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Dual Degree Programs

Abstract and Keywords

Dual degree programs are growing rapidly around the country with increasing numbers of universities offering students an opportunity to earn an M.S.W. along with another degree. While two degrees offer clear benefits to the students and provide revenue to the institutions, they also raise some issues and concerns about the “relative worth” of an M.S.W.

Keywords: administration, dual degree, education

Dual degree programs in schools of social work appear to be proliferating. Although the accrediting body for social work, The Council on Social Work Education, collects data on dual degree programs as part of the annual reporting process from schools, there are some questions about the reliability and comprehensiveness of these data. Clearly, an up-to-date and comprehensive database will be extremely valuable in the future not only for the purposes of counting but also to help cross-program contacts and conversations. Little information exists in the professional literature on the effectiveness, functions, and structures of dual degree social work programs. Available data tend to be simple counts and configurations of programs, and even here, what data are obtainable are best estimates. Some information can be garnered by browsing the Web sites of different schools and programs, but the information recorded is highly variable and understandably intended to “sell” the program.

There are, however, considerable differences in how these programs are administered and how they are defined. There is no formal or universal definition of what constitutes a dual degree program, and as a result different universities and programs appear to use language most consistent with the internal structures unique to the respective institutions. Thus, it is not uncommon for terms such as “joint degree,” “interdisciplinary program,” “collaborative degrees,” “cooperative degree,” and “side-by-side program” to be used synonymously to what is termed a “dual degree program” here. In fact, several schools record more than one of these types of programs. Some schools also list “certificate programs,” such as a certificate in gerontology, nonprofit management, or art therapy, as dual degree programs. Still other schools refer to a combined M.S.W. and Ph.D. program in social work or a combined B.S.W. and M.S.W. program as a dual degree program. Although there are commonalities among these programs, there are also some significant and important differences. To establish the parameters for this discussion, some definitional distinctions are provided here. The focus of this entry, however, will be on those entities defined as dual degree programs because they are the most predominant programs at the Master's level.

Joint degree programs: These are defined as programs that eventuate in the receipt of one degree, usually a Ph.D., for example, in social work and psychology or social work and sociology. The “joint” comes from the fact that the terminal degree is one degree, the Ph.D. Students in a joint degree program are admitted to both programs simultaneously; they take course work and examinations in both programs and presumably write a dissertation addressing overlapping content. Here, a joint degree is defined as being between social work and another discipline, not social work and another professional school. The rationale is that the terminal degrees in professional programs are sufficiently different from each other that one degree is impractical, for example, a J.D. (Juris Doctorate) and Ph.D., or an M.D. and Ph.D. Students in joint Ph.D. and social work programs typically acquire an M.S.W. degree in the process.

Interdisciplinary programs: These are defined as programs that eventuate in one degree and students take courses in social work and one or more disciplines or professional schools. However, unlike joint degree programs, students are admitted only into the social work program, but are required to take a defined number of credits in the cognate areas. For example, a student interested in juvenile justice will take the required course work in the social work program but may also take classes in a criminal justice program, as well as sociology and psychology. The required cognate course work is usually student-specific, may be across one or more disciplines or professions, and is guided by advising rather than discipline-specific programmatic requirements. Typically, such programs eventuate in a Ph.D. Students in interdisciplinary programs are unlikely to receive the integrated content in joint programs and may not acquire the same depth of knowledge and expertise as do discipline-specific students.

Certificate programs: Certificate programs are courses of study that eventuate in one degree, typically an M.S.W., and a certificate in an area of specialization such gerontology or school social work. The students are admitted to the social work program. An identified set of courses and field practicum are typically required for the certificate. The coursework and any practicum experience necessary for the certificate may be within the school or department, or it may be across schools and departments. Certificate programs are quite common, and allow students an opportunity to develop in-depth knowledge and expertise in a particular area of practice without necessarily extending the duration of study. Many states require certification for practicing in some contexts, such as schools, hence the popularity of, and often the need for, certificate programs.

Dual degree programs: These are defined as programs that eventuate in the receipt of two degrees, for example, an M.S.W. and J.D., or an M.S.W. and M.P.H. These are separate and distinct degrees, and the recipients may market themselves as having both a social work and a law degree or a social work and public health degree. To practice as a social worker, the individual will have to take the relevant licensing examinations in a given state, and the same holds true for passing the bar examination in that state in order to practice as a lawyer. Most important, an individual with a dual degree can practice in either one or both arenas.

The goal of dual degree programs is to allow students to acquire greater breadth, depth, and knowledge in two areas. The assumption would be that individuals thus trained would not only help themselves, but also help the profession better integrate and create a synergic relationship with the other professions and disciplines. Similarly, the corresponding profession or discipline presumably sees some value in having students trained in social work. It could also be argued that dually trained students may be in a position to provide better, or perhaps qualitatively different, services to clients. For example, Nelson-Becker (2005) found that students from an M.S.W. and Divinity dual degree program were more likely to ask clients about their religious views when compared with students having only an M.S.W.

