With Focus on Rural Social Work, New Bachelor’s Program Aims to Meet Growing Need

Kent State Works Stacked Graphic

NOTE: March is National Social Work Month in the United States. Although it is a celebratory time, the profession currently faces challenges due to reductions in the labor force and a growing population of need, especially in rural communities. Kent State University recently announced the creation of a Bachelor of Social Work academic degree program, which will launch in fall 2023 with a focus on rural social work. The College of Applied and Technical Studies (CATS) program is fully offered at the Ashtabula, Salem and Tuscarawas campuses, but students can take courses at any one of Kent State’s Regional Campuses.  

More than 60%  of rural Americans live in areas the National Institute of Health deems to be underserved by mental health professionals and only about 20% of social workers nationwide are employed in rural areas, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. These stats, coupled with the high demand for licensed social workers — especially in areas like those surrounding Kent State University’s Regional Campuses — produce significant disparities and gaps in care for people needing social services.

Filling in those gaps is the primary aim of the Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) program through Kent State’s College of Applied and Technical Studies (CATS), which will have an emphasis on rural social work. Approved recently by the Kent State Board of Trustees, the program is now open for students to apply for admission, and classes will begin this fall. While the program is fully offered at the Ashtabula, Salem and Tuscarawas campuses, students can take courses at any of Kent State’s Regional Campuses.  

BSW Program Director Matt Butler

“Social work is an extremely broad-based and versatile profession,” said lecturer and program Director Matt Butler, MSSA, LISW-S, LICDC-CS. “This is the perfect fit for those who want to make a difference in their communities and in people’s lives, because the core values of the social work profession include service, social justice, integrity, competence, dignity and worth of the person, as well as understanding the importance of human relationships. Our program will give students the chance to gain the skills, knowledge and experience needed to live out those values as social work professionals.”

Rural communities are often underserved by mental health and social work professionals for several reasons and the increase in labor shortages following the COVID-19 pandemic is only expected to continue. While these areas often have strong cultures of volunteering and people willing to help those in need, those individuals often lack the education, experience and credentials needed to fill vacant spots. 
Additionally, social work academic programs have traditionally been concentrated in areas with greater population density and resources, often in urban settings with a narrowed categorical focus, where a rural professional would require more general skills and a broader knowledge base.

“We want to allow people who are embedded in the communities they care about — where they live, work, spend time, have families, etc. — to have access to a career path and professional fulfillment for themselves while filling a need and doing important work in their communities,” Butler said.

Courses with Maximum Flexibility for Students

The curriculum is designed to provide students with an expansive knowledge base to the philosophical practice of social work, as well as practical experiences of the varied problems and issues faced while working in rural settings.

Courses will be delivered in a hybrid instruction format that’s designed to offer students maximum flexibility between online and in-person classes that fit their schedules. In-person courses will be held at the Ashtabula, Salem and Tuscarawas campuses, allowing students throughout Northeast Ohio easy and affordable access to in-classroom instruction combined with the convenience of online learning.

“It’s exciting and I’m very passionate about the idea of experimenting with different ways to provide educational content to students across the career spectrum,” said Butler, noting early inquiries to the program range from traditional-aged high school seniors to adults in their 60s with degrees and careers in other fields. “We anticipate having people come to us with a wide array of life experiences and academic backgrounds, and we have designed and are building this program with that versatility and flexibility in mind.”

He continued, “It’s about creating an accessible program across a spectrum to give students spaces to learn and observe and put what they are learning into practice in their communities.” 

Meeting a Growing Demand

A recent labor data report indicated that job postings for social workers increased by 21% in Northeast Ohio from 2019 to 2020. Reportedly, nearly all social service agencies are struggling to find qualified employees and the trend is projected to continue.

Students who graduate from the program will be eligible to test and become licensed social workers in Ohio. Qualified graduates of the BSW program can go on to enter an accredited Master of Social Work program in advanced standing status, which may significantly reduce the time needed to attain an advanced degree.

Licensed social workers can be employed in mental health and substance use disorder settings, child welfare agencies and medical settings, general social service and nonprofit agencies; criminal justice entities, government agencies, advocacy or public policy roles, elder-serving organizations and other settings.

To learn more about the BSW degree, visit www.kent.edu/cats/bsw, email mabutle3@kent.edu, or call 440-964-4268.


POSTED: Tuesday, March 14, 2023 02:15 PM
Updated: Monday, April 17, 2023 08:45 AM
Jason Tirotta and Tina Smith, Strategic Communications and Marketing for Regional Campuses