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Saint Mary’s offers new online master’s in social work

Dr. Joe Squillace, the director of social work at the University of Saint Mary in Leavenworth, describes the program he has developed which permits students to undertake a 100% online master’s degree in social work.

by Ben McCarthy
Special to The Leaven

LEAVENWORTH — Three years ago, Dr. Joe Squillace was the director of social work for MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois.

When the school abruptly closed in May 2020, the University of Saint Mary in Leavenworth came calling: They wanted him to help develop a new kind of program and degree in his field of expertise.

Squillace says everything about the offer seemed to make good spiritual sense at that moment. The only issue was that the university envisioned beginning a completely online master’s program in social work, while Squillace still saw himself as something of an “old school professor.”

“For me, the physical classroom is natural,” Squillace said. “I’m now learning how to teach in an online format, [whereas to] the younger generation of faculty,  technology is native to them and they use it in such a way that online classroom teaching is natural.”

Squillace, now the director of social work at Saint Mary, has just turned the page on the school’s first academic year of offering the 100% online master’s degree in social work (MSW). He’s thrilled with the feedback and results from year one, and looking forward to seeing the program grow in the coming years. In February, the MSW program achieved candidacy for accreditation from the Council for Social Work Education.

The program, which Squillace was brought to Leavenworth to establish, was born out of a desire to help address a severe shortage across the state — and country — in social workers. Squillace says the most recent data continues to forecast a shortage that will persist, making the training of more professionals in the field more essential than ever.

“The overall number of social workers has increased, but the ‘shortage’ exists because of a greater need for services [due to the pandemic],” Squillace said. “Anxiety and loneliness have hit record levels, the aging of the population continues to increase, and social media’s having a real effect on youth and adolescents.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, almost 75,000 openings for social workers are projected each year, on average, over this decade. There’s a need to find replacements as more professionals choose to transfer to different occupations or leave the labor force altogether.

States like Kansas have begun putting greater focus on getting more social workers licensed. Earlier this year, the Kansas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) reported that only 36% of social workers practicing in the state are licensed.  The reasons can vary, ranging from cost prohibition, moving into supervisory positions or no longer needing the direct licensure.

Saint Mary has pledged to work with Kansas legislators to develop more bipartisan support for further improvements to mental health services and training, as well as expanding ways for future practitioners to enter the profession. Attempts have been made to lower the cost to renew licenses. Kansas requires renewal every two years, costing $100-150.

Another proposal, the National Social Work Licensure Compact, would facilitate multistate licensing, allowing social workers in Kansas and Missouri to float back and forth across state lines. The recent growth in telehealth has broadened support to allow professionals to cross borders without restrictions.

“Social work has a long history with ‘burnout’ about five years after being in the profession, due to lower pay and high caseloads,” Squillace said.

“What’s great about offering an online master’s degree is that the technology allows us to find new students in rural areas of the state,” he continued, “and also reach nontraditional or working students.”

There is a real cost savings benefit to students in the program as well. According to the Council on Social Work Education, students earning a master’s in social work could expect to graduate with almost $48,000 in debt in 2020 (up from $32,000 in 2010). Saint Mary has priced the new two-year program at $35,700. The traditional master’s degree for social work would have also cost graduates thousands of dollars in textbooks and fees. Here, students will be directed to open source materials online, bypassing those costs almost completely.

“One benefit of having a program entirely online is that you can find savings on a lot of sunk costs and keep tuition at an affordable price,” Squillace said. “In the current market, we are competitively priced and very affordable.”

The department projects that about two-thirds of students in the program will be regional (Kansas and Missouri), with the others spread out across the country. Currently, the program has specializations in health/mental health and forensic social work. Squillace says he has tried to shape the program in a way that honors the values of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, who follow in the tradition of Sts. Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac, the patron saints of charitable societies and social workers, respectively.

“We chose a specialization in mental health because it aligns with a tradition of the Sisters of Charity,” Squillace said. “We want our mission as a Catholic university to reflect the Sisters of Charity tradition with social work.

“We want to teach the value of dignity for every human being, and COVID has really highlighted how important this is. We have to teach and develop students with an emotional intelligence, so they have that sense of humanity.”

The summer represents no break or vacation for Squillace as he’s focused on what lies ahead for the new program. This includes a class he’s putting together for 2024, which will address spirituality in social work.

“Not only do we believe in making sure the students find spiritual nourishment here,” Squillace said, “we also want to help them understand the various spiritual traditions of their clients. This will help them achieve the best outcomes.”

Student applications are still open for August 2023 enrollment online at: stmary.edu/msw.

About the author

The Leaven

The Leaven is the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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