Our best schools of social work: how good are they?
Article Type: Editorial
Subject: Social work education (Research)
Educational programs (Research)
Universities and colleges (Curricula)
Universities and colleges (Rankings)
Universities and colleges (Officials and employees)
Universities and colleges (United States)
Authors: Howard, Matthew O.
Garland, Eric L.
Pub Date: 12/01/2011
Publication: Name: Social Work Research Publisher: National Association of Social Workers Audience: Academic; Trade Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 National Association of Social Workers ISSN: 1070-5309
Issue: Date: Dec, 2011 Source Volume: 35 Source Issue: 4
Topic: Event Code: 310 Science & research; 540 Executive changes & profiles
Product: Product Code: 8220000 Colleges & Universities NAICS Code: 61131 Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools SIC Code: 8221 Colleges and universities
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 278630340
Full Text: Few topics in social work are as contentious as graduate program rankings. If history is any guide, publication of the 2012 U.S. News & World Report rankings will lead to a predictable set of behaviors on the part of social work schools and departments. Top-ranked programs will trumpet their rankings far and wide while schools with low rankings grouse about the methodological inadequacies and sheer absurdity of the rankings enterprise or ignore them altogether. Schools with mediocre rankings will reframe them as stellar achievements, declaring, for example, that they are the "tenth-ranked public school of social work in the western U.S. region." Although they may disdain them, it is clear from these reactions that many social work deans, directors, and faculty members consider rankings influential.

Rankings of social work graduate programs were first published by Margulies and Blau (1973) and Jarayatne (1979). Since that time, programs have been ranked with regard to the publishing prowess of their faculties (for example, Lignon, Jackson, & Thyer, 2007), student selectivity (Kirk, Kil, & Corcoran, 2009), academic reputation (for example, Green, Baskind, Fassler, & Jordan, 2006), and other purported indicants of scholarly productivity, influence, arid excellence (for example, Feldman, 2006).The most prominent of these efforts are the U.S. News & World Report rankings, which were first published in 1994 and have been published subsequently in 2000, 2004, and 2008 (data collection is underway for the 2012 rankings). In 2008, the five top-ranked programs (of more than 200 Council on Social Work Education [CSWE]-accredited graduate programs) were, in descending order, Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Michigan, University of Chicago, Columbia University, and University of Washington (the latter two schools tied for fourth).

GRADUATE SOCIAL WORK PROGRAM QUALITY: A MULTIDIMENSIONAL CONSTRUCT

Prior investigations suggest that social work graduate program quality is a multidimensional construct. For example, Kirk et al.'s (2009) study of student selectivity indicated that, of 128 MSW programs examined between 1990 and 2004,Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Michigan, University of Chicago, Columbia University, and University of Washington were ranked 119th, 70th, 34th, 89th, and 15th, respectively. The percentages of MSW program applicants accepted by these schools during this interval were 86.2%, 70.1%, 59.9%, 75.4%, and 46.2%, respectively. The five top-ranked programs in the United States during this period vis-a-vis MSW student selectivity were San Francisco State University, University of California at Berkeley, Brigham Young University, Southern Connecticut State University, and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with admissions rates ranging from 17.4% to 34.3%.

Kirk et al. (2009) found that social work doctoral program admissions selectivity between 1990 and 2004 yielded findings generally consistent with the 2008 U.S. News and World Report rankings. The University of Michigan, University of Chicago, Washington University in St. Louis, University of Washington, and Columbia University Schools of Social Work were ranked first, second, third, eighth, and 19th, respectively, out of 61 social work doctoral programs. These five schools admitted 20.7%, 22.5%, 30.0%, 33.6%, and 52.1% of doctoral program applicants, respectively, between 1990 and 2004.

The U.S. News & World Report's rankings have been criticized for many reasons, including the low response rate to the survey on which they are based, corollary potential for sample selection bias, and reliance on a single-item omnibus reputational measure of "academic quality." However, Green et al. (2006) reported that the 2004 U.S. News & World Report rankings were highly correlated with the number of articles published by social work program faculty over a nearly four-year period preceding the rankings (r = .78, p < .001), doctoral program admission rates (r = -.36, p < .01), and MSW (r = -.38, p < .01) and PhD (r = -.42, p < .01) program longevity. Graduate programs of greater longevity, greater doctoral program admissions selectivity, and, particularly, with faculty who published more articles, tended to have the highest rankings.

