Editor’s note: This issue’s Conversation features an interview with Daniel Fischer, MSW. Daniel is a clinical associate professor and assistant dean for field education in the School of Social Work at the University of Michigan. The two discuss the recent focus on paid versus unpaid field placements, student organizing around the issue, and innovative solutions for consideration within social work education.

Amy Skeen: Dan, I want to share my appreciation for your willingness to join me for this conversation. I welcome this opportunity to learn about your experience and perspective related to field placements, and more specifically about the recent increase in students advocating for and seeking change to the longstanding structure of social work field placements being unpaid. In addition, I’m hoping you’ll talk about how your social work program is responding, and share some of the innovative ideas and approaches being implemented. First, can you tell us about your role at the University of Michigan?

Dan Fischer: Thanks, Amy, for reaching out to me. I’m happy to be a part of the conversation. A little about me: I graduated with my MSW from the University of Michigan in 1984, have been an instructor at the School of Social Work since 1993, and am currently a clinical associate professor of social work and serve as the assistant dean for field education.

AS: In addition to 30 years with the University of Michigan School of Social Work, you have extensive practice experience where you’ve served in a variety of roles as a social work clinician, researcher, administrator, and teacher, in both classroom and field education settings. And you received your Master in Social Work (MSW) degree at the same institution where you are now in a leadership role within field education. How does this inform your perspective?

DF: I hope it certainly shows my commitment to the social work profession, to field education, and to the clients and communities we serve. As a student here, I received an outstanding education and felt well prepared to move into professional social work practice. This was due in large part to my field experience. In my current role, I want to make sure we continue to offer the same high-quality training and education to prepare the next generation of social workers.

AS: Field education, the component of social work education where students apply their classroom learning to a practice setting under the supervision of a qualified social worker, has long been seen as fundamental to social work education. Like you, students often cite their field placement as one of the most significant parts of their learning experience. In 2008, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) recognized field education as the signature pedagogy of social work education. Although some students may receive a stipend or complete their required hours in an employment-based field setting, the vast majority of field placements are unpaid experiences. For many students, this may pose barriers to completing their degree. For context, I’m wondering if your own field placement was paid or unpaid, and how your experience is similar to or different from students’ experience today?

DF: Like for most students, my field placement was unpaid. However, I do recognize there are significant differences in what students are facing today. Of greatest impact is the exorbitant cost of tuition within higher education and the debt load many students have after completing their degree compared to when I was an MSW student. Although I did have a part-time job when I was an MSW student, I certainly faced different financial burdens than those students face today.

AS: There has been a recent focus on the issue of paid versus unpaid field placements, and students have begun advocating and organizing for change. Can you explain the situation at the University of Michigan?

DF: Students involved in a national student-led campaign, Payments for Placement (P4P), began to organize in late fall 2021. In general, the group is demanding that the University use its endowment and financial reserves to compensate all MSW students for the time they spend in their field placements at a rate of $20 per hour. The total cost for the University of Michigan would be approximately eight million dollars per year. The students circulated a petition to this effect, and submitted it to the social work dean and to our university leadership, requesting that this money be added to the School of Social Work’s annual budget. They staged an organized walkout in March 2022, in which about 80 students at the University of Michigan participated.

AS: And what was the University’s response?

DF: The University gave a clear “no” to this ask. As a school, we understand the University’s position on this. We believe field is a critical educational experience for training social workers. And while we believe students are applying the knowledge and skills learned in the classroom while in their field placements, they are there as learners and not employees. We want our students to be able to engage in progressive learning during their time in field, and not be held to the same performance metrics as employees. Students are in placement to learn and practice while under the direct supervision of a qualified MSW field instructor who is volunteering their time to serve in this role. The field instructor/student relationship is critical to overall student learning.

AS: Are the student organizers asking that the sites where social work students are doing their field placements pay them?

DF: Actually, P4P is not demanding that field sites pay them. They have emphasized they prefer the university to provide stipends, but are appreciative when agencies are able to offer stipends. In response to P4P, our interim dean formed a Joint Task Force on Field Stipends. We explored a variety of options to increase stipends, one of which was to encourage field sites to consider stipends as a way to support students and develop future workforce. There is recognition that many social service agencies and nonprofits are under-resourced and overworked. However, even if our field agencies don’t offer a stipend, they do contribute many tangible resources in hosting our students. For instance, field instructors donate their time to teach our students, and agencies use resources to onboard, orient, and provide space and access to clients. If sites were required to reimburse students for their training hours, we’d see a significant decline in agencies able to partner. This would result in increased competition for field placements, and would likely reduce the number of field placements available, impacting MSW graduation rates.

