[Editor’s note: Field Finds is a regular feature of Field Educator. These concise literature reviews provide information and guidance to field educators and field instructors. Each review concludes with three discussion questions as inspiration for further thought on the subject matter.]

This edition of Field Finds explores the concept and implementation of gatekeeping within social work programs—and, more specifically, within social work field education. The review provides suggestions for practice and future research.

The concept of gatekeeping in social work education has been written about, discussed, and debated for many years. A seminal text, Gatekeeping in BSW Programs, edited by Gibbs and Blakeley (2000), remains the blueprint for conceptualizing gatekeeping. The term “gatekeeping” itself conjures up a “gate” that is closed when someone ill-suited is not permitted to move forward in a professional program.Two distinct views of gatekeeping exist in social work education (Gibbs, 2000a & 2000b):

  1. Students are screened in: A supportive perspective, where students are provided with developmental opportunities to enhance their knowledge, values, and skills throughout the social work program curriculum (Elpers & Fitzgerald, 2013; Gibbs, 2000a; Gibbs & Macy, 2000; Royse, 2000; Sowbel & Miller, 2015; Street, 2021).
  2. Students are screened out: Students are screened out for entry to a social work program based on stringent admissions criteria, such as GPA or a personal statement (Gibbs, 2000b; Holmstrom, 2014; Homonoff, 2008; Royse, 2000).

Review of the Literature

Gatekeeping in Social Work Education

Gatekeeping in social work education has been a regular topic of research for many decades. Coyle et al. (2011), analyzed the admissions policies of 50 BSW programs in the US and 25 English-speaking BSW programs in Canada. They found that the GPA score continued to be the “gold standard” for determining academic suitability for admission. Positive letters of reference and previous human services experience, including volunteering, were also found to predict success in social work and field education. Determining an individual’s suitability for entry to a social work program is important, as it is far more challenging and resource-intensive to counsel a student out of a program than to refuse them entry in the first place (Halaas et al., 2020; Hylton et al., 2017; Sowbel, 2012; Street, 2021).

Elpers and Fitzgerald (2013) provide a framework for implementing gatekeeping in social work educational programs. Social work programs must articulate in all program materials what is meant by concerning nonacademic behavior. They suggest programs should create gatekeeping functions at three junctures: 1) the point of admission (GPA, personal statement, and panel interviews with social work faculty); 2) at the field placement; and 3) at graduation (portfolios, exit exams). Hylton et al. (2017) reiterated gatekeeping as a concept that should be stressed at various points in the social work curriculum. Together, these works suggest that gatekeeping should be viewed as a continual process.

In a unique qualitative study of 31 social work educators, Raine (2022) explored the impact of gatekeeping on the “gatekeeper” (Raine, 2022, p. 1246). The discussion showcased the duality of gatekeeping within social work education—screening out unsuitable applicants while at the same time balancing students’ rights and promoting social justice for all. Respondents felt that gatekeeping may impact them as educators, i.e., resulting in poor teaching evaluations and negative reports to the university.

In 2022, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) published a new set of educational policies and accreditation standards (CSWE, 2022). A defining feature of these new standards is the emphasis on engaging Anti-Racism, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (ADEI) in practice. How these standards apply to gatekeeping—more specifically, regarding selection bias—is a crucial issue to address in research and in practice. Gibbs (2000b) suggested developing an admissions selection panel screening rubric. An effective rubric should consider academic achievement (GPA) along with nonacademic considerations, e.g., personal suitability, previous work and volunteer experience, and ability to self-reflect. While dated, Gibbs’s analysis inspires social work faculty to find ways to reduce selection bias through the development of objective screening measures. Despite this, the issue of selection bias remains an elusive theme in the current social work educational literature.

Social work programs in the UK use skills-based courses, otherwise known as “preparation for practice,” as a tool for gatekeeping before entry into a field placement. Using role-play scenarios, students must perform adequately using a stringent rubric; students who fail are not allowed to move into a practice setting until they have successfully retaken the course (Dill et al., 2016; O’Connor et al., 2009; Wilson & Kelly, 2010). This curricular model stresses the importance of student readiness before engagement in a field internship.

