Thursday, August 22, 2013

Beyond the Rankings: Assessing MSW Programs

By Richard Gelles, Ph.D., Dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice

Sixteen years ago, when I began to explore an academic position at a school of social work, I bought a copy of the U.S. News and World Report issue on Best Graduate Schools.  I used the rankings to guide my search, prioritizing my applications based on the rankings of Master of Social Work (MSW) programs.  When I began my position at the University of Pennsylvania I was not surprised to learn that many of our applicants also relied on the U.S. News and World Report rankings to guide their own searches and choices.  It was not until I became the Dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice at Penn that I learned the reality about the U.S. News and News Report rankings. 

I was under the impression that the rankings of MSW programs were conducted in a similar fashion as the rankings of undergraduate schools and many graduate and professional programs such as law and medicine--in other words, that there were some objective measures applied to each MSW program.  I assumed that factors such as quality of the students, faculty/student ratio, and financial resources of the program would be assessed.  I also assumed that the rankings assessed the percentage of graduates who secured positions within 9 months of graduation.  

Well, I was wrong.  Shortly after I became dean I received a package in the mail from U.S. News and World Report. Inside were two forms and two return envelopes.  The forms were titled “Best Graduate Schools Assessment of Social Work Programs.”  On the following pages were listed, in alphabetical order by state, some 200 MSW programs.  I was to rank each program from 1 to 5 (“5” being “outstanding” and “1” being “marginal.”  I could also check off “Don’t Know.”  Honestly, I never heard of some of the schools.  More importantly, I had no basis for ranking the schools.  The forms included no data on the schools and I was not about to spend the next 6 weeks tracking down what I considered the relevant metrics.  I knew my own school, knew something about schools I had visited or been interviewed by; but for the vast majority, I had no basis for choosing a rating.  

I was asked to give a second form to one of my senior colleagues so there would be two rankings submitted by our school.  The colleague I approached was as dumbfounded as I was.  He said he could rank us, the school he received his MSW from, the school he attended for his doctorate, but really knew too little about the hundreds of schools on the list to provide a meaningful rank.

It also crossed my mind that were one so inclined, the rankings could be “gamed.”  In the most recent MSW rankings (2012), the difference between the top school and the school ranked tenth was six-tenths of a point.  Had I wanted to, I could have improved my own school’s ranking by simply ranking schools previously ranked in the top ten as “marginal.”  Had my colleague and I actually done this, we would have dropped the #1 ranked school to #3 or the 11th ranked school to #16. In the end I filled out my form as best I could, ranking more than 150 schools “don’t know.”  Our program was tied with 8 other schools and ranked #16.  

There was one more answer I was looking for regarding the rankings:  Just how many of my colleague deans and senior faculty actually sat down and ranked MSW programs?  According to U.S. News and World Report the response rate for Master of Social Work programs in was 53%. 

So in the end, the assessment and ranking of Master of Social Work programs is essentially a beauty contest where half of the judges do not show up, those who do show up wear dark glasses, and the contestants stand behind an opaque curtain.  In a word, the rankings are worthless.  As an applicant, you will have to do the research U.S. News and World Report refuses to carry out.  When assessing MSW programs ask the following questions:

1.       What is the faculty/student ratio?
2.       What is the average class size?
3.       What is the average GPA of accepted students/enrolled students?
4.       What is the average financial aid award and is it based on merit, need, or a combination of both?
5.       What field placements are available?
6.       What percentage of students are employed in professional work within 6 months of graduation?
7.       What is the average salary of a graduate the first year after the graduation; the 5th year after graduation?
8.       How strong is the school’s alumni network?


  1. Rich/Dean Gelles: This a great blog post and a real eye opener for the superficiality of this ranking and probably many other rankings that appear in the media. Thanks for being "the emperor has no clothes" whistle-blower on this disgraceful process.

  2. 9. Faculty Scholarship: Research, publications and peer reviewed cotributions to confrences.

    Ed Hanna
    MSW, '76
    DSW, '93
    Assistant Professor, Kutztown University

  3. Ranking MSW programs is the most ridiculous concept I've heard in a while!!! Does a dying hospice patient care what his social worker's GPA is??? How very American to "rank" social work programs--AHHHH!!!! As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Penn Social Work grad, the whole concept of ranking social work programs makes me want to both vomit and laugh... Is this truly what social work and social policy is about?

  4. Research, like journalism and news, does not appear to be what it used to be. Questions #5,6,7 does seem to be about measuring the preparation and success of graduates, as well as the school's follow up. School follow up is not a bad thing as it could not only provide data for schools in upgrading curriculum for the real world, but in providing resources and contacts for graduating students. The real world does extend beyond the cities in which the school exists.

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  6. Dean Gelles’ comments reflect a parallel process: Just as MSW applicants should thoughtfully assess prospective graduate programs, so should social workers use thoughtful assessment to inform their understanding of clients. Good assessment relies on several activities:

    *drawing from multiple sources of credible information and evidence
    *analyzing objective facts and measures
    *considering the consumer’s voice, experience, and outcomes
    *interpreting and synthesizing information to form a comprehensive picture

    These activities are the heart of critical thinking, a fundamental skill of the social work profession, and a life skill. Proficient assessment also requires the ability to detect inaccurate or unsupported information. MSW applicants can glean a key lesson from U.S. News and World Report around the importance of ferreting out and dismissing information that is based on a paltry and disingenuous process. This lesson will serve MSW graduates well in bringing good assessment skills to bear on their clients.

    Christine Arena, MSW, SP2 ‘06
    Atlantic Coast Child Welfare Implementation Center
    University of Maryland School of Social Work

  7. I am a recent admitted student at SP2 into the MSW program and reading this blog has in many ways helped me to think about what criteria I should use when making my final decision on where to attend graduate school in the fall, so thank you. I was wondering if anyone has the answers to the 8 questions listed in the post? I've found the website a little difficult to maneuver (it's only by chance of clicking around randomly that I found this blog).

    1. To Anonymous:

      Congratulations on your acceptance to the MSW program! The Admissions Team would be happy to provide you the answers to these questions. Hopefully, you have recieved a formal invitiation to our Open House for Accepted Students (we offer both In-Person and Online sessions). You can register here:

      We look forward to meeting you!

      You may also be interested in our 2012 Career Plans Survey inclusive of information about employment, salary, and positions of our graduates: