SUNO capitalizing on social work

From children suffering from anxiety and depression to adults struggling to kick a drug habit, there is a lot of demand for highly skilled social workers. The problem is especially acute in a city like New Orleans, known for high rates of poverty and crime.

So administrators at Southern University at New Orleans were especially pleased this week when they cleared the first hurdle on the way to establishing a doctor of social work degree. The state Board of Regents approved a letter of intent for SUNO to begin designing the program. If it meets state requirements, SUNO’s doctor of social work program could be up and running by fall 2015.

It would be the first doctoral degree offered in any subject in SUNO’s 58 years. It would also be only the second doctoral program in social work offered in the state. SUNO, LSU and Grambling State University all offer master of social work degrees, but only LSU has a doctoral program.

Unlike LSU’s program, which offers a research-based curriculum, SUNO Chancellor Victor Ukpolo said his school’s program would focus on training students to practice social work.

“Especially after the storm, there are lots of severe challenges that people face,” Ukpolo said. “With this program, we can offer more advanced and more specialized help to people with these kinds of challenges.”

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports there were 607,000 social workers in 2012. The agency predicts that number will increase by roughly 19 percent by 2022.

But even as the numbers rise, it’s unclear whether the people who fill those jobs will be the kind a city like New Orleans needs.

Ronald Mancoske, a professor of social work at SUNO, said there are three distinct types of social workers. Social workers with a baccalaureate degrees typically work in social service agencies and require supervision.

Social workers with a master’s degree can practice independently, he said.

But Mancoske said a city like New Orleans could use social workers with more advanced training who specialize in areas with the most need.

“The real problem is a lack of mental heath care,” he said. “The need is growing all over health care. Whether it’s child welfare, mental health or employment training, people need to know when interventions are needed.”

If the degree program is approved, Mancoske said, he envisions it being a two-year program.

“New Orleans faces unique challenges partly because of the levels of poverty and great diversity in who is out there,” he said. “We need the tools and techniques that speak to that diversity.”

Karen Denby, a senior policy analyst with the Board of Regents, said SUNO’s next step is to come up with a full proposal including the number of faculty that would be involved in the program, what courses would be taught, how many additional faculty the university would bring in and what kind of student support services would be available.

The Regents would also be interested in any data that show there is a demand for the program, she said.

Ukpolo, the chancellor, doesn’t think that will be a problem. He said social work has traditionally been one of the school’s bread-and-butter programs. Since 1985, SUNO’s School of Social Work has produced more than 2,000 graduates.

State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell said a 2011 study identified social work as SUNO’s most successful program.

“It produces large numbers of graduates, it has a healthy enrollment. It’s a natural progression for SUNO to start offering a doctorate,” Purcell said. “They’ve earned it.”