Social Work Students Lobby for Pay in Mandatory Internships

Most college students in social work programs have had to work unpaid field placements for decades. Many are now trying to reverse that trend.
portrait of Matthew Arrojas
Matthew Arrojas
Read Full Bio


Matthew Arrojas is a news reporter at BestColleges covering higher education issues and policy. He previously worked as the hospitality and tourism news reporter at the South Florida Business Journal. He also covered higher education policy issues as...
Published on May 8, 2023
Edited by
portrait of Darlene Earnest
Darlene Earnest
Read Full Bio

Editor & Writer

Darlene Earnest is a copy editor for BestColleges. She has had an extensive editing career at several news organizations, including The Virginian-Pilot and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She also has completed programs for editors offered by the D...
Learn more about our editorial process

  • Undergraduates in social work programs must work 400 hours in an internship. Graduate students must work 900 hours.
  • For most of these students, these field placements are unpaid.
  • Over three dozen chapters of Pay for Placements are advocating for mandatory stipends to support these students during their required internships.
  • Some universities have been receptive to the movement, while deans at other programs have pushed back.

College students in social work programs are required to complete hundreds — sometimes thousands — of hours of field placement work to earn a degree.

The reality for most of these students is not only will that work go unpaid, but they have to pay their university for credit for those work hours. BestColleges spoke with social work students who said they often had to balance multiple other work opportunities to skate by. Others accumulate heaps of debt to make ends meet.

A new wave of students, however, is looking to change the status quo.

Payment for Placements (P4P) is a student-led movement with over three dozen university chapters across the U.S. The movement started in late 2021 at the University of Michigan.

Beth Wagner is the current chair of P4P and started a chapter at the University of Texas, Austin — Field Education and Development Undergraduate/Graduate Placements (FED UP). She told BestColleges that the COVID-19 pandemic helped spark more conversation about the perceived unfairness in asking social worker students to serve as essential workers while refusing to pay them.

People are getting more comfortable with saying this is not OK, Wagner said.

Social work students are often placed in the same roles as professionals, but for no pay. Wagner, for example, said she works as an internal counselor at a Goodwill where she has an individual caseload that is the same as a counselor recently hired at that location.

We're doing the work that other people are paid to do, she said.

A Near Universal Problem

Unpaid placements aren't a rare occurrence.

New P4P chapters typically survey social work students when they are formed to gauge the extent of the issue. A survey of 100 University of Georgia (UGA) students found that 90% were not paid for their field work. A University of Texas (UT) survey found that 60% of the 120 students surveyed had jobs besides taking classes or completing their field work.

Elise Colquitt, who leads the UGA chapter, said many classmates sell plasma to supplement their income.

Others take side jobs, but their options are limited due to their major's requirements.

The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) requires that students pursuing a bachelor's degree complete 400 hours of field work. Graduate students must complete 900. Some schools, including UT, increased that requirement to over 1,000 hours.

The result is that students must take low-paying jobs that can accommodate late-night or weekend schedules. These often don't offer the hours needed to support students alone, so many use student debt to bridge the gap. The UT survey found that 85% of respondents were worried about managing their student debt after graduation.

If I was an administrator and I heard [these statistics], I would be tripping over myself to change them, Wagner said.

Pushback From Academia

If we had to do it the hard way, you should, too.

Colquitt said that's the general sentiment among university faculty in many areas of the U.S. in response to the P4P movement. Professors and instructors had to endure unpaid internships; therefore, many see it as unfair that a new generation of students would be paid for their work.

Wagner said making inroads with her school's administration has been difficult. While FED UP has aimed for UT to create a stipend for social work students, the institution insists on a scholarship program instead.

No matter the wordage used, she believes it should be the university's responsibility to pay students.

Wagner said the organizations social work students are placed into are already strapped for cash. Many are underfunded nonprofits, so it's too much to ask of them to pay students. Meanwhile, UT has the second-largest endowment in the country, so she sees no reason the institution can't do more to support students.

CSWE disagrees. The accrediting body clarified its stance in July on field placements as a learning experience, not work experience.

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, CSWE said in a statement. These educational experiences are structured as learning and not labor.

Some leaders have been more accepting of P4P.

Colquitt said UGA's new school of social work dean, Philip Hong, was immediately receptive to P4P's lobbying. As part of his openness, he has campaigned to raise funds to cover expenses that would otherwise fall on students. He has also helped identify grant opportunities to help spread more money to students.

That's why it's so important to have faculty on your side. Students don't know the ins and outs of this kind of stuff, she said. I think our dean is just very open-minded, and he prioritizes wanting to benefit the field of social work.

P4P's campaigning was vital in raising awareness of the issue, she added, so that Dean Hong knew to solicit alumni donations to fund new scholarships for students.

Colquitt said a major project to add more paid internships is still under development at UGA, but she couldn't disclose details just yet.

An Unequal System

Social work students are quick to point out that other college programs have internship requirements, but many of those internships are paid.

Medical students, for example, are required to complete 3-7 years of a residency. In the U.S., the average medical resident made $64,000 in 2021, according to Medscape's Resident Salary and Debt Report.

Meanwhile, just 15% of master's of social work graduates in 2018 and 2019 received support from an employer during college, according to a three-year survey of social workers published in 2020.

That inequity, Wagner said, lies at the heart of the P4P movement.

Social workers were asked to step up during the COVID-19 pandemic, including many students in field placements, she said. Yet their efforts were rarely compensated in hard cash.

The pandemic really made the situation much more extreme, she said.

The effects of unpaid labor spread beyond just the students. Both Wagner and Colquitt shared the view that overworked and underpaid students in field work likely means their clients suffer.

Our code of ethics says we must practice self-care, Wagner said, and we literally can't because of what our programs are making us do.

UGA's survey of students found that 85% reported that working an unpaid internship has harmed their mental health.

Students are getting burned out before we even get into the field, Colquitt said.