The Importance of Social Work Program Accreditation

If you are interested in a career in social work, these four letters will be important to you: CSWE. The Council on Social Work Education accredits baccalaureate and master's level social work programs within the United States.

Most states mandate CSWE accreditation as part of the educational requirement for licensing.

This is a programmatic accreditation. Professional programs typically boast two (sometimes more) accreditations. The institution itself is accredited by a regional accrediting agency or some other entity recognized by the Department of Education. This ensures that the school isn't a diploma mill, and that a graduate will be recognized as a graduate. Programmatic accreditation, though, goes a step further. It ensures that an academic program adequately prepares candidates for practice in some recognized profession.

The MSW program helps prepare students to enter the general or clinical practice role (in most states). Capella also offers an online Doctor of Social Work.

Most states mandate CSWE accreditation as part of the educational requirement for licensing. In instances, where it's not an absolute mandate, it can still make the process easier. Take Kansas. Policies state that candidates must have degrees from programs that are either CSWE accredited or meet the set of standards in KAR 102-2-6. That set of standards includes roughly 2 1/2 pages of descriptors. Meeting them is not a gamble a student will want to take!

In some instances, another degree may be accepted, but the process will be longer. The state may require, for example, that baccalaureate social workers who do not have CSWE accredited degrees complete supervised work experience.

And, while licensing is not yet universal at the baccalaureate level, it’s increasing. Why put oneself through additional hassle? With a degree from a CSWE-accredited program, a social worker is more mobile and has a greater expectation that the credentials will follow him or her.

A hot topic right now is CSWE accreditation of online Master's of Social Work programs. Read more about it in this article: "Online Master of Social Work Programs: What do the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and the Clinical Social Work Association (CSWA) think?"

Accreditation Standards

So what does CSWE accreditation mean -- besides one more mandate? Accredited programs meet the extensive requirements of the 2008 Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards. They must demonstrate that the explicit curriculum meets core social work competencies. Graduates will know how to apply ethical principles and critical thinking to social work practice. They will be able to utilize social work research and respond to changing practice contexts. They will be able to effectively engage with members of diverse populations and carry out appropriate assessments and interventions.

Accredited social work programs must include field experience that appropriately connects theory and practice. Students can be ensured of getting at least 400 hours of field experience in a baccalaureate program and at least 900 in a master's program.

CSWE Accreditation means: Graduates will know how to apply ethical principles and critical thinking to social work practice.

It’s not just curriculum, though. The CSWE also takes a long, hard look at how well the program is meeting its objectives, taking into account its policies and the resources it has at its disposal. It’s more than just a matter of paperwork. The accreditation committee goes onsite to see what social work education looks like in practice.


Are there any instances where CSWE accreditation isn't necessary? Technically, yes – there are brand new programs. Programs don't have accreditation their first few years; they go through a candidacy period first. State boards sometimes note that a program must either be accredited or have candidate status.

Foreign programs sometimes constitute an exception. CSWE accreditation is only granted to social work programs in the United States and its territories. Canadian programs are accredited by the Canadian Association of Schools of Social Work. Some state social work boards (for example, Oregon) explicitly state that accreditation by CASSW is adequate. Overseas degrees may be evaluated individually by the CSWE.

Then there is the matter of doctoral education. Doctoral programs have other standards applied. Your state board may state that a doctoral program must be housed in a school that has an accredited master's program -- or simply that the school itself have regional accreditation. In most cases, candidates do earn a master's en route to a doctoral degree.

Feeling uncertain? Get to know your state board. You may also want to become familiar with your state affiliate of the National Association of Social Workers. Some chapters hold meetings on licensing standards.