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Social work schools see enrollments rise. Competitive job market spurs interest in master's degrees

When the University of Michigan reported that four new students had signed up for its graduate social work program, Dean Nathalie Drew recalls thinking, ``Hey, something's changing.'' The number might seem negligible next to the masses headed for law, business, and medical schools, but Dean Drew says that for the social-service sector, it is a sign of good things to come.

These four have signed on to what many experts say are expanding ranks of people headed back to school to get their master of social work degree (MSW).

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And while many welfare administrators say the pool of workers has changed little in recent years, some of the 90 schools offering advanced degrees in social work say they feel a strong current coming their way.

``We clearly have seen a resurgence,'' says Ken Schulman, director of admissions at the Boston University School of Social Work. ``People are beginning to sense the potential of a change in administration in 1988,'' he says. ``And a Democratic administration may mean a turnaround in values to ones more compatible with the roots of social work.''

With a year's experience as a crisis-intervention counselor at an abortion clinic, Laura Salomons decided to go for her master's and will begin her second and last year in Boston University's graduate social work program this fall.

Many of her classmates, who range in age from 22 to 60, were unsatisfied in previous careers. Others have worked in the field and want or need the formal training of a graduate program.

Ms. Salomons thinks the master's degree will make a difference in the type of job she gets. ``I'm interested in working with community organizations, social welfare policy, and urban issues,'' but, she explains, more than a bachelor's degree is needed to work effectively in these areas.

Across the country, aspirations such as Salomons's translate into growing piles of applications for social work graduate programs.

Ann Corleis, registrar at the Smith College School for Social Work in Northampton, Mass., says applications are up 26 percent this year. On the West coast, the Social Welfare School at the University of California at Berkeley had 27 percent more applications than in 1984.

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But some schools are still feeling the decline that has put a drain on the social work scene for the last several years. Experts suggest the lull reflects society's view of social work services compared to those of the 1960s and early '70s.

In that period, Mr. Schulman says, ``people were still very much interested in the residual issues of the Vietnam War, civil rights, and the women's movement - so there was a very socially conscious basis for social work practice.''

Today, he says, incentive to enter the service sector is drained by lack of adequate support, both ideologically and monetarily. Many agencies have gone out of business because of low government funding, and jobs have become scarce in some areas.

``The market is tight,'' says Smith College's Ms. Corleis, and social workers ``need to be as qualified as possible.''

For those agencies that can keep their doors open, salaries are painfully low, especially when compared to the cost of tuition. Michigan's Nathalie Drew says the average debt accumulated over the two-year course of study is about $9,000; some cost almost $20,000. Meanwhile, starting salaries average $18,000 or $19,000 with some as low as $15,000.

Officials at the Massachusetts Department of Social Services suggest that increased interest in graduate school programs may simply reflect a move toward administrative rather than clinical work. Some administrative jobs for workers with advanced degrees can offer $10,000 to $15,000 a year more than a case worker can make.

The master's degree benefits employers as well. In more than 30 states, workers with MSWs are eligible for licensure, which qualifies them for third-party payments including insurance, social security, and other government payment plans.

With an estimated 140,000 social workers in the US, many of whom are moving into the health care services, ``There is some pressure within agencies for people to be licensed,'' Schulman says.

Because of an editing error, an article on advanced social work degrees in the Aug. 3 issue of the Monitor implied that four people who had signed up to study for advanced social work degrees at the University of Michigan were graduate students. The four were undergraduate freshmen who were interested in the school's graduate program. 30-{et

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