A Contract You Have to Take: Debt, Sacrifice, and the Library Degree
How bad is the student loan crisis for librarians?
Most of this text is drawn from my paper, which will be published in the book Advances in Librarianship Volume 44, Re-Envisioning the MLIS: Perspectives on the Future of Library and Information Science Education from Emerald Group Publishing. The title comes from an interview with David Graeber, discussed in depth in the full paper. My sincerest thanks to Brett Bonfield, Mandy Goodsett, Monica Maceli, Emily Morton-Owens, and Lindsay C. Sarin for months of discussion and as always, thanks to Jenna Freedman for being my friend and mentor and the reason I am a librarian. The full paper can be found on Archive.org.
Last March, I ran a research study on librarians and the graduate loan crisis in conjunction with an ongoing working group on transforming library education. I tried to keep the study controlled to a few small listservs, expecting a few hundred responses to a survey and maybe a few interviews.
Instead, the survey went viral around the library world. I received 1,630 qualified responses to the survey. 497 participants initially volunteered to be interviewed, and in the end I conducted 32 twenty minute interviews and received 38 written long answer responses.
It turns out librarians really want to talk about their debt.
The responses to the survey were simultaneously infuriating and surprisingly inspiring. I spoke with librarians who held $100,000 of debt at the end of their education, even with scholarships, and still never doubted their career choice. I learned that many librarians were driving across the state for unpaid internships for credit just for experience, that employers were lying about hours worked to assist paraprofessionals who worked and received their degrees simultaneously, and I learned that almost no one could remember compassionate, honest loan counseling from their institutions.
Most of all, I learned that nearly no one has escaped the graduate degree unscathed by debt. Nearly half of all participants who took out more than $25,000 in debt graduated in the last five years. (I capped the upper level of debt in the survey at $25,000 and one participant took to Twitter to complain that it was not even close to the debt burden that she and her colleagues carried.)
The national student loan debt is $1.3 trillion and rising, comprising 10% of the total national debt. The cost of education is the fastest rising cost in the country, and students keep borrowing at rapid rates, graduating with an average undergraduate debt of $30,000 in most of the country (Student Loan Debt and Housing Report, 2015).
Undergraduate debt is surely a burden, but reports show that America’s student debt problem may have more to do with expensive graduate degrees than undergraduate degrees (Delisle, 2014). While college tuition costs are slowing, the cost of the graduate degree has been consistently on the rise as more credentialed students enter the workforce, graduating with massive sums of crippling debt. 40% of the national student loan debt is estimated to finance graduate degrees and the masters of science degree comprises 18% of total borrowing with a median number of $50,400. These numbers are steadily rising, up nearly 30% since 2004.
The percentage of masters of science within this median debt range is up to 60%. The number of students borrowing more than $40,000 for their masters and undergraduate degrees more than doubled between 2003–2012. In addition, three quarters of all graduate degrees are masters degrees, and though graduate students make up only 14% of the total student population, 34% of total student loan amounts go to graduate education (College Board. “Cumulative Debt for Undergraduate and Graduate Studies over Time,” 2012). For students who have borrowed more than $120,000, up to 80% of their total debt is usually due to graduate studies, and across the board for students with any debt, the vast majority of it can be expected to be due to their graduate education (College Board. “Composition of Cumulative Undergraduate and Graduate Debt of 2011–2012 Graduate Students,” 2012).
Enter the Masters of Library Science (MLS), that stalwart piece of paper that affixes the all-important three letters to the end of nearly 5500 names per year (Bonfield, 2012). While administrators consider the issues with the degree to be in its content, (“Let’s teach all the librarians to code!”) my work explores how graduate institutions can assist their students by restructuring their programs to help students locate better financial aid and find more success in jobs that help them pay off their debt.
The MLS is currently considered an impassable gatekeeper within the profession; without the degree, library workers are stuck in limbo as paraprofessionals or otherwise underpaid and undervalued. Many participants in the survey conducted for this paper described this feeling as a Catch-22, claiming, “I can’t get the job without the degree, and I can’t get the degree without the sacrifice.” Indeed, survey respondents echoed the state of the field, and while nearly 95% of respondents were employed, many were part time.
However, I found a surprising amount of hope among the librarians I spoke to in 32 interviews, and many of the less debt-afflicted repeatedly described themselves as “lucky.” Most librarians loved their jobs, and described their work as meaningful and important. Survey data reported that while student debt appeared to be on the rise, the state of debt in library science degrees is possibly not as grim as the self-selecting group of qualitative interviewees would lead me to believe. Perhaps most surprisingly, much of the data from the survey appeared to echo the findings of other quantitative studies I found, in particular the New America Foundation’s 2014 report, with overall debt burdens and concerns hitting their peak from 2012–2016 and decreasing slightly among matriculated students.
