Question: What is CSWE Candidacy status, and how is it relevant to current and prospective students of Master in Social Work (MSW) programs?

(Related Questions: What is the process that schools must undergo in order to earn CSWE Accreditation? What is the difference between MSW programs that are accredited and programs that are in Candidacy status?)

Answer: Programs that have achieved Candidacy status from the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) have applied to the CSWE for accreditation and formally demonstrated a commitment to complying with the CSWE’s education standards. However, these programs have not completed the process of evaluating their curriculum for full compliance with these standards. Students are only considered to have enrolled in or graduated from a CSWE-accredited program once a program has achieved Initial Accreditation status, and social workers who wish to become licensed clinical social workers must complete their master’s level social work education from a CSWE-accredited program. Therefore, it is important for students who are considering a master’s in social work program offered by a program in the candidacy phase of CSWE accreditation to understand the basic accreditation process.

Programs that achieve Candidacy status must enroll students as part of the accreditation process and therefore, it is common for students to enroll in programs that have not yet achieved full accreditation. Students who enroll in an MSW program that has achieved Candidacy status can be retroactively recognized as having enrolled in a CSWE accredited program if two requirements are met: 1) the program in which a student enrolls must have achieved Candidacy status either before or in the same year that this student begins his or her program of study and 2) the program in which the student is or was enrolled achieves Initial Accreditation status. This means that as long as a program achieves full accreditation, students in the program will have graduated from a CSWE accredited program.

Once a program has earned Candidacy status, it applies to all of their campuses and degree program formats (i.e. online and hybrid options as well as campus-based). However, Candidacy status is not a guarantee that a program will ultimately achieve Initial Accreditation or full Accreditation status. Therefore, it is crucial for prospective MSW students to check with admissions staff at the programs that interest them to make sure that these programs have achieved Accreditation or have reached Candidacy status and are well on their way to earning Initial Accreditation.

CSWE Candidacy Status: A Three-Year Process for MSW Programs

The CSWE is the sole accrediting body for baccalaureate and master’s level social work degree programs, and its standards for accreditation are quite rigorous. Candidacy is typically a three-year process that involves programs submitting documentation about every aspect of their program, after which a CSWE Commissioner reviews the documentation to see whether the program is eligible to progress to the next stage of assessments. Below is a description of each of the steps a prospective MSW program completes during the Candidacy phase of their Accreditation application.

  1. The Program Submits a Candidacy Eligibility Application: To start the Candidacy process, a program must submit a formal application to the CSWE that outlines its adherence to six Eligibility Standards.
  2. The Program Submits Documentation: Once the CSWE has deemed a program eligible to enter Candidacy status, the program embarks on a three- year Candidacy Process. This Process involves setting and meeting key benchmarks set forth by the CSWE in its 2015 Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards, or EPAS. During each year that it is in Candidacy, the program must gather and submit important program documentation that proves that it has fulfilled each policy and accreditation standard listed in the aforementioned 2015 EPAS. This includes:
    • Drafted statements of compliance to all EPAS
    • Course syllabi
    • Faculty CVs
    • Field education manuals
    • Student handbooks
    • Documentation around student diversity, retention, and graduation, administrative structure, extracurricular resources
  3. The Program Undergoes Commissioner Assessment: Each year that the program is in Candidacy, a CSWE Commissioner visits the program in order to review and discuss the documentation. Only when the Commissioner approves the program to proceed to the next year’s set of EPAS benchmarks can the program then progress to the next phase/year of the Candidacy process.

Once the MSW program has passed all of the benchmarks set forth by the CSWE in the 2015 EPAS, and has received approval of all of its documentation, it is on its way to receiving Initial Accreditation status.

How the CSWE Evaluates an MSW Program in Candidacy

During the Candidacy process, the CSWE evaluates each of four key components that comprise the integrated curriculum of an MSW program: the program’s mission statement and goals, its explicit and implicit curriculum, and its assessment methods. These four key components are described in further detail below:

  • Program Mission and Goals: Programs must submit their mission statement and explain how it is consistent with the mission, purpose, and value of the social work profession. In this mission statement, programs should reflect the core values of social justice and social service, the inherent value and dignity of human beings, the importance of relationships, human rights, integrity, and scientific inquiry.
  • Explicit Curriculum: The explicit curriculum of a social work program consists of its formal structure and content; this encompasses the program’s courses and assignments, the types of specializations the program offers, field education, and course delivery methods (i.e. hybrid vs. online vs. on-campus, and the technologies employed for online and hybrid courses). Special attention is paid to how the curriculum prepares master’s in social work students for advanced generalist and/or specialized practice.
  • Implicit Curriculum: The implicit curriculum is comprised of all of the non-curricular elements of a social work program that uphold the mission of the social work profession and foster an ideal environment to prepare graduate students in social work for practice. This includes faculty’s support of students in and outside of the classroom, the program’s commitment to diversity and social equality, extracurricular resources, and the culture of learning that is cultivated by faculty, staff, and students.
  • Assessment Methods: Social work education is competency-based, meaning that it is focused on preparing students to fulfill nine Core Competencies that are central to the practice of effective social work. (For more information on the CSWE’s Core Competencies, see below.) Over and above these Core Competencies, programs must show how they enable students to develop the holistic understanding of the profession and the ability to exercise sound judgment across a diverse set of social work contexts. The CSWE expects programs to implement student assessments that are multifaceted and integrated, in that they evaluate students while they are engaged in complex practice tasks that require them to integrate multiple skills and methodologies, simulating their future profession as closely as possible.

