Pacific wins $6 million grant to expand master’s in social work

a social work student sits a table holding paperwork while talking to a patient

A new $6 million state grant will help University of the Pacific meet the growing demand for social workers across California by expanding the Master of Social Work program on the Sacramento campus.

The California Department of Health Care Access and Information is investing $59.6 million to help create more social workers. The grant to Pacific’s School of Health Sciences is the largest among 23 awarded. Other recipients include UCLA, USC and University of California at Berkeley. 

“With this major investment, the state has reaffirmed confidence in Pacific as a vital educational partner to expand the health care workforce for California,” said Kris Himmerick, director of assessment and accreditation for the School of Health Sciences. 

The grant will allow Pacific’s Master of Social Work program to expand and grow fourfold to 100 students over the next five years. A large portion of the funds will be dedicated to student support. 

Improving access to behavioral health care, which includes mental health and substance use disorders, is the primary goal of the grant program. Pacific also will expand its behavioral health education for social work students with a focus on children and youth. 

A 2018 report from the Healthforce Center at UCSF found the San Joaquin Valley has the lowest ratio of social workers per capita than any other region in California. San Joaquin Valley had 25 social workers per 100,000 people compared to the national average of 60 social workers for the same number of people. COVID’s impact on mental health has significantly increased and accelerated the demand. 

“There is a great need for social workers across the country, but especially in the Central Valley,” said Amanda West, chair and program director of the Social Work program. “This will not only fill the need but also emphasizes that mental health is essential and important, especially in the more vulnerable younger populations.”

The Master of Social Work program launched in 2020 to prepare students to work in the increasingly complex health care environment.

The program participants are highly diverse—unusual for the social work field—with 40% Hispanic/Latino, 19% Asian, 24% Black and 6% multiracial. A 2021 survey found 67% of social workers in the United States are white.

“We are committed to increase the number of underrepresented minority students enrolled to create a lasting impact on the supply and diversity of the behavioral health workforce in California,” said School of Health Sciences Dean Nicoleta Bugnariu. 

Students conduct the majority of their fieldwork in the Central Valley with many graduates securing employment at their fieldwork sites, such as Community Medical Centers. The federally qualified health centers in central California provide care regardless of a patient’s ability to pay.

Pacific’s Master of Social Work is an accelerated 16-month program with hybrid, online and in-person classes and is designed for students without a bachelor’s degree in social work. Students with a bachelor’s degree in social work can apply for the 12-month advanced standing program.

Applications for the fall 2023 cohort are open through July 1.