Currently, 12% of our social work students are being paid by field sites. The changes made by CSWE regarding place-of-employment internships provide more flexibility to students who are already working in human services jobs when they enter an MSW program. In an employment-based field placement, the hours a student works as an employee can count as field hours as long as the social work competencies are addressed and educational supervision from a qualified field instructor is provided.

AS: Related to being engaged in a training capacity, some students have argued they are serving as “unpaid labor.” What can you share related to this?

DF: Social work field practicums being unpaid is not in violation of the U.S. Fair Labor and Standards Act, which helps protect workers’ rights. Students are unlicensed professionals and would not be qualified to engage in MSW-level work on their own. This only occurs due to their status as students and when they are under the direct supervision and training of an assigned field instructor.

AS: Another issue raised by students is that the University of Michigan provides stipends for students from other degree-seeking programs, such as Public Policy and Law students.

DF: The comparison to Public Policy and Law students is a bit like comparing apples to oranges, as the funding for students’ stipends in these programs doesn’t come from the same source of money as P4P is requesting. My understanding is that the Law School stipend is actually a loan generated from a fund administered by the Law School and created by the students to support future students.

CSWE, the accrediting body for social work, requires a specific number of credit-bearing hours (900 minimum) of an educational practicum to earn an MSW degree, and these are also required for licensure. This practice of experiential learning is consistent with other health sciences professional programs at UM (medicine, nursing, dentistry, pharmacy, etc.), in which students at the prelicensure level are not paid for their clinical training.

Field education is the signature pedagogy in social work. It represents the central form of instruction and learning in which licensed professional social work field instructors train and closely supervise students. Field instruction is essential so that students are able to engage in learning activities and have the opportunity to begin to practice at the MSW level.

AS: The financial challenges facing students are real. According to a recent report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, between 1980 and 2020 the average cost of tuition has increased 169%. A financial instability survey initiated by the P4P at the University of Michigan revealed 83% of students are working additional jobs in addition to field placement. Many cite a negative impact on mental health due to the instability.

In 2021, NASW included self-care in the Code of Ethics. What type of innovations do you think social work programs can engage in to address these issues and support the learning experiences of students?

DF: The cost of higher education is a significant challenge for sure. Our school made a thoughtful decision, as part of our strategic plan, to prioritize student financial aid support based on need. Paying students across the board for field practicum would compromise our ability to emphasize need-based aid. Unfortunately, I don’t have an easy solution to the skyrocketing cost of tuition. However, I do think there are other ideas we can explore. One controversial, but important, area to examine is the number of field hours required by CSWE. To my knowledge, there is no consistent, generalizable data that shows 900 hours are predictive of competency development.

Another option is to work together to identify opportunities for more students to complete their placements in appropriate places of employment, while emphasizing learning supervision and competency development. Increasing flexibility to enable more students to engage in field in the evening, on weekends, and/or remotely would also be important. I think the increased use of simulations can supplement the direct practice opportunities afforded in field education. Personally, I would like to see the return to an apprentice-type model, where students learn in cohorts and the field seminar is included as a support and also counted toward required hours. This model would require increased faculty engagement in field education to provide regular teaching, oversight, and support. I think it is no longer realistic for social work field education to continue to rely primarily on volunteer field instructors at the field agency level as the primary teachers of field education.

AS: Dan, I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts and experience with us. Are there any final words of wisdom you’d like to offer?

DF: I think it has been important to stay in the role of teacher with our students and the P4P group and find common ground, rather than to become adversaries. I believe P4P’s intentions are good and their passion is strong. However, their approach lacked the necessary engagement and assessment of the systems/community they were trying to engage with. I believe the P4P students at the University of Michigan School of Social Work have benefitted from engaging with our leadership team and being encouraged to apply the social work competencies to their efforts. To engage and assess before jumping straight to intervention has been an important lesson. I think our students have gained through their interactions with our faculty during their advocacy efforts.