Whereas prior studies and rankings have compared graduate social work programs with each other across a range of quality indices, this editorial represents a first attempt to compare these programs with non--social work professional schools and academic departments across selected dimensions. The findings presented here are merely exemplary, pointing the way to novel analyses that might stimulate new ways of thinking about how to increase the quality, influence, and quantity of social work research. We examined characteristics of the five top-ranked social work graduate programs listed in the 2008 U.S. News & World Report rankings and then compared these social work programs with four non-social work professional schools and one academic department selected from these same five universities.

SELECTED CHARACTERISTICS OF FIVE TOP-RANKED GRADUATE SCHOOLS OF SOCIAL WORK

Institutional Settings

All five top-ranked schools of social work are located in highly regarded national universities heavily committed to research and offering a wide range of bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees. Three are private, and two are state universities. Undergraduate tuition costs for 2011-12 for students at each of the three private schools and out-of-state students at the University of Michigan were very high compared with the national average. In general, the U.S. News & World Report rankings of these institutions as undergraduate national universities were also very high. All of the top-ranked programs of social work were free-standing schools rather than departments of social work or social welfare or social work programs embedded in other departments (see Table 1).

MSW Program Costs, Rankings, and Student Selectivity

Full-time 2011-12 tuition fees for the MSW programs at Washington University in St. Louis, University of Chicago, and Columbia University ranged from approximately $33,000 to $38,000, but they were less than the respective undergraduate tuition fees charged at these institutions. The two public universities evidenced substantially lower tuition fees than did the private universities for in-state students, but tuition fees for out-of-state Michigan students were approximately the same as those for students attending the private schools.

As noted earlier, the MSW admissions selectivity of the top-ranked programs (except for the University of Washington) was relatively low, whereas the doctoral student admissions selectivity of these restitutions was comparatively high (again with the exception of the University of Washington, which in this case was relatively less selective).

Program Longevity

Although considerable ambiguity is involved in estimating program longevity, the five top-rated programs include a number of the oldest social work schools in the United States. Columbia University School of Social Work traces its roots to 1898, when the New York Charity, Organization Society first offered a course in philanthropic work in New York City. The University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration dates to 1895, when the School of Social Economics in Chicago began offering coursework in social work. The University of Michigan, Washington University in St. Louis, and University of Washington programs also have roots that go back to the first two decades of the 20th century.

Leadership

Current deans of the five top schools are a highly accomplished group. Deans Edward F. Lawlor, PhD (Washington University in St. Louis), and Jeanette Takamura, PhD (Columbia University), earned doctoral degrees from Brandeis University in Social Policy. Dean Laura Lein, PhD (University of Michigan), received her doctorate in social anthropology from Harvard. Deans Neil Guterman, PhD (University of Chicago), and Edwina S. Uehara, PhD (University of Washington), received their doctorates from the University of Michigan and University of Chicago, respectively. Three of the five deans also have MSWs. Current deans of the five top-ranked programs appear to have had notably productive academic and/or administrative careers prior to assuming their deanships, although in two cases detailed curriculums vitae could not be located online.

Faculty Size and Composition

In general, the five top-ranked social work programs appear to have comparatively large faculties--that is, large when considered in relation to other social work programs. Program professorial faculty (not including adjunct or emeritus faculty) ranged in number from 33 (University of Chicago) to 47 (University of Michigan). With the exception of the University of Washington, significant minorities (that is, 17% to 33%) of all full professors at each school held endowed professorships. Nearly half of program professorial faculty at Washington University in St. Louis and more than one-third of professorial faculty members at the University of Chicago and the University of Washington, respectively, did not hold MSW degrees. Likewise, substantial percentages of social work faculty (with the exception of those at Columbia University) did not hold a doctorate in social work or social welfare. A striking diversity of non--social work/social welfare doctoral degrees were noted among faculty, including PhDs in, among other fields, public health, anthropology, sociology, psychology (educational, counseling, clinical, and developmental), nutrition, health services research, biology, social ecology, economics, geography, political science, social relations and human development, public administration, law, medicine, art education, counseling and guidance, health education, international relations, child development and family studies, social science, and medical geography.

In terms of faculty composition, approximately 40% of the faculty members of Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Chicago, and Columbia University were full professors, with the University of Washington (30.2%) and Michigan (46.9%) evidencing the lowest and the highest percentages, respectively. At Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Chicago, Columbia University, and the University of Washington, between 26% and 28% of faculty were assistant professors. Specific data for each school as regards faculty composition by rank and areas of doctoral specialization are available on request from the authors.