Gatekeeping Within Field Education

Research exploring gatekeeping specifically within field education is relatively rare (Freeman et al., 2016). Street (2021), in a qualitative study with 13 field instructors, found that their role in gatekeeping students is multidimensional and needs ethical fortitude, time, and resources. Participants recognized the important role they performed in evaluating students, and articulated the incredible time and resources required to manage the behaviors of their students. Street noted that sometimes field instructors become tasked with addressing problematic behaviors and issues (Street, 2021). This singular article suggests that social work faculty should play a more rigorous role in screening students before beginning their field placement. More research is needed in this area, with a larger and broader sample population.

Gazzola et al. (2013) explored the complexities of supervising students in a Master’s of Counseling program with 10 supervisors-in-training. These emerging supervisors reported that providing constructive feedback and judging if a person is competent (i.e., gatekeeping) were particularly challenging aspects of their role. Homonoff (2008), in an article titled “The Heart of Social Work,” reported that even highly expert field instructors are challenged to manage the complex role of gatekeeper. Together, these articles suggest that new and experienced supervisors struggle to manage the complex task of evaluating and sometimes failing students.

A theme that runs throughout the literature on gatekeeping is the intersection between students’ mental health and their ability to navigate field placements (Dill & Murphy, 2022). This previous Field Finds review explored the challenges faced by social work faculty, field liaisons, and field instructors when students are immobilized by mental health challenges. The necessity of maintaining our professional rigor and standards can starkly contrast with our social work values when we are faced with imposing gatekeeping measures on students with mental health challenges.

A pervasive but underdeveloped theme in the literature is the role of the field faculty liaison (a.k.a. university faculty) in gatekeeping. Street (2019) and Nordstrand (2017) showcased the vital role of the field liaison in the process of gatekeeping and evaluating students within the context of field placements. Nordstrand underlined the importance of the faculty liaison in Norwegian social work field education. The author suggested that field site visits, chaired by social work field faculty liaisons, are an opportunity to communicate potential challenges to struggling students. Faculty liaisons can be role models for field instructors, who may themselves be challenged to deliver negative feedback to students.

Practice Implications

This review highlights the complexity of gatekeeping and reminds us of the essential roles that field education and field instructors play in evaluating students. Social workers, educators, and field instructors should examine and remain vigilant about their own and others’ implicit biases that may lead them to make incorrect and harmful assumptions about students from different backgrounds or social groups. Working toward reducing and eliminating bias in the assessment of students is essential for all social work field instructors.

Training field instructors on how to provide constructive, balanced feedback is necessary (Dill & Hanssen, 2019). As part of this training, field instructors should be helped to recognize that there may be times when they will be required to fail students. Any such conversation should be undertaken with compassion and with support from the faculty liaison.

Field site visits should become a focal point for raising issues and having crucial conversations about whether a student should fail. Managing conflict is always tricky, but particularly so as we, as social workers, wish to find the strengths in others. As such, our gatekeeping role can often be antithetical to our knowledge, values, and skills. That said, we must work tirelessly to graduate the most competent social workers.

Social work faculty need to ensure that field education does not become the endpoint for gatekeeping; rather, clear performance indicators and curricular design can better support a student’s transitioning (or not) into the field placement setting.

Future Research

Although social work educators have spent years researching and exploring the complexities of gatekeeping in social work education, there continues to be a lack of focus on gatekeeping in field education specifically. Emerging research highlights the challenges that dedicated field instructors face in navigating their gatekeeping goal and ultimately failing students (Street, 2021). Additional research is required on the role of the faculty field liaison in this regard.

Future research should create measures for screening social work applicants while still addressing issues of selection bias. Faculty scoring rubrics and tools for measuring applicant suitability must be carefully constructed and tested to ascertain if issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion are being addressed consistently for all potential applicants.

Feedback from those most affected by gatekeeping measures should be closely examined. Students should be able to have input into gatekeeping measures across their social work education. In addition, clients may have important insights regarding what constitutes a caring professional social worker. Service recipients are the greatest repository of practice wisdom for emerging social work professionals.

A further, as-yet uncharted area is the impact (or lack thereof) of gatekeeping on social work students as a cohort. When students are immersed in a learning environment with other students who are struggling, what toll does this take on them and their learning? How does a lack of gatekeeping affect student learning outcomes?

Another question is how social work faculty themselves perceive their gatekeeping role in field education. Do they connect student behavior in the classroom with professionalism in field placement settings? Faculties’ role in promoting readiness for practice is an essential area for future exploration.

Discussion Questions

  1. What role do you think gatekeeping should play in the social work classroom curriculum?
  2. What role do you play in gatekeeping efforts within the social work profession?
  3. How can we better support field instructors in their gatekeeping role?


Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). (2022). Educational policy and accreditation standards for baccalaureate and master’s social work programs.

Coyle, J. P., Carter, I. M., & Leslie, D. R. (2011). BSW program admission policies: Is there empirical support for what we do? Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 31(5), 538–551.https://doi.org/10.1080/08841233.2011.615277

Dill, K., & Hanssen, D. (2019). Implementing observations in BSW social work field placements. The Journal of Baccalaureate Social Work, 24(1), 281–290.

Dill, K., Montgomery, L., Davidson, G., & Duffy, J. (2016). Service-user involvement in social work education: The road less traveled. Field Educator, 6(2).

Dill, K., & Murphy, E. (2022). The impact of mental health challenges on social work field education. Field Educator, 12(2).

Elpers, K., & Fitzgerald, E. A. (2013). Issues and challenges in gatekeeping: A framework for implementation. Social Work Education, 32(3), 286–300.

Freeman, B. J., Garner, C. M., Fairgrieve, L. A., & Pitts, M. E. (2016). Gatekeeping in the field: Strategies and practices. Journal of Professional Counseling, Practice, Theory, & Research, 43(2), 28–41.

Gazzola, N., DeStefano, J., Thériault, A., & Audet, C. T. (2013). Learning to be supervisors: A qualitative investigation of difficulties experienced by supervisors-in-training. The Clinical Supervisor 32(1), 15–39.

Gibbs, P. (2000a). Creating a bridging environment: The screening-in process in BSW programs. In P. Gibbs & E. H. Blakeley (Eds.), Gatekeeping in BSW programs (pp. 135–148), Columbia University Press.

Gibbs, P. (2000b). Screening students out of BSW programs: Responding to professional obligations and institutional challenges. In P. Gibbs & E. H. Blakeley (Eds.), Gatekeeping in BSW programs (pp. 149–168). Columbia University Press.

Gibbs, P., & Blakeley, E. H. (Eds.). (2000). Gatekeeping in BSW programs. Columbia University Press.

Gibbs, P., & Macy, H. J. (2000). Introduction: The arena of gatekeeping. In P. Gibbs & E. H. Blakeley (Eds.), Gatekeeping in BSW programs (pp. 3–21). Columbia University Press.

Halaas, B., Li, J., & Reveles, J. M. (2020). Faculty perceptions of gatekeeping and student suitability in the context of traditional and online social work programs. Interchange, 51, 409–428.

Holmstrom, C. (2014). Suitability for professional practice: Assessing and developing moral character in social work education. Social Work Education, 33(4), 451–468.

Homonoff, E. (2008). The heart of social work: Best practitioners rise to challenges in field instruction. Clinical Supervisor, 27(2), 135–169.

Hylton, M. E., Manit, J., & Messick-Svare, G. (2017). Gatekeeping and competency-based education: Developing behaviorally specific remediation policies. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 37(3), 249–259.

Nordstrand, M. (2017). Practice supervisors’ perceptions of social work students and their placements—An exploratory study in the Norwegian context. Social Work Education, 36(5), 481–494.

O’Connor, L., Cecil, B., & Boudioni, M. (2009). Preparing for practice: An evaluation of an undergraduate social work “preparation for practice” module. Social Work Education, 28(4), 436–454.

Raine, L. M. (2022). From protectiveness to fear of retaliation: Social work educators’ experiences with gatekeeping in social work. Social Work Education, 41(6), 1239–1252.

Royse, D. (2000). The ethics of gatekeeping. In P. Gibbs & E. H. Blakeley (Eds.), Gatekeeping in BSW programs (pp. 22–44). Columbia University Press.

Sowbel, L. R. (2012). Gatekeeping: Why shouldn’t we be ambivalent? Journal of Social Work Education, 48(1), 27–44.

Sowbel, L. R., & Miller, S. E. (2015). Gatekeeping in graduate social work education: Should personality traits be considered? Social Work Education, 34(1), 110–124.

Street, L. A. (2019). Field instructor perspectives on challenging behaviors in social work practicum. Field Educator, 9(1).

Street, L. A. (2021). Field instructors as professional gatekeepers: A qualitative study of gatekeeping influences. Field Educator, 11(2).

Wilson, G., & Kelly, B. (2010). Evaluating the effectiveness of social work education: Preparing students for practice learning. British Journal of Social Work, 40(8), 2431–2449.