Though total debt burdens appear to be decreasing, the degree likely acts as a barrier that keeps marginalized voices out, and these interviews are indicative of that barrier: Out of nearly seventy qualitative interviews, all but three people identified as white. The AFLCIO’s Department of Professional Employees reports that 26% of all library technicians and assistants are estimated to be people of color, as opposed to 14% of all professional librarians. Only 6–8% of library assistants and technicians have masters degrees as opposed to nearly 55% of librarians (AFLCIO, 2016). Using this data, the degree’s inaccessibility and cost can be recast as a threat to the diversity of the profession as a whole.
In short, the current degree structure, culture of underpaid labor, and overpriced pathways to a professional career are a bureaucratic slap in the face to anyone who dreams of becoming an information professional. And as professionals, we need to do better. As one interviewee wrote,
I don’t know what the solution to our problem is. But I do know that what we are doing is morally wrong — tying people to tens of thousands of dollars in debt when we can’t expect that they will be able to find full-time employment in the field.
While my initial reaction to many of the stories I encountered in my research caused a radical, Lutherian, anti-capitalist stirring in my soul, I will not be nailing 95 theses to the doors of any library school. Instead, my recommendations focus on manageable actions that institutions and workplaces can take to support their students, from providing up-to-date findable loan information to encouraging more pathways to paraprofessional success.
Summary of findings and factor analysis
Year completed graduate school: Increased tuition does not equal increased aid
81.2% of graduates before 2000 had under $5000 in student loan debt when they began their graduate education. By the current day, 31.8% of MLS students report over $15,000 in student loan debt. This number rises consistently over time, though 51.1% of current students still report holding under $5,000 in undergraduate loans.
More current students are also, unsurprisingly, borrowing far more than other generations of librarians. Only 1% of students borrowed over $25,000 in loans before 2000, whereas 26.6% of students report that amount of borrowing today. The percentage of Unsubsidized Stafford and Graduate Plus loans is also shooting up, comprising more than 50% of today’s borrowing, as contrasted with approximately 30% before 2000. In addition, the percentages of students receiving either partial or full financial aid has not increased significantly, despite exponential increases in the price of education. 42.5% of respondents report receiving no financial aid from their institutions, down from 53.2% before 2000. The number of students receiving full financial aid has stayed steady, around 9–11%.
Another number that has risen significantly is the number of students doing internships for credit. While the numbers of students doing paid or unpaid internships is relatively steady, credit internships are on the rise, up to 40.4% between 2012–2016. Hearteningly, more students are working in their graduate institutions, up to 57.6% among current graduates.
From 2004 onward, over 60% of students do not expect to pay off their loans within five years.
Age: Older students borrowing less, taking longer in programs tailored to their needs
Although older students are more likely to spend more time in graduate school, they are also borrowing less than 22–26 year olds, with 47% reporting fewer than $5,000 in graduate loans, contrasted with 31.6% of 22–26 year olds. Older students are also more likely to be work sponsored, or sponsored by other means, like the GI Bill or a spouse.
In addition, older students are more likely to work outside of their institutions and less likely to do a graduate internship for credit, with 44.5% claiming they did no graduate internships, contrasted with 35.7% of 22–26 year olds.
While data on the types of loans that students take out appears to be roughly equivalent, nearly 34.5% of students over 35 report taking out no loans, contrasted with approximately 20% of all students 22–34. Older students also appear far more likely to do distance education, with respondents split roughly in half, possibly due to life choices and previous work obligations. Older students are also far more likely to work a job outside of their graduate institution, with nearly 61.4% of respondents reporting jobs outside, contrasted with approximately 50% of younger students.
Students with high loan debt: New graduates unlikely to pay off their loans soon
This survey proved that new students are taking out more loans than ever before, with nearly half of all respondents (45.7%) who took out more than $25,000 in loans graduating within the last four years. These students are also three times more likely to be employed part time, at 15.3%, and skew toward the younger side. Interestingly, students who attend longer are not necessarily borrowing more: only 11.2% of all students borrowing over $25,000 attended school for six semesters or more, and the majority of students appear to rack up this much debt in 3–5 semesters, at 62.6%. In addition, students with high debt loads are predominantly full-time students, and nearly 40% were in state. Nearly half of all students with high debt loads had never worked in a library. More than half (53%) took out Unsubsidized Stafford Loans, but interestingly, the percentage who received financial aid did not increase, remaining roughly level with the averages of all students.
Nearly 63.1% of students with a high debt burden did not receive a graduate fellowship, though the majority (over 80%) worked a job while attending graduate school. 90.7% of all students with high debt burdens do not expect to pay off their loans within five years of working in the field.
