Pursuing a professional career as a social worker can be a challenge. The work is hard, and compensation is relatively low for the credentials that are required. The high cost of tuition for a lower salary job can be a deal-breaker for some. Fortunately, there are programs that provide qualified social workers with some financial relief from their tuition and student loan debt.
Taking the the sting out of funding a social work education is possible. There are two primary ways to do this. One is to obtain financial assistance and tuition reimbursement. This will help defray the cost of your degree heading in to your program.
The other is to obtain loan forgiveness on your student loan debt once you are out in the field and employed. Eligibility for any of these programs depends on who you work for, your field of practice, years in service, hours on the job, and how many payments you have already made towards your student loan. To learn more about loan forgiveness, you should check with your local state department of education or human services. Many Master’s of Social Work programs also have information about loan forgiveness options. There may be some specific programs unique to a school or a practice area that are not widely known. Another resource is the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).
Many agencies and employers offer social workers some kind of tuition remission or financial assistance to help them pursue their degrees. This kind of financial help is offered as an employee benefit. To learn more about your employer’s tuition remission and financial assistance benefits, you should contact your human resources department. There may be unique programs dedicated to social workers practicing in certain fields.
Loan forgiveness, sometimes termed loan cancellation, is found through state agencies and federal programs. Certain professional social work positions may qualify you for this financial reprieve. For example, this option is sometimes available for social workers in serving in public service or high need areas.
Loan forgiveness is different than financial assistance in that it occurs after your schooling is complete. As you might infer from the term "loan forgiveness," these programs absolve you of the debt you accrued to pay for your education. Generally, loan forgiveness means that you are no longer financially responsible for all or a part of your school loan; it is simply wiped away.
Loan forgiveness programs are not the same as scholarships or grants. They often require that degree holders have made a certain number of payments towards their student loans. In some cases, the years of service required to "wipe away" the loans may be significant — as many as ten.
Loan forgiveness for social workers is offered at the federal and state levels. Some notable programs are:
The PSLF program is designed to help public service workers and nonprofit workers such as social workers get relief from their debts. You may be a candidate for loan forgiveness through the PSLF program if you work for a government or not-for-profit organization. In addition, degree holders from qualified employers must have made 120 monthly payments on their student loans in order to be eligible for the program.
The NHSC loan repayment program provides tax-free loan repayment assistance to qualified health care workers employed in high-need areas. Licensed clinical social workers (LCSW) may be eligible to receive up to $50,000 to help defray the cost of their student loans. The amount awarded primarily depends on the area in which the social worker is employed. Again, high-need work qualifies for greater financial assistance.
Both PSLF and NHSC loan repayment programs may be offered at the state level. However, some states also have their own specific loan forgiveness programs. One example of this is the New York State (NYS) Higher Education Services Program. This offers NYS Licensed Social Worker Loan Forgiveness to social workers in high need areas which include health, mental health, substance abuse, aging, HIV/AIDS, child welfare, or work in multilingual communities. The goal of this program is to increase awareness of, and draw social workers to, critical areas of need. Eligibility requires a social worker to be a state resident, have an outstanding balance on a student loan, and have a minimum of one year of service in the field. States and programs vary in terms of the funds offered; the maximum award for NYS is $26,000.
Most aspiring social workers enter the profession because they want to make a difference in someone’s life. Although social work is one of the most in-demand careers and expected to grow by 16 percent over the next several years, jobs are not pursued for their riches.
But depending on the benefits offered by your employer, or the area in which you ultimately work, there may be ways to defray the cost of getting your degree. Loan forgiveness and tuition remission might help you fulfill your calling to a life of purpose.