The University of Iowa School of Social Work is noted for "paving the way" in providing programs to serve the entire state through distance education, part-time programs to facilitate the education of employed social workers, the professionalization of undergraduate social work education, and the origination of in-home family preservation services. This history dates back to 1913. In that year The University of Iowa Extension Division, motivated by the Grinnell social survey, organized the Bureau of Social Welfare. The Bureau undertook a study of the social problems of the state, suggested remedies, and supervised, on a voluntary basis, the work of the county social workers as the "Iowa Plan" was adopted by counties across the state. The benefits of having trained social workers became apparent to Iowa county officials as a result and the need for social work education became increasingly critical. Summer courses were first made available in 1913, and in 1929 the School of Social Welfare Administration, directed by Professor Emil Sunley, was established in the College of Commerce. It awarded the BA in social welfare from 1934 to 1941.

Fern Crawley, the first UI SSW graduate
Fern Crawley

In the early 1930s, Agnes McCreery was the head social worker at the University Psychopathic Hospital, having come to Iowa from Smith College with a Masters of Social Work. Several bachelor level students did their field placements at the hospital and became interested in doing advanced training. Agnes pulled together a course of study for them from different University units. A Masters Degree in Psychiatric Social Work from this program was awarded to Fern Crawley in the summer of 1934.

Due to these efforts, an MA in social work was accredited during the 1939-1940 academic year. Known today as the "Old School," the Iowa School of Social Work was funded by the federal government to provide trained staff for Depression relief programs. Dean Carl Seashore was highly supportive of the School and appointed Professor Grace Ferguson as its first instructor. County social workers, as part-time students, commuted on Tuesday to classes in Iowa City from Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Muscatine, and then worked on Saturdays to repay the time to the Board of Supervisors. This was certainly one of the first part-time programs in the country!

The Old School was closed in 1941 as the Depression ended and World War II began. During the war years, social workers strove to make their communities aware of the need for social work education. As a result of these appeals, the Iowa Legislature appropriated funds for a School of Social Work in 1947.

The present school, the "New School," was established during the 1949-1950 academic year in the College of Liberal Arts, with six faculty and two staff under the director of Professor Wayne Vasey. There were 25 students enrolled and the first MSW degrees were awarded to 15 students in 1951. This new master's program was accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) that same year and has been continually accredited by them since then.

The School began offering a few courses open to undergraduates who planned to work in public welfare or who were planning to apply to the Master's program in the mid-1950's. The undergraduate major in social work became available in 1962. As a result of efforts to recognize BA level practitioners in the National Association of Social Workers in the late 60s, the Council on Social Work, which only accredited Master's level programs at that time, recognized the need to regulate undergraduate curriculum. It began recognizing constituent members in 1970, and offered approved status in 1971 and full accreditation in 1974. The UI BA program has been continually recognized and accredited since CSWE began this process. The University of Iowa's first major was overseen by Frank Glick, who recruited and hired H. Wayne Johnson in 1965 to be the first BA Program Coordinator. Professor Johnson remained the Coordinator for 34 years. The University of Iowa lead the way in developing BA level social work education and accreditation through his leadership.

The UI PhD program is the only Social Work doctoral program in the State of Iowa. It admitted the first cohort of students in 1998, and graduated its first PhD in 2004.