Jacob Frazier had lost his job as a full-time professional dancer in Chicago as performance venues closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
He decided to go back to school to prepare for a new career, but the degree program he sought needed to be adaptable and affordable enough for him to be employed while learning.
Frazier chose Arizona State University’s online Master of Social Work (MSW) degree program.
It had what he was looking for, he said: It was flexible and fit his budget, but it went beyond that — it also taught him more about appreciating what it is like to be someone else, someone who needed help; to learn empathy, he said.
“The paradigm shift (from the job loss) led me to consider options — and one was social work. During COVID and observing (the) Black Lives Matter (movement), I had a lot of epiphanies about what is culture and what is community,” said Frazier, who had worked building diversity, equity and inclusion in the arts-related nonprofit where he had been employed.
Affordable, meaningful education
ASU launched the program at its School of Social Work seven years ago. At a time when student debt has become a serious national concern, the program’s intention is — and always has been — to offer graduate students in social work an affordable and meaningful education, no matter where in the world they are learning.
Cynthia Lietz is a President’s Professor of social work and dean of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, where the School of Social Work and the online MSW program are based. She stressed the importance of affordability.
“While some programs lead to high levels of student debt, our program provides access to a top-quality graduate education experience without creating an unrealistic long-term financial burden,” Lietz said.
Foundation Professor and School of Social Work Director Elizabeth Lightfoot said the focus from the beginning has been on creating an ethical program with integrity woven throughout the process — from recruiting and admissions procedures to helping students avoid a situation where they are overwhelmed by debt at graduation.
Since its inception in 2014, the program has proven itself to be a go-to curriculum for students. After welcoming a first cohort of 83 in 2014, the program’s enrollment quadrupled only two years later, and has grown to 966 students by fall semester 2021.
The program is among ASU’s top five online graduate degree programs by enrollment, according to the EdPlus at ASU Annual Report 2021, and its reputation has grown along with registrations.
By 2018, ASU’s online MSW program earned a No. 6 national ranking by bestmswprograms.com. Today, the School of Social Work itself is ranked by U.S. News & World Report at No. 25 — among the top 10% — out of 260 such schools in the country.
In addition to affordability, Lightfoot attributes the program’s success to its instruction model. Leading scholars teach the classes and have written the textbooks. As a result, students enjoy a unique learning opportunity, she said.
“We are committed to providing the same quality experience for our students who study 100% online as we do for our students who study on campus, which includes instruction by educators who are full-time faculty,” Lightfoot said. “The affordability and the high quality fit well with ASU’s charter, which encourages us to measure whom we include rather than exclude, and how they succeed.”
‘It’s a good fit’
Frazier said he was very satisfied with his onboarding experience and his communication with the school.
“I had a great sense of what I was going to get out of the program,” he said. “It’s a good fit. Cost was a big thing for me. It’s affordable, especially for a master’s program in social work.”
Frazier said the program offers him autonomy, allowing him to fit in coursework readings before and after his current full-time job and during his lunch hour, with weekends devoted to modular assignments.
“You can modify the program to fit your daily life. That’s very important to me. Every day is different. That’s the power of it, that you can cater your experience to your schedule,” he said.
Frazier said the most important thing he’s learning is how to be culturally grounded, which for him means taking time to understand how to be empathetic.
“It’s about learning how to step out of your comfort zone,” said Frazier, who works with LGBTQ seniors facing end-of-life issues, a field he said he plans to enter upon graduation. Many of his clients are not able-bodied and need assistance, he said.
Online MSW students are excited about how the program seeks to fulfill the goals of diversity and inclusion set forth in the ASU Charter wherever they live, said School of Social Work Lecturer Marcos Martinez, online program coordinator.
“We had a student in a Zoom session a few weeks ago. He was along the Yukon River in Canada and talked about starting partnerships up there,” Martinez said.
A program for ‘students from all over’
Elizabeth Segal, a School of Social Work professor, and Melanie Reyes, a lecturer and the school’s associate director for student services and programs, along with Watts College Senior Director Jon Pratt, worked closely with ASU Online to create and initially promote the online program in 2014. It went from drawing board to conducting classes within only a few months.
Segal said school faculty wanted the online program to avoid being either a subset of or ancillary to the school’s existing in-person program. Like the in-person version, the online first-year curriculum is the same for all students, with specialization in coursework coming in the second year, for a total of 20 classes toward the degree.
“We wanted a program (that would be) geared toward students from all over and not be a stepchild (to the in-person degree),” said Segal, who added that keeping the program’s cost affordable was of paramount concern as well.
Reyes and Segal said Pratt also helped garner important support from the college leadership.
Segal said that overall, the program’s curriculum is designed for people with multiple roles, many of whom live in rural areas where “they have to wear many hats and are involved with many groups and organizations.”
Such students often live in areas where a master’s degree program isn’t available nearby. The online program enables them to attend classes and participate in internships without having to relocate.
“The amazing thing is that we had no idea what the potential was out there,” Segal said. “It proves it is a good opportunity for people who can’t relocate to a campus somewhere and still have a commitment to get a graduate degree.”
Many of the program’s students are from Arizona, but live outside of cities, she said.
Frazier said he is excited about working in the field, calling his degree a “Swiss Army knife of professions” that will enable him to accomplish many personal goals.
“It’s more than developing skills in social work,” he said. “It’s about being a better human being.”