need continued development. A detailed report is drafted for review by the COA.
- The COA sends the approved report to the school and the school has the opportunity to respond to all comments and questions posed about the current status of the program and how it does/does not meet accreditation standards.
- The COA reviews the initial benchmark report, the site visit report and the program’s response to the site visit report in order to make a decision.
- If approved, the school is notified that their program has moved into candidacy status.
- Once in candidacy, another site visit takes place in one year to document any changes that have taken place to the program and steps taken to continue compliance.
- The next year, CSWE reviewers visit the school again for additional reporting.
- If all continues to go well and the program remains in compliance, then the following year the school of social work is granted accreditation.
For example, if a school began the accreditation process in 2020, it could take a year to complete the application and benchmark report. Then it could be a year for the first site visit to take place after feedback is provided and edits to the report are made and reviewed. If all goes smoothly, Candidacy would be granted in 2022. Then it would be 2025 before the program was fully accredited if no there were delays.
The amount of time and effort necessary to complete the required forms, schedule and conduct site visits, continue gathering documentation for years demonstrating compliance and program improvement is enormous. It is no wonder why achieving accreditation is highly sought after and schools of social work are very proud to be able to announce that they are CSWE-accredited. There are currently over 800 bachelor and master’s degree social work programs accredited by the CSWE.
Reasons to attend a CSWE-accredited school of social work
As mentioned previously, a great amount of time and effort is required to begin and advance through the CSWE accreditation process. This demonstrates the program’s commitment to excellence and to meet best practice standards to provide only the highest quality education and field placement opportunities. This in turn prepares graduates for a successful career in social work.
Not only will social work students be assured that the classes in a CSWE-accredited programs are taught by well-trained faculty with special knowledge and experience in the course curriculum area, but that the content in all classes are thoroughly vetted and are reviewed to ensure that students are taught the necessary information and skills to be able to practice at the top of their profession. These are called competencies. Non-accredited programs do not guarantee that their students will be taught the following competencies.
The ten core competencies that CSWE accredited programs must ensure their students are taught and are given the opportunity in field placements and classroom activities to build the skills include:
- Demonstrate ethical and professional behavior.
- Engage diversity and difference in practice.
- Advance human rights and social, economic, and environmental justice.
- Engage in practice-informed research and research-informed practice.
- Engage in policy practice.
- Engage with individuals, families, groups, organizations and communities.
- Assess individuals, families, groups, organizations and communities.
- Intervene with individuals, families, groups, organizations and communities.
- Evaluate practice with individuals, families, groups, organizations and communities.
Attending an accredited program is also important because should you ever need to transfer schools, only credits from accredited programs can be considered for transfer credit. Losing out on years of course credits because they don’t transfer to another school would be extremely frustrating and disappointing.
If you are seeking financial aid to help cover the cost of your social work program, only students enrolled in accredited programs are eligible to receive federal financial aid. Deciding to attend a non-accredited program could likely mean that you have to pay for all of the costs out of pocket.
In addition, some employers require that employees have graduated from an accredited school of social work. Again, the accreditation designation shows that the program is valid and is academically rigorous. Providing evidence of graduating from an accredited program helps employers feel more confident in the skills and abilities of potential employees, particularly those fresh out of school.
Finally, if you have a desire to become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) in order to open up your own private counseling practice, most states require that you have graduated from a CSWE accredited program. This is because state licensing boards want proof that you have completed the necessary education requirements from a strong program that provided a solid educational foundation for you to practice in a clinical setting with clients.
Accreditation from the CSWE is a long and rigorous process, and only the top schools receive the distinct honor of being CSWE accredited. It’s not a one-time process either – schools must regularly submit reports demonstrating that they are still in compliance with the strict standards. Schools that are accredited strive to best prepare their graduates for careers in social work. There are many reasons why you should choose an accredited program. In addition to wanting only top-notch education, this designation can be a requirement for obtaining a job or getting a license in the future.
Alvarez, A.R., Collins, K.S., Graber, H.V., & Lazzari, M.M. (2008). “What about women?” Historical
perspectives on the CSWE council on the role and status of women in social work education.
Journal of Social Work Education, 44(1), 63-84.
Apgar, D. (2020). The fate of the Master’s in Social Work (MSW) degree: Will the practice
doctorate replace it as the profession’s flagship credential? Journal of Teaching in Social
Work, 40(5), 411-430.
Butterfield, A.K. & Cohen, C.S. (2017). Practicing as a social work educator in international
collaboration. CSWE Press.
Council on Social Work Education. (n.d). About CSWE. https://www.cswe.org/About-CSWE
Rempel, R.J. (2020). The forgotten history of CSWE’s shift away from community colleges. Social
Work Education, 39(4), 481-495