During her last semester in the University of Texas at Austin’s master’s of social work program, Beth Wagner worked three jobs: 27 hours a week as a mental health counselor for employees of Goodwill of Central Texas and a total of 25 hours a week as a teaching assistant for two UT Austin courses.
She was paid for the teaching assistantships but not for the counselor role. That’s because that job was her field placement, an internship required for most social work degrees in which students learn how to provide services through on-the-ground work with real clients.
Field placements have long been unpaid, much like their analogues in the world of education (student teaching) and nursing (clinical rotations). But students like Wagner are hoping to change that. Through a national movement called Payment for Placements (P4P), social work students at 30 universities have been pushing for compensation for their internships.
The assorted campus chapters are exploring a wealth of ways to achieve that goal—primarily through their institutions or legislation, as the organizations where the students work are often underfunded themselves.
A central goal of paid placements is to help students pay their bills, making it easier to complete their degrees and enter the social work field, which is currently experiencing dire shortages. Multiple student activists who spoke with Inside Higher Ed said they had witnessed their fellow students drop out due to financial issues or stress.
Those students aren’t outliers; in a survey of 120 social work students at the University of Texas at Austin conducted by the institution’s P4P chapter, 72 percent reported that their fieldwork was financially stressful. Sixty percent said they work another job in addition to their internship—like Wagner, who serves as an organizer for UT Austin’s P4P chapter, called UT FED UP, and a rotating chair for the national body, which is alternately led by different chapters.
Another goal of seeking payment, she said, is to ensure that social work students are well enough to be effective counselors to those they work with in their placements.
“It impacts our clients because we’re not able to practice self-care in the way we need to because of the economic realities of the way the placement process works,” she said.
The National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics was even updated in 2021 to include language about the importance of personal and professional self-care.
Within the larger social work field, sentiments are divided over paying students in training. The Texas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers has spoken out in favor of paid placements, for example, but the Council on Social Work Education—the accreditor for social work programs—argued against them in a 2022 statement.
“During these courses, students do not yet meet the job-related training, competency, and educational requirements of professional and licensed social work positions,” the statement read. “Therefore, field placements afford students the opportunity to engage with clients and communities as a component of their educational program and without a social work license, similarly to other educational, medical, or other health professional accredited programs. These educational experiences are structured as learning and not labor, and comply with the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division, Internship Programs Under the Fair Labor Standards Act.”
The P4P movement comes at a time when university students, and especially graduate students, are demanding more recognition and compensation for their labor. Graduate assistants at dozens of institutions have campaigned, protested and gone on strike in an attempt to receive livable wages from their universities over the past several years.
Social work students differ in that they don’t typically work for their own university during their placements, but their rationale—that it is incredibly challenging to work and study at the same time without making a reasonable wage—is parallel. The key argument against compensating them—that they are working in an educational capacity and therefore don’t need to be paid like regular employees—is also familiar from other student labor movements.
Some professions that require field placements have begun to treat students more like employees. Maryland passed a law this past legislative session that would pay student teachers $20,000 for their 10-month placement—as long as they commit to working in a “high-needs” Maryland school for the following two years.
Social work students at different institutions have achieved varying degrees of success in requesting compensation. UT Austin established a new donor-supported fund this spring to give students scholarships in their last semester as a social work student, when they spend the majority of their time at their internship.
Gracie Ramsdell, who received $2,000 from the fund, said she applied for a scholarship within an hour of receiving an email about it.
“I applied because I’ve gone into debt in pursuing this degree. I have worked the whole time I’ve been in my master’s program,” she said. All told, her classes, her teaching assistant job and her placement added up to 56 hours a week this past semester—not including assignments.
The first thing she did once she received the award was spend $450 on dental care she had been delaying since last December; she wanted to get the work done while she could still utilize her university health insurance.
The scholarships were available only to students who received no other funding toward their internship. (It is unclear how many students received funding from the program, or whether they all received a flat sum of $2,000, though Ramsdell said she knows of at least one other student who did. Representatives of UT Austin’s Steve Hicks School of Social Work did not respond in time for publication.)
While it’s a step in the right direction, student organizers say, there is a long way still to go; they argue that the small size of the awards amounts to subminimum wage.
“Every little bit helps,” said Ramsdell. “It’s demonstrating and acknowledging that more needs to be done, which I appreciate. Living in Austin, Texas, 2,000 dollars covers a little over one month rent and utilities. It’s a move in the right direction, [but] at the end of the day, it’s a Band-Aid.”
Wagner said she has asked the university but has not been told how much money is available for these scholarships.
Trying ‘Every Approach’
At other universities, the push for paid placements is slower going. Hunter College, a part of the City University of New York system, and several other institutions in New York are considering decreasing the number of hours social work students must put into their internships to meet CSWE requirements. Currently, New York City social work master’s students must complete 1,200 hours, though CSWE requires only 900.
Pilar Bonilla, a graduating social work master’s student who is active in Hunter College’s P4P chapter, considers hours alignment—the term for matching the hours worked to the hours required by the accreditor—an easy first step in the fight for paid placements. She called it “low-hanging fruit” and said that pushing for hours alignment helped to bring together students from New York’s various social work programs.
“My dream, my goal would be to see all the New York state schools united so we can all go to Albany and demand to be paid,” she said. “The end goal is payment for placement.”
Mary M. Cavanaugh, dean of Hunter College’s Silberman School of Social Work, said in an email to Inside Higher Ed that even the change to hours alignment is not set in stone.
“We have embarked in discussions with students, staff, and faculty and will be engaging with our community partners in this process, which is a critically important component,” she wrote. “Additionally, we are working collaboratively with other schools of social work in NYC regarding a strategic and well-planned transition if it is approved and agreed upon by stakeholders.”
According to Bonilla, among the most significant barriers to moving forward with hours alignment appears to be that placement partners expect students to be available to work for the full 1,200 hours.
In some states, legislators are also pushing for compensation for social work interns. Last year, Michigan passed a bill to pay graduate social work students completing their practicums in public schools $25 an hour. Legislators in Texas have introduced a bill this year that, if passed, would pay $15 an hour for up to 400 hours of fieldwork for social work bachelor’s students and $20 an hour for up to 450 hours for master’s students.
“We celebrate every win because, you know, organizing is grueling,” Wagner said. “We want every approach, because it’s urgent and it needs to happen ASAP.”