SELECTED CHARACTERISTICS OF FOUR TOP-RANKED NON-SOCIAL WORK PROFESSIONAL SCHOOLS AND ONE ACADEMIC (PSYCHOLOGY) DEPARTMENT

For comparative purposes, we collected data about program characteristics of four professional schools and one academic department drawn from the same universities as the five top-ranked social work schools. We examined the Washington University School of Law, the University of Michigan's Department of Psychology, the University of Chicago's School of Medicine, Columbia University College of Dental Medicine, and the University of Washington School of Nursing. These data cannot be considered representative of professional schools or academic departments in these respective areas; they are presented for illustrative purposes so that more systematic and representative comparisons of this type might be undertaken in the future (see Table 2).

Non-social work professional schools and the one academic department tended to have large numbers of professorial faculty--especially the medical and dental schools, which also had many faculty and staff in addition to those of professorial rank. The University of Washington School of Nursing and the University of Michigan Department of Psychology had approximately twice the number of faculty members as the largest social work school. Most law faculty held a JD degree; most psychology faculty had a PhD in psychology; and most medical and dental school professors had MD/DO or DMD/ DDS degrees, respectively. Tuition fees at the three private programs tended to be very high and higher for these programs than the social work graduate programs at these schools.

COMPARING SOCIAL WORK PROGRAMS WITH NON-SOCIAL WORK/WELFARE PROFESSIONAL PROGRAMS AND ACADEMIC DEPARTMENTS

Although several studies and the ongoing U.S. News & World Report surveys have compared schools of social work with each other across varied quality indices, relatively few (if any) reports have compared social work graduate programs with professional schools or academic departments in other areas or with other, less parochial standards of educational excellence. Our examination of five top-ranked schools of social work revealed that they had relatively small faculties compared with non-social work professional schools and the one academic department. If all faculty members of the five top-ranked schools of social work were grouped together, they would comprise a faculty only 73% the size of that of the Columbia University College of Dental Medicine. Furthermore, although there were 209 CSWE-accredited master's degree programs in social work in June 2011, Thyer (2011) noted that only 47 (22.5%) were located in institutions considered Research Universities-Very High by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Given that there are currently 72 U.S. doctoral programs in social work or social welfare, it is likely that fully one-third of social work doctoral programs are located in less than research-intensive universities.

The small faculties populating many graduate programs of social work, which themselves are often located in less than fully research-intensive environments, pose a significant problem for the research mission of the profession. Modern science (that is, "big science") is increasingly collaborative, and many research projects require significant contributions from a relatively large number of experienced investigators. The problem of small faculties is compounded by the breadth of social work and the consequent heterogeneity of many social work programs with regard to faculty members' areas of professional and substantive expertise. Consequently, few social work programs have amassed enough concentrated expertise in key substantive areas of research to have a central role in critical multicenter trials and transformative scientific enterprises (for example, the National Institutes of Health Roadmap Initiative).

Our findings also indicate that most faculty members of law, medical, dental, and nursing schools and the one academic department examined held doctorates in these respective areas, whereas substantial proportions of the five top-ranked social work faculties did not hold graduate MSW or PhD degrees in social work or social welfare. The disciplinary diversity of these social work faculties may reflect the encompassing nature of the social work research enterprise. It is also possible, given the shortage of academic positions in many areas of social science and higher education generally, that many academics in these areas seek and obtain positions in graduate schools of social work. It is conceivable, as well, given the relatively recent arrival of rigorous research training in social work doctoral education, that deans, directors, and social work programs have drawn liberally from the best trained social scientists in disciplines such as sociology, economics, and psychology to infuse high-quality research talent into their faculties.

At present, it is difficult to discern whether the substantial number of faculty in leading social work programs without graduate degrees in social work or social welfare represents a transitional or an enduring state of affairs in social work education. Taking this to its logical extreme, one might ask whether it is possible to have a top-ranked social work program populated entirely by faculty holding graduate degrees in non-social work professions and academic disciplines. Moreover, throughout the years since its inception, the social work profession has remained under constant tension to define and distinguish itself from other related fields (such as applied branches of psychology and sociology). In light of this challenge to the identity, of the profession, what does it mean to be a top-ranked social work program when many faculty of such a program do not have training and expertise in the practice of social work?

Although the social work profession is dedicated to serving the less privileged, when it comes to social work graduate program rankings, it is the privileged who score highest. Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Chicago, and Columbia University are venerable, expensive, and exclusive institutions. The University of Michigan is commonly classified as a "Public Ivy" and charges out-of-state students tuition fees similar to those of private universities. As such, the socioeconomic composition of the student bodies at these respective institutions may be radically divergent from the populations students are being trained to serve. Although I believe these schools are clearly among the finest in social work, their rankings undoubtedly benefit from the reflected glory of their prestigious institutional settings.

Top-ranked programs tended to be nonselective as regards MSW student admissions. Admissions rates of 70%, or even 80%, at our leading schools of social work raise serious concerns about the motivations and consequences of lax admissions standards, particularly when the universities housing these schools are known to have already accumulated mountainous endowments.

The findings of our small study indicate that the five top-ranked programs of social work generally appear to have large faculties compared with other social work programs but small faculties in relation to the non-social work professional schools and the academic department we examined. Highly ranked social work programs tended to be schools (rather than departments) located in prestigious institutions. In the future, studies should examine other structural and process features of social work graduate education in the United States. Particularly important are investigations that go beyond mere comparisons of programs of social work with one another. Studies comparing social work graduate programs with their counterparts in other professional and academic areas might prove particularly informative. Future research could examine how faculty size and composition is related to productivity, how much growth is possible in faculty size across social work programs, and how and where such growth might best be promoted. For example, it seems likely that larger social work faculties would promote significantly greater research collaboration and productivity than exists currently. This hypothesis could be tested by evaluating the quality, number, and impact of coauthored publications and grants authored by Faculty collaborating within social work programs of varying sizes and as part of interdisciplinary research teams beyond their local academic units. Studies might also examine the costs and benefits associated with faculties composed homogeneously of social work scholars as compared with those comprising significant percentages of faculty drawn from other professional areas and disciplines.

Studies are also needed to assess the quality, influence, and producers of intellectual work emanating from our leading graduate social work and social welfare programs. Reports to date have focused on article citation counts and simple counts of publications, but it would be useful to know more about the quality and social influence of work created at top-ranked programs of social work. Recently, for example, Jens Ludwig, Harold Pollack, and Scott Allard, faculty members of the University of Chicago's School of Social Administration, have published important articles or given important interviews in the New England Journal of Medicine (Ludwig et al., 2011) and the New York Times (Pollack, 2011; Tavernise, 2011). It is rare to find social work or social welfare program faculty included in these esteemed venues, but it is also difficult to assess what these achievements mean for the profession or for social work graduate education given that Ludwig received his PhD from Duke in economics, Pollack received his PhD from Harvard in public policy, and Allard received his PhD from the University of Michigan in political science.

Social work has made positive strides over the past quarter century in improving the quality of its doctoral graduates and the research productivity of its graduate program faculty. To continue these developments, we need to shift our attention from social work rankings to a focus on how we can optimize research output and quality to achieve a level of research activity and influence equal to that of our colleagues in other professions and academic disciplines. Whether and how we can accomplish these important goals while maintaining our identity as social work researchers remain open questions.

REFERENCES

Feldman, R.A. (2006). Reputations, rankings, and realities of social work schools: Challenges for future research. Journal of Social Work Education, 42, 483-505.

Green, R. G., Baskind, F. R., Fassler, A., & Jordan, A. (2006). The validity of the 2004 U.S. News & World Report's rankings of schools of social work. Social Work, 51, 135-145.

Jarayatne, S. (1979). Analysis of selected social work journals and productivity rankings among schools of social work. Journal of Education for Social Work, 15(3), 72-80.

Kirk, S.A., Kil, H.J., & Corcoran, K. (2009). Picky, picky, picky: Ranking graduate schools of social work by student selectivity. Journal of Social Work Education, 45, 65-87.

Lignon, J., Jackson, D. L., & Thyer, B. (2007). Academic affiliations of social work journal article authors from 1999-2003; A productivity analysis spanning 25 years of social work scholarship. Journal of Social Service Research, 33, 13-20.

Ludwig, J., Sanbonmatsu, L., Gennetian, L., Adam, E., Duncan, G.J., Katz, L. F., et al. (2011). Neighborhoods, obesity, and diabetes--A randomized social experiment. New England Journal of Medicine, 365, 1509-1519.

Margulies, R. Z., & Blau, P. M. (1973, November). America's leading professional schools. Change (21-27).

Pollack, H.A. (2011, September 4). Tough times in the second city. New York Times, p.A19.

Tavernise, S. (2011, October 24). Outside Cleveland, snapshots of poverty's surge in the suburbs. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/25/us/suburban-poverty-surgechallenges- communities.html?pagewanted=all

Thyer, B.A. (2011). Harmful effects of federal research grants [Guest Editorial[. Social Work Research, 35, 3-5.

U.S. News & World Report. (2012a). 2012: Best colleges. Washington, DC: Author.

U.S. News & World Report. (2012b). 2012: Best grad, rate schools. Washington, DC: Author.

Matthew O. Howard, PhD, is Frank A. Daniels Distinguished Professor, School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC 27599; e-mail: mohoward@email.unc.edu. Eric L. Garland, PhD, is assistant professor, College of Social Work, Florida State University, Tallahassee.
Table 1: Characteristics of Five Top-Ranked Schools of Social Work
(per 2008 U.S. News & World Report Rankings)

                                                           Faculty
                                                          with MSWs
                             Professorial      Endowed
School                     Faculty (a) (n)   Chairs (n)    n     %

Washington University
  in St. Louis                    45             10       23   51.1
University of Michigan            47              8       36   76.6

University of Chicago             33             10       21   63.6
Columbia University               39              9       32   84.2
University of Washington          43              5       27   64.3

                           Faculty with
                           Doctorates
                           in Social
                           Work/Welfare      2011-12
                                          Undergraduate
School                      n     %        Tuition (b)

Washington University
  in St. Louis             19   42.2         $41,992
University of Michigan     32   68.1         $12,590/
                                             $37,265
University of Chicago      21   63.6         $42,783
Columbia University         ?   80.0         $45,200
University of Washington   25   58.1         $10,574/
                                             $28,058

                              2012 U.5.
                            News & World                    MSW/PhD
                           Report Ranking                   Student
                             of Overall     2011-12 MSW   Selectivity
School                       University     Tuition (b)     Rankings

Washington University
  in St. Louis                   14           $32,160        119/3
University of Michigan           28           $21,984/        70/1
                                              $34,650
University of Chicago             5           $37,692         34/2
Columbia University               4           $35,352        89/19
University of Washington         41           $12,610/        15/8
                                              $25,480

Source: U.S. News & World Report (2012a).

(a) All assistant, associate, and full professors were counted, but
not adjunct or emeritus professors.

(b) Splits represent in-state versus out-of-state tuition.

Table 2: Characteristics of Four Top-Ranked Professional
Schools and One Academic (Psychology) Department

                                  Professorial       Endowed
School                          Faculty (a) (n)    Chairs (n)

Washington University                  46              21
  in St. Louis School of Law

University of Michigan                111              20
  Department of Psychology

University of Chicago                 245              13
  School of Medicine

Columbia University                   283               1
  College of Dental Medicine

University of Washington               82               ?
  School of Nursing

                                   Faculty with
                                  Doctorates in
                                Specialty Area (b)
                                                         Ranking of
School                              n           %      Program (Year)

Washington University               44        95.7        18 (2011)
  in St. Louis School of Law

University of Michigan           Not clear from Web        3 (2009)
  Department of Psychology        site but probably
                                >90% by extrapolation

University of Chicago              210       (85.7%)    12 (d) (2012)
  School of Medicine

Columbia University                269       (95.1%)       -- (c)
  College of Dental Medicine

University of Washington        Not clear but probably  1 (tied, 2011)
  School of Nursing             >90% by extrapolation

                                  U.S. News &
                                  World Report
                                    2011-12
School                            Tuition (c)

Washington University               $45,350
  in St. Louis School of Law

University of Michigan          $18,666/$37,726
  Department of Psychology

University of Chicago               $42,200
  School of Medicine            (years 1 and 2)
                                    $55,500
                                (years 3 and 4)

Columbia University                 $50,000
  College of Dental Medicine

University of Washington        $12,670/$25,540
  School of Nursing

Source: U.S. News & World Report (2012b).

(a) All assistant, associate, and full professors were counted, but
not adjunct or emeritus professors.

(b) For law school, JD degree; for medical school, MD/DO degrees; for
dental school, DMD or DDS degrees; for psychology, PhD in psychology

(c) Splits represent in-state versus out-of-state tuition.

(d) Rated 12th in research quality.

(e) Dental schools have chosen not to participate in the U.S. News &
World Report rankings.
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