All dual degree programs typically require admission to both units. However, some programs require simultaneous admission prior to matriculation, while others allow for entry into one or the other program during enrollment in one program. Still other programs may have separate admission procedures or application to the dual degree program as opposed to admission to each unit separately. For the most part, the different types of entry into dual degree programs are a function of diverse administrative structures and have little to do with the common goals of such programs.

Most of the dual degree programs are housed within one university. The programs are usually across distinctive schools, colleges, or departments, but they are all a part of the same institution. A few dual degree programs are coordinated across universities, and are sometimes referred to as “cooperative dual degrees.” For the most part, such cross-institutional enterprises are driven by functional needs, such as the availability of a particular degree and geographic proximity. There is likely to be considerable variation in the administrative structures and financial underpinnings among these different arrangements.

All dual degree programs seem to have the following common administrative characteristics:

  1. 1. They offer two degrees simultaneously.

  2. 2. They reduce the time needed to earn the two degrees, compared with independent enrollment in the two degree programs.

  3. 3. Students are admitted to both programs, thus having to meet the admission requirements of both programs.

  4. 4. Students take courses in both programs.

  5. 5. They count some subset of coursework typically toward both degrees.

  6. 6. They reduce the cost of education by virtue of a reduction in terms enrolled.

Dual Degree Programs: Types and Prevalence

The program information listed here are from a survey conducted by the National Association of Deans and Directors (NADD) in 2005. These data suggest the existence of a relatively large number of dual degree programs across a surprisingly wide array of schools. Table 1 presents the degrees offered.

In addition to the programs noted in Table 1, the NADD data also categorize a few programs that offer an M.S.W. degree and a doctoral degree as dual degree programs. For example, programs conferring an M.S.W. and a doctorate in education (Ed.D.), or an M.S.W. and a Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.), or those that allow students to acquire a Ph.D. in social work along with another discipline, were identified as dual degrees. These programs have been defined as “joint programs” here rather than “dual degree programs” because in the latter category, the student acquires two terminal degrees in two separate disciplines or professions at the same level, that is, a master's degree.

The data in Table 1 indicate the presence of many dual degree programs. The degrees range from professional schools such as law and divinity, to traditional disciplinary studies such as child development and sociology, to more recent developments such as bioethics and pan-African studies. The most widely cited dual degree programs are with law (M.S.W. and J.D.) and public health (M.S.W. and M.P.H.).

What is also of interest is that dual degree programs are offered by both large and small, and private and public universities. It is no surprise, perhaps, that large schools in large universities such as Columbia and the University of Michigan are able to offer dual degree programs. In fact, some of these larger schools offer multiple dual degree programs. On the other hand, it is interesting to note that a significant number of small private institutions also offer dual degree programs. A disproportionate number of these smaller programs are housed in universities with a religious affiliation (for example, Augsburg College or College of St. Catherine), and the dual degree programs are mostly with Master's degrees in theological studies, divinity, or pastoral counseling. However, a few of these smaller colleges also offer other dual degree programs such as law, and in a number of instances, this is the result of collaboration between institutions. For example, Springfield College offers a dual degree program in partnership with the Western

Table 1 List of Known Dual Degree Programs at the Master's Levela

Asian American Studies

M.S.W. or M.A.


M.S.W. or M.B.E. or M.A.


M.S.W. or M.B.A.

Child Development

M.S.W. or M.S. or M.A.

Child and Family Law

M.S.W. or M.J.

City and Regional Planning or City Planning

M.S.W. or M.A.

Criminology or Criminal Justice

M.S.W. or M.S. or M.A.


M.S.W. or M.Div.


M.S.W. or M.Ed. or Ed.M.


M.S.W. or M.S.

Government Administration

M.S.W. or M.G.A.

Human Communication

M.S.W. or M.A.

Information Science

M.S.W. or M.S.I.

Interdisciplinary Social Sciences

M.S.W. or M.S.

International Affairs or International Studies

M.S.W. or M.I.A. or M.A.

Jewish Studies

M.S.W. or M.A. or M.A.J.S.

Jewish Communal Service

M.S.W. or M.A. or M.A.J.C.S.


M.S.W. or J.D.

Marriage and Family

M.S.W. or M.S.

Nonprofit Organizations

M.S.W. or M.N.O.

Pan African Studies

M.S.W. or M.A.

Public Administration

M.S.W. or M.P.A. or M.S.

Public Health

M.S.W. or M.P.H.

Public Policy or Public Affairs

M.S.W. or M.P.P. or M.S. or M.P.A.


M.S.W. or M.A.

Special Education

M.S.W. or M.S.

Specialized Ministry

M.S.W. or M.A.S.M.

Theological Studies or Theology

M.S.W. or M.T.S.

Urban Planning or Urban and Regional Planning

M.S.W. or M.A. or M.U.P. or M.S.

Urban Affairs

M.S.W. or M.A.

Women's Studies or Women and Gender Studies

M.S.W. or M.A.

aThe data presented here are from the NADD Survey conducted in January 2005 and updated in May 2005.

New England School of Law. Such collaborations are not restricted to private institutions, as demonstrated by the dual degree program between Eastern Washington State University and Gonzaga University.

