UW News

September 30, 2015

Ballmers’ support for UW School of Social Work reaches $32 million

News and Information

The Ballmers' gift will help provide scholarships for students in the UW Master of Social Work program.

The Ballmers’ gift will help provide scholarships for students in the UW Master of Social Work program.Mel Curtis

The University of Washington will help more social work graduate students pay for their studies and start their careers without staggering debt loads, thanks to significant support from Connie and Steve Ballmer.

The Ballmers’ contributions include a new gift of $20 million, bringing the couple’s support for the UW School of Social Work to $32 million over the past five years. The funding is part of the early stages of the university’s fundraising campaign, expected to be announced next fall.

About $10 million of the new gift will be used for scholarships for graduate students, with the remainder going to various innovative initiatives at the UW School of Social Work. The scholarships will be a powerful force to help recruit, educate and retain social workers in the state of Washington, Dean Edwina (Eddie) Uehara said.

“This is going to change the lives of our students in profound ways,” said Uehara, the Ballmer Endowed Dean in Social Work. “We will be able to help students who need it and attract the brightest and best to the University of Washington. We are profoundly grateful to the Ballmers for their support.”

Graduates of the UW’s top-ranked Master of Social Work program work in areas ranging from healthy aging and child welfare to medical social work, mental health, youth development and community and policy development. These are vitally important to the health and well-being of society’s most vulnerable populations.

“The School of Social Work is a valuable resource to our community that is educating a new generation of social workers — unsung heroes in our community,” Connie Ballmer said. “The work they do is absolutely critical, but the compensation they receive is often relatively low. Through this support, we can reduce the amount of debt that social work graduates face and make the field financially viable for them.”

The UW is a major provider of social workers in Washington, with some 75 percent of its social work graduate students remaining in the state to work after college. But those students typically finish their studies with more than $37,000 in debt, on top of undergraduate debt. Almost half have dependents to support, and many rely on high-interest private loans to pay for tuition and expenses.

With a median annual salary of $41,000 for social workers in Washington, the debt-to-salary ratio can become untenable, prompting many social workers to leave the field for more lucrative careers and deterring some from pursuing a social work graduate degree at all, particularly students from diverse and economically disadvantaged communities.

The Ballmers’ gift will help students like Denise Gallegos, who graduated from the UW Master of Social Work program in 2014 and received a scholarship that covered a full year of her education. Gallegos said the support allowed her to participate in additional projects and classes she wouldn’t have had time for if she needed to work during the school year. She facilitated a group for parents of sexually abused children, mentored other students and participated in study groups.

Gallegos is now a clinical social worker focused on mental health treatment, and said the scholarship enabled her to graduate with a small amount of debt and work in her field, rather than having to make pay the top priority.

“Words are inadequate to express what a difference the scholarship has meant to me personally and professionally, as a Latina working to share a diverse voice while implementing the values of clinical social work in mental health treatment,” she said.

This past academic year, the UW School of Social Work provided $1.7 million in financial assistance to students. The Ballmer gift will more than double the school’s current philanthropic support. Scholarships will be given based on financial need and may cover tuition, fees and related educational expenses.

The Ballmers’ prior support for the UW School of Social Work established the nation’s first endowed deanship in social work at a public university and supported pioneering initiatives in the child welfare system in Washington state.

Uehara said the Ballmers’ gift has the potential to transform not just students’ lives, but also Washington’s social service sector. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects 15.1 percent employment growth for child and family social workers between 2012 and 2022, according to U.S. News & World Report, and this projection translates to roughly 43,100 new social worker positions to fill.

“The demand for social workers is tremendous, especially in the rapidly growing and increasingly diverse Puget Sound region,” Uehara said. “This gift will transform our ability to prepare highly gifted students to lead, innovate and serve in local and global communities.”