Students with high undergraduate debt: A divided loan burden
Like students with high graduate debt, students with high undergraduate debt tend to be younger, more recent graduates. Students with high undergraduate debt appear to be slightly more likely to attend a state school with in-state tuition, at 57.9%. They also appear more likely to take out higher loan debts for graduate school, with 44.3% reporting that they took out more than $25,000 in graduate loan debt. Although students with high undergraduate loan debt report taking out higher loans, they also appear less inclined to take out loans in general, taking out fewer, larger loans instead. Surprisingly, students with high overall loan burdens from undergraduate and graduate school feel more confident in their ability to pay off their graduate loans in the first five years of working.
These students are more likely to have worked in a library, with nearly 60% reporting yes. Possibly for this reason, they are also slightly more likely to receive a fellowship during graduate school, with 46% of respondents claiming that they had received one.
I used to recommend the field of librarianship to others… UNTIL the cost of Library School went over $10,000, this was about 2001. After 2001, I started talking people OUT of considering becoming a librarian.
The approximately seventy questionnaires and interviews provided an in-depth look at satisfaction, debt, and struggle within the profession. Information professionals appear, by and large, to feel that they are “called” to their work. As one participant stated,
I am happy I went only because I needed the degree to even attempt a professional career in my field… I do not regret going even though I am working part-time, because I don’t know what else I would be doing for a career.
Few described struggling with the decision to attend library school, and nearly all rate their job satisfaction around an eight out of ten, with ten being the highest. The question of whether the debt was worth the degree was a near non-issue because there are nearly no other pathways to becoming full-time librarians.
However, professionals uniformly agree that the cost of the degree is too high for the pay rate after completion. In addition, nearly all interviewees emphasized the role of work experience in their graduate experience. Many asserted that the primary indicator of success in the degree was work experience, and that theory-heavy classes were not useful to them as professionals. Most also claimed that the classes in the first year that taught highly practical skills like reference interviews, collection development, or cataloging were the most helpful to them. Due to a combination of professional work and practical classes, most students claimed to feel prepared for their careers when they left school, though nearly all emphasized it was the “real world experience” that prepared them.
Most students with high loan burdens reported delaying important life milestones like purchasing a car or home. One librarian, who reported increasing her earnings by 250% after receiving her degree wrote that she thinks about loans,
Every. Damn. Day. I always wanted to own a house and have some land. At my current rate, that will happen when I am 85.
Several other librarians reported struggling with the decision to purchase a car, even though it would make it easier to get to work, and still others claimed that high loan burdens caused them to delay other life decisions like purchasing a home, getting married, or having children while working with low salaries and high loan burdens. A recent graduate reported,
I fall into that millennial statistic of holding off on doing a lot of things in my life, like I don’t feel like I can have children because I have tens of thousands of dollars of debt. I don’t necessarily think that the degree was worth that much, but I don’t think it’s my fault, I think it’s the system’s fault. In order to do the thing that is my calling, I was wired to do this degree.
Perhaps in large part because so many librarians appear to feel called to their work, the vast majority of respondents rated their happiness with their decision to attend library school between a seven and an eight out of ten with ten being the highest. Although students were marginally pleased with their decision to attend library school, a general refrain among high borrowers was that the cost of the degree was not reflected in library salaries. In 2015, Library Journal reported that the average library salary differed by type of library, but only private industry libraries exceeded the overall average salary of around $48,000/year (Allard, 2015). As one participant asserted,
I’m happy I went, but wish the experience had been more focused on job placement. Technological skills… are probably most useful since they are highly transferrable.
Another participant with a background in the arts working as an adjunct librarian said,
I feel cheated because I thought the MLIS degree could lead to a stable position… It was just so expensive, I feel I did not learn for my money’s worth, and I am still not in a stable position… I have not made a dent in my loans (80K), still work as an adjunct librarian, and was not prepared by library school for the academic market… I am not sure how school or public track would even begin to allow me to pay off my loans either, judging from the salaries in my region. The price is simply too high for the degree based on what librarians eventually earn.
Whether or not students are pleased with the quality of their studies, the current degree structure shuts out all students who cannot commit large amounts of time and significant amounts of funds to their studies. Nearly no student interviewed reported that they believed that they would pay off their loans within the first five years, and many of the respondents derisively laughed at the question.
A general tenor of helplessness and self-blame pervade the interviews as if massive loans are a natural and necessary fact of the profession, one that every library professional must silently burden. They enjoy the work, but realize that their job came at an extreme personal cost, a decision that they could shoulder for the rest of their lives.
This section will focus on scenarios that could transform the MLS into a revolutionary program that supports a changing profession. The quotes below each recommendation come from qualitative interviews and are meant to be illustrative of each recommendation.
Better financing information and counseling for students
“They offer loan counseling, I think, but I didn’t know about it until last week, but that’s because I happened to be in the right place. It seemed more for undergrads.”
“I feel no affinity towards my school. There was so much out there and they never informed me about any of it.”