In evaluating the four integrated curriculum components described above, the CSWE assesses the program’s ability to teach its students nine key Core Competencies:

  • Competency 1: Demonstrate Ethical and Professional Behavior—The MSW program must teach its students all professional ethics/principles, laws, and regulations that are relevant to effective social work at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels. It must also teach students how to combine frameworks of ethical decision-making with the National Association of Social Work (NASW) Code of Ethics, and to use self-regulation to manage their own personal values while working with clients.
  • Competency 2: Engage Diversity and Difference in Practice—The MSW program must teach its students to understand the role that diversity plays in shaping human experience and identity. It must also teach students how to engage as learners in their own right when working with clients who are experts of their own diverse socioeconomic, ethnic, cultural, political, and familial experiences.
  • Competency 3: Advance Human Rights and Social, Economic, and Environmental Justice—The MSW program must prepare its students to uphold the fundamental human rights of freedom, safety, health, education, privacy, and an adequate standard of life, and to understand the connection between these rights and the local, national, and international contexts in which humans live. Students must also learn how to advocate for human rights both at the individual level and at the broader societal and systemic levels.
  • Competency 4: Engage in Practice-Informed Research and Research-Informed Practice—The MSW program must train its students in qualitative and quantitative research methods that allow them to assess and advance social work practice at the micro, mezzo, and/or macro level. Students must learn how to apply the principles of scientific inquiry, data analysis, and evidence-based practice to building knowledge that improves their work with clients and their abilities to advocate for social policy.
  • Competency 5: Engage in Policy Practice—The MSW program must teach students how to analyze the connection between policy, sociopolitical institutions, and human well-being at the individual, local, state, national, and international levels. Students must be able to identify social policies that impact people’s behavior, relationships, health, and access to social services. They must also know how to advocate for policies that advance human rights, socioeconomic equality, and environmental justice.
  • Competency 6: Engage with Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities—The MSW program must teach students that engaging with clients is a dynamic process that requires empathy, self-reflection, and an ongoing development of productive professional relationships both with clients and with other professionals with whom they collaborate. Students must use the person-in-environment model and other multidisciplinary frameworks to take their clients’ individualized experiences into account when building an effective rapport.
  • Competency 7: Assess Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities—The MSW program must teach students that client assessment is a dynamic and interactive process that integrates multiple theories and methodologies. Students must learn how to utilize numerous methods of assessment that allow them to tailor their evaluations of individuals, groups, families, communities, and organizations according to their diverse experiences and needs, and to provide tailored support to diverse constituencies.
  • Competency 8: Intervene with Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities—The MSW program must teach students how to design/select and implement interventions that are effective in helping clients achieve their goals. Students must also learn how to collaborate with interdisciplinary work groups to benefit their clients’ outcomes, and to negotiate and advocate on behalf of their clients as part of the intervention and transition processes. Furthermore, the MSW program must teach students to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions and modify these interventions accordingly.
  • Competency 9: Evaluate Practice with Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities—The MSW program must teach students to take an analytical approach in evaluating their ongoing practice and its outcomes. It must also teach students how to evaluate the processes and outcomes of advanced individual practice, policy advocacy, and social service delivery on a broader scale. Students should be able take insights regarding their engagement with, assessments of, and interventions for clients and to use them to improve their practice, while also considering ways to advance the social work discipline at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels.

Note: The above Core Competencies and their descriptions have been summarized from the CSWE’s 2015 Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards (EPAS). For the exact language of the Core Competencies, please refer to the 2015 EPAS here.

What Candidacy Means for Prospective MSW Students

Prospective students who are applying to MSW programs should always check with their programs of interest to confirm that they are CSWE-accredited or are in the Candidacy phase of Accreditation. This is particularly important for students who might want to seek licensure and become LCSWs. However, even for students who may not wish to seek licensure after graduating (for example, students who wish to engage in social work research and/or program development for social change), the CSWE’s 2015 Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards are a useful way to determine whether a program has formally committed to providing students with benchmark learning outcomes, regardless of whether they specialize in micro, mezzo, or macro social work.

Note: While accreditation of a graduate social work program is not guaranteed, schools are often granted ample time to align their curricula and learning outcomes to the CSWE’s standards. Therefore, it is not very common for a program not to achieve accreditation. Students who are concerned about their prospective or current master’s program’s candidacy should reach out to the CSWE’s Department of Social Work Accreditation (whose contact information is available here) with any additional questions. In the event that a program does not achieve accreditation, students may still be able to transfer some of the credits they have earned in their master’s program to a CSWE-accredited MSW program to finish their degree.