Social Work

Pulling Back The Curtain: Who Is Behind Popular MSW Rankings

Pulling Back The Curtain: Who Is Behind Popular MSW Rankings
Image from Pexels
Nedda Gilbert profile
Nedda Gilbert April 26, 2018

The widespread popularity of the US News and World Report’s (USNWR) school rankings has placed this media company as the most influential higher education ranking system in the US.

Article continues here

USNWR rankings not only make big news, they launch schools on the path to prestige. But the widely shared rankings are not without their critics. There is much debate about their validity.

A social work school’s US News and World Report ranking can impact its reputation. Because of this, many programs now jockey for top spots. In fact, the rankings have in some ways driven schools to attempt to game the system. As an aspiring Masters of Social Work (MSW) student, you may ask:

  • Should the USNWR rankings impact where you get your MSW?
  • Do rankings affect the value of your diploma?
  • Who decides which MSW programs make the list?

The limits of empirical analysis in evaluating MSW programs

Because the USNWR rankings anoint schools as winners, losers and everything in between, it’s important to critique their methodologies. Any contest deserves an examination of its rules.

For those in the field of Social Work, it is especially important to question how thoroughly the rankings can evaluate MSW programs. Social Work study has idiosyncratic and nuanced features that make generalizations difficult. And this makes MSW programs tough to assess with singular rankings and empirical analysis.

There are three challenges in forcing social work into a rankings system:

First, there is the key differentiator in MSW school education – the back-to-back two year fieldwork experience. This kind of experience defies statistical measurement. However, this experience powerfully shapes any MSW student’s educational and career trajectory.

Second, the skills and credentials one seeks out in a particular program may have few institutional peers. For instance, if you’re interested in Disaster Mental Health at Tulane University’s School of Social Work in New Orleans, this is a fairly distinct offering and geographic setting for this course of study. The same might be said of study at Columbia University’s School of Social Work’s Center for Social Policy and Practice in the Workplace (Workplace Center) which pioneered and launched the adoption of Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) in Fortune 500 Companies in the mid 1980’s.

Third, there are too many diverse and varying opportunities in MSW programs in the form of unique partnerships with local agencies, cross-disciplinary study, practice-area certificates, and even in activism and volunteer work, to categorize all these offerings in common buckets.

Understanding the methodology used in MSW rankings will help you determine if the rankings should play a direct role in your school choice. You should assess whether the ranking process accurately captures the school, the field and most importantly – your interests.

The MSW Ranking Gatekeepers

In conducting their survey of MSW programs, US News and World Report polls school Deans, Admissions Directors, and other Social Work Administrators for their “peer” opinions. Only this narrow group of school officials is surveyed to evaluate 280 MSW schools and generate the rankings. Students are not queried, nor are agencies in partnership with the school, clinical fieldwork supervisors, or employers who hire MSWs from a given program.

It’s unclear how much a Dean or a Director at one school can know about another school’s academic offerings, strengths or, special partnerships. Perhaps these academic peers know a handful or a dozen schools well. It’s highly unlikely they know a few hundred schools well.

It’s important to mention, by way of comparison, that the US News and World Report uses strikingly different methods when gathering data for their MBA rankings. Business School rankings are derived from the opinions of employers, recruiters, and school administrators — a much larger group of survey respondents. The MBA rankings also consider additional criteria such as GMAT scores and graduates’ starting salaries and bonuses.

Whether MSW programs get shortchanged – or as we suggest, are tough to sum up in tidy categories — the MSW rankings primarily rely on only one ingredient: the peer assessments of school directors on the academic quality of programs other than their own.


“I Want to Be A Social Worker!”

University and Program Name Learn More

The US News and World Report rankings only assess the academic strengths of MSW programs

To clarify, the entire US News and World Report MSW rankings rely on peer assessments on a single criteria, the academic quality of MSW programs. MSW programs are rated on a 5 point scale: (5) outstanding. (4) strong; (3) good; (2) adequate; and (1) marginal.

It should be noted there is great universality and consistency in academic coursework among MSW schools. Programs accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) require that all students complete a specific core curriculum. That national standard of instruction ensures a high quality of education, no matter your program.

There are slim statistical differences among the schools in the MSW rankings

It’s well-known that Olympians sometimes win by the slimmest of margins. One microsecond can make all the difference. But what happens when schools are subjected to slim statistical differences? Ranking methodologies force statistical hierarchies, and the result is slim statistical differences that may not convey much.

So how should you use the masters in social work rankings in your school choice? With the knowledge that the differences between MSW programs may be statistically marginal. Further, because there is just a single criteria assessed – academics – the rankings only tell you so much.

The Rankings are Volatile and Have Year-to-Year Changes

In the world of MSW rankings, schools move up and down the ladder quickly — and sometimes randomly. This means a school’s hold on a given spot is risky and vulnerable. It also means that those newly crowned with top spots are not necessarily better. Quality schools are quality schools. Quality is consistent and does not experience wild fluctuation from year to year.

The “number 1″ school should be the “1″ school that best meets your career goals

MSW rankings may be big news, but they tell a small story. The field of social work is too innovative and exciting to be limited in this way. While it may be worthwhile to use the rankings as a benchmark, or as an opportunity to discover a new program, the more thoughtful approach is to research and assess each MSW program for its own strengths.

Take the rankings for what they are, and think about the things that really matter:

Location: – How does a school’s location impact your ability to commute or take classes? How does it affect the nature of fieldwork assignments, and the populations or problems you may be exposed to? Will this help you develop your intended skill-set?

Reputation: – How well-known and regarded is the MSW program with local employers and agencies? Are the faculty here the leaders in their field, or in some area of research? What’s trending at this school that’s new, exciting and relevant?

Academic offerings, specialties, certificates: – Does this school have a demonstrated expertise in specific practice areas or populations that match your interests? Are there professional certifications available that will further position you as an expert, and make you more marketable?

Flexibility: – What program options are available at this school that may help you succeed: advanced, accelerated, part-time, online? Does this program offer you the flexibility you require for your current lifestyle?

Support: – What kind of academic guidance and support is available at this school? What kind of support is provided in securing and succeeding in the fieldwork assignment? What supports are provided for jobs and career placement?

Cost: – How expensive is this school versus others? How will you pay?

The Ranking Wrap-Up

Happily, the field of social work is fairly impervious to the rankings of popular magazines and other third-party rankers. Few hirers of MSWs are overly impressed by a diploma from a number “1″ school, versus one from a well-regarded and accredited program. Of far greater importance is that you have met your state’s requirements of licensure, and that you have developed valuable skills.

Questions or feedback? Email

About the Author

Ms. Nedda Gilbert is a seasoned clinical social worker, author, and educational consultant with 25 years of experience helping college-bound and graduate students find their ideal schools. She is a prolific author, including The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and Essays that Made a Difference. Ms. Gilbert has been a guest writer for Forbes and a sought-after keynote speaker on college admissions. Previously, she played a crucial role at the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company and was Chairman of the Board of Graduate Philadelphia. Ms. Gilbert holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University and is a certified interdisciplinary collaborative family law professional in New Jersey.

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

To learn more about our editorial standards, you can click here.


You May Also Like To Read

Categorized as: Social WorkSocial Work & Counseling & Psychology