NAU, OpusVi launch affordable online master’s degree in social work

Man with gray hair speaking to students sitting around the edges of a classroom

Demand for social workers in the United States is growing fast—yet the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) predicts that the profession will face a shortfall of thousands of full-time employees in the next year.  

Northern Arizona University and the healthcare organization OpusVi are stepping in with a solution to this critical problem: An affordable, online, part-time and accredited Master of Social Work (MSW) program with an emphasis in healthcare, launching in August. 

The degree is the latest addition to NAU’s longstanding MSW programs, which aim to create social workers who will drive positive change in diverse communities. For decades, the university has built a strong reputation for preparing social workers to engage with Native American, Latine, rural and other historically marginalized populations in the Southwest and beyond.

“Offering this accessible and affordable MSW option in partnership with OpusVi drives our mission of empowering social work professionals in their journeys of commitment and dedication to the service of others forward,” said Michael McCarthy, chair and associate professor of social work at NAU. “We know the widespread influence social work professionals have on their communities, and we’re honored to take part in improving social health across the country.”

Partnering with the healthcare workforce development organization OpusVi, formerly known as Dignity Health Global Education, not only allows NAU to offer an engaging, high-quality, flexible educational program that’s suitable for students who are balancing school with full-time work, it also allows the university to keep costs low: Tuition for the accredited degree program is less than $24,000, a fraction of the average MSW cost.

“With this MSW program, we are working to build an ecosystem of talent support to enhance quality and continuity of care, increase social work retention rates and minimize overall costs for health systems,” said Andrew Malley, chief executive officer of OpusVi. “Social workers are vital to the health of our communities, small and large, and we’re proud to support these efforts by providing individuals with a more affordable and accessible opportunity to expand their skillsets, build their confidence and advance in their careers.”

This is the third time NAU has created an online degree program alongside OpusVi. The two entities have previously launched an online Master of Science in Nursing and an MBA in Healthcare. 

Addressing a shortfall 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for social workers will grow 7% by 2032, outpacing most professions. But due to the field’s relatively high educational requirements, lack of funding and incentives for workers in rural areas, high professional demands and a looming retirement wave, a shortage of social workers is coming soon. Federal statistics show that social work and other behavioral health occupations will face a shortfall of more than 10,000 full-time employees by 2025.

Already, the shortage is affecting the most vulnerable American communities. In many rural areas, hospital systems that don’t have a large enough pool of social workers with master’s degrees often need to hire social workers who don’t have advanced degrees. But those who only hold bachelor’s degrees may lack crucial expertise, especially in the healthcare sector: they often don’t have experience with clinical assessments, crisis intervention and patient advocacy. 

NAU’s online MSW degree aims to address that experience gap. The program gives students the skills they need to advocate for patients in rural, vulnerable and underserved communities through specific case studies, theoretical perspectives and a curriculum that emphasizes cultural competence. 

“We recognize how crucial social workers are in addressing patients’ complex psychosocial needs, supporting patients and families during difficult times, navigating the healthcare continuum for patients and advocating for systemic changes,” said Josh Brewster, system director of social work and vulnerable populations at CommonSpirit Health, the organization that oversees Dignity Health centers and several other hospitals in the West. “This program will positively impact patient care at CommonSpirit Health; it will advance the social work profession in underserved areas; and I look forward to seeing our hardworking social workers advance professionally.”

The MSW degree is awarded by NAU, which is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission. The program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. 

Applications to the online MSW program are due by July 31. The first cohort will begin on Aug. 26. For more information, visit the OpusVi website and register for the upcoming webinar on Thursday, May 2 at 3 p.m. 

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Jill Kimball | NAU Communications
(928) 523-2282 |

NAU Communications