Many of the qualitative interviewees discussed a general inability to figure out how they would finance the degree from one semester to the next. As schools try to attract qualified students from out of state, it is a leap of faith for students to move across the country without knowing whether their degrees would be partially or fully funded or whether they would find work as a student. While library schools cannot usually control whether or not students earn on-campus positions, they can at least provide accurate information to students about the kinds of jobs and tuition remission programs available so they can begin to research and apply for them before they are on campus.
In addition, several interviewees claimed to not know about scholarships or fellowships they qualified for due to universities’ inability to point them to useful information. One respondent claimed that their school told them to research scholarships as a way to hone their research skills. Other institutional complaints included the sentiment that students “did not know what they were getting themselves into” in terms of a dwindling, low paying job market with high amounts of debt. Several felt that their institution was intentionally obfuscating information as a means of exerting control over their finances.
While institutions will probably not lower their prices in the near future, they can at least alleviate some of the pressure by providing complete, timely, and honest information in centralized databases to their students in order to help them pay for school. Library school financing is very often institutionally dependent. While national databases exists, library schools should assist their students in finding suitable jobs and scholarships as well as provide compassionate counseling to help students make informed decisions on loans and scholarships.
Shorter, more flexible degree programs
“I quit my job to go back to school. I wanted to get through it quickly so I only worked part time. Loans financed not only the tuition but paid my other bills…”
“There seemed to be a lot of repetition in our classes, we were learning a lot of the same thing. It’s a lot of on the job learning. The last semester was very different from the first semester — first semester was classes, and the last was an internship.”
Many qualitative interviews discussed the difficulties of attending school full time while working full time. Even for online students, a full-time course load with a full-time job is a difficult schedule to maintain.
For non-traditional students, two years and significant loans are often not an option. By providing more short, flexible, inexpensive, low to no residency degree programs, library schools could attract a more diverse group of students. These programs would focus on short, practical skills that could be learned in short bursts so as to get students into the field as quickly as possible to try different positions in libraries.
Other professions, such as computer programming, have adopted this self-directed course model to great effect, and there is no reason why the Masters of Library Science cannot adopt a similar model. Another successful program model is the Georgia Tech Online Master of Science in Computer Science, which allows students to flexibly complete their degrees for approximately $7,000. This diverse program is possible due to public/private partnerships with the school (Udacity and AT&T), which MLS programs would be perfectly situated to similarly take advantage of (Fenton, 2016).
“I worked the summer in between my two years and my last semester at the archives at the school. Everything else was internships that were unpaid for credit. Looking at all the job descriptions after I graduated, they’re real life skills that you have to have, like customer service and having 1–2 years of experience, and library school didn’t give that to us. Because my experience was in archives, in public or academic library jobs it’s hard to see how those jobs fit in a customer service or reference. I got the background, but not enough experience.”
“I think insuring that everyone has an assistantship (that wants one) would be a great way of making sure everyone is prepared.”
Students should not be taking out significant loan debt while working within their chosen field. The rise of the “credit” internship means that a number of students are paying their institution to work within their chosen field with nearly no faculty supervision and low to no payment. Library schools should reflect this reality while supporting students to explore various careers. One option would be one year of classes with a second year of paid internships in the field. This option would significantly lower the cost of school and provide students valuable work experience.
More pathways for a paraprofessional to professional track
“We have to stop standing by while everything is deprofessionalized — or, we have to admit that most libraries can run with paraprofessional staff, and we stop making people get a piece of paper for tens of thousands of dollars to let them join our club.”
Most qualitative interviews claimed that the greatest metric of success as a librarian was working in a library before attending library school. According to the ALA’s own numbers from 2004, paraprofessionals make up an estimated 50% of all library workers (Hernandez 2004). There is no clear pathway to professional librarianship from paraprofessional positions, and many paraprofessionals confided during interviews that they felt they would need to leave their institutions, even after receiving the degree, for higher salary attainment. Underpaying paraprofessionals and forcing them to eventually receive an expensive degree after years of service is unethical and undermining to the profession. As most qualitative interviews asserted that the best way to become a librarian is to work in a library, library schools and institutions should support paraprofessionals through grants, work-assistantships, tuition remission, and the opportunity to attend classes during work hours.
In addition, providing better pathways to paraprofessional success is a key indicator of increased diversity in the field due to a more diverse support staff that already exists within libraries. While a few paraprofessional scholarships exist, these kinds of programs need to be vastly expanded for a more diverse workforce.
Expand public service loan forgiveness programs
“I knew about the public service loan forgiveness program, as well as the income based repayment programs so I was never too concerned about my ability to handle my debt. I do take personal debt very seriously but felt reassured by the availability of the loan repayment programs… I don’t know what I would have done if I had private loans!”
“I still had debt from undergrad, $40,000 and $50,000 from grad school. I started out with $90,000. Because I’m paying on an income-based repayment schedule and have paid $12