Clearly there are many dual degree programs, but there are no data on the size of these programs. One can only assume that the programs exist because of student and faculty interest. In discussing the value of dual degree engineering programs, Collison (1999) argues that small schools (in this instance, historically black colleges and universities) “may hold the key to significantly increasing the number of under-represented engineers” (p. 28). A parallel scenario may be evident in social work as well, where small schools partner with other schools and share intellectual and financial resources for the benefit of the students.

When Does a Dual Degree Program Make Sense for a Student?

If an individual has specific career goals that can best be accomplished by the receipt of two degrees, following a dual degree program will result in greater efficiency and less cost. Virtually all institutions that offer dual degree programs emphasize the fact that you get the benefits of two degrees for one less year (typically). A student interested in child welfare and law may find it valuable to pursue an M.S.W. along with J.D., which should theoretically provide a broader set of skills with which to advocate for children and families. Or a student whose primary interests lie in working within the Jewish community may want to consider a dual degree with Jewish studies or Jewish communal services. A reasonable assumption is that individuals with dual degrees may not only have broader job options but also have greater access to and acceptance into organizations and benefits of each.

Since the primary consumer of a given unit's academic product is the “home” student, that is the M.S.W. student, course offerings and activities will be geared to their needs, not those of the dual degree student. To the extent that this view is accurate, students in dual degree programs may need to have a higher degree of flexibility in time and be very well organized. As such, dual degree programs may work best for fulltime students. While many programs allow for part-time enrollment, the associated costs are often higher and the program itself longer, thus offsetting to some extent the inherent benefits. Although virtually all dual degree programs allow double counting of credits, thereby reducing the time in the program, it would be incorrect to infer that different standards apply. Programs expect a candidate to meet the requirements of both programs. It is also true that the entrance requirements for an M.S.W. program will be quite different from those of the partner school, such as the requirements for a particular GRE score or even the requirement of the GRE itself.

When Should a School Offer a Dual Degree Program?

For an institution or school considering the installation of a dual degree program, the most immediate questions pertain to the determination of the need for such a program and the availability of adequate resources. Here the issues range from salary differentials to job options, and considerable legwork will need to be done in order to justify the development of a new program. In the long run, the marketability of dual degree graduates will impact the existence of the program. If the external environment is positive, then internal institutional factors come into play, such as needed curricular changes, cross-disciplinary connections, faculty buy in, financial resources, and administrative structures. Administrators should be prepared to deal with philosophical differences about purpose as well as differences in admission requirements and standards (Whiddon, 1990). For example, there could be significant professional value conflicts as well as considerable differences in existing codes of ethics. In those instances where interuniversity collaborations are needed, the requisite groundwork necessary will likely take longer and is likely to be more difficult. For the most part, the issues that present themselves are surmountable challenges, but challenges nonetheless.

Do Dual Degree Programs Add Value or Diminish the Profession?

If there is public professional controversy about the value of dual degree programs, it is certainly not evident in the professional literature. The working assumption is that dual degrees add value to the M.S.W. It is indeed impossible to argue that a student's intellectual curiosity and professional goals should somehow be stymied by petty discourse on diminishing the “inherent” value of an M.S.W. It is, however, a nagging concern—or is it?

If an M.S.W. program offers a concentration in social policy, the assumption is that a graduate would be employable as a policy analyst. Presumably, so would a student receiving a Master's in public policy (M.P.P.). The job market may entertain both degrees as “equal players” (with an emphasis on may), and this would depend on the organization, its activities, and its administrators. While bias and perception may also play a role in a hiring decision of this type, the presence of a dual degree candidate is much more likely to make the point moot. What we do not know is whether the M.S.W. enhances the value of the M.P.P. or whether the M.P.P. adds value to the M.S.W. From the perspective of the individual, it does not matter. But, from the perspective of the profession, it may.

The discussion that is not occurring, but should be, involves the “why” of the apparent proliferation of dual degree programs. Is the current social environment so complex that a single Master's degree will no longer suffice? Is the offering of dual degrees merely a market strategy to increase enrollment? Are dual degrees a result of financial restructuring within universities? Are dual degrees a reaction to a marketplace where M.S.W.s are losing ground to those with other degrees? Who is initiating the dual degree; is it social work or is it the other profession? Are dual degrees the best answer to a changing environment or do we need to reconsider curricular content?

It is in the best interest of the professions and the academic environment to have an open discourse. Perhaps the M.S.W. is simply not enough in an increasingly complicated world; perhaps the expectations of what an M.S.W. is capable of doing exceed the realities of practice; and perhaps the academe and the profession are slowly undermining the strength and value of the M.S.W. by allocating more resources to dual degrees—a worthy discussion and debate for the profession and academia.


Collison, M. N. K. (1999). The power of partnerships. Black issues in higher education. 16, 26–29.Find this resource:

    National Association of Deans and Directors. (2005). Dual degree program survey. Alexandria, VA: Council on Social Work Education.Find this resource:

      Nelson-Becker, H. B. (2005). Does a dual degree make a difference in social work: An empirical study. Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Social Work: Social Thought, 24, 111–124.Find this resource:

        Whiddon, S. (1990). Graduate dual preparation programs in business and sport management. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, 61, 96–98.Find this resource: