The Letters Don’t Make a Big Difference, But the Accreditation Letters Do
The acronym MSW is often used generically to denote master’s programs in social work. Most programs are indeed Master of Social Work, or MSW. There are several other social work master’s degrees, however, including Master of Science in Social Work, or MSSW. The letters in the degree don’t necessarily make a big difference; the letters in the accrediting agency do.
License-qualifying social work programs must be accredited by the Council on Social Work Education, or CSWE. The College of Saint Rose, one of a small number of schools that awards an MSSW, is among them. It states that because its MSSW program is CSWE-accredited, graduates can apply for licensure around the nation.
Social work master’s programs may have different concentrations and specializations. The specialization does not necessarily correlate with the name of the degree. It is very common for social work schools to have one degree but multiple specialization options.
Social Work Master’s Degrees
MSSW is the second most common degree – a distant second. There are several others. Case Western Reserve calls its social work master’s degree an MSSA (Master of Science in Social Administration). Wright State University and Miami University offer the MASW (Master of Arts in Social Work).The University of Chicago offers an AM, which stands for the Latin ‘Artium Magister’ but is also translated as Master of Arts.
Even degrees that share an acronym don’t all have the same title. UCLA and UC Berkeley both offer CSWE-accredited MSW programs – but neither, technically speaking, offers a Master of Social Work. In the case of these two schools, MSW stands for Master of Social Welfare.
An MS or MA in Social Work?
The MS and the MA have their traditional differences, but they don’t hold true across settings.
People may, for example, think of an MS as being more technical than an MA, or expect it to carry additional curricular requirements such as a thesis. CSWE-accredited programs, though, must meet the same accreditation standards regardless of degree title. MSSW programs do not need to require a thesis. Fieldwork is another matter. Students can expect to spend time out in the field regardless of degree title. Master’s level internships will be appropriate to the concentration, not the degree.
The very few Master of Arts are disproportionately advanced generalist/ administrative. However, the vast majority of the advanced generalist and administrative programs around the nation are not MASW or AM. The University of Chicago, moreover, notes that the majority of students who pursue the ‘AM’ Master of Arts choose the clinical track.
There can be historical or organizational reasons for degree title. At the College of St. Rose, the social work master’s program, a Master of Science in Social Work, is housed in the School of Mathematics and Sciences. Wright University, which offers one of the country’s few Master of Arts social work programs, houses it in the College of Liberal Arts.
Miami University, meanwhile, has strong ties to Wright University. (The Greater Miami Valley Joint MASW Collaborative, a partnership between the two, was accredited in 2014.)
Unique Visions, Unique Title
The University of Chicago, rated among the nation’s top social work programs, states that its AM program “is equivalent to an MSW, but with a broader educational and experiential foundation that combines direct social work practice with policy development, interdisciplinary research and social science theory” (https://www.ssa.uchicago.edu/masters-program-sw). In other words, it has what an MSW needs to have and has some emphases that are crucial to its vision but not required for licensure.
The University of Chicago is housed in a school of social service administration and is well poised to give students a strong background in aspects of macro practice. Social work programs have the option of making their programs unique in myriad ways. Some choose a unique term.
The Geography of the MSSW
A relatively high portion of programs that use the MSSW degree title are housed in Texas institutions, though one can also find a scattering in Eastern states:
• Abilene Christian University (Texas)
• West Texas A&M University (Texas)
• The University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley (Texas)
• The University of Texas-Austin (Texas)
• The College of Saint Rose (New York)
• The University of Louisville (Kentucky)
• The University of Tennessee (Tennessee)
One can find MSSA and MA programs, meanwhile, in Illinois and Ohio.
The CSWE directory allows prospective master’s students to search by specialization and by associated certificate programs and dual degrees options. The degree title is not a search option. That’s probably because the degree title doesn’t matter. The CSWE itself has stated that it is not important if the accreditation is there (https://www.cswe.org/About-CSWE/FAQs/Student-Questions).
It’s always a good idea to confirm that the program will lead to licensure in the intended state and practice area — whatever the title of the degree. Some states set minimum coursework requirements for clinical licensing. Moreover, as states are free to set the standards, they are also free to change them.
Related Content: All-Star MSW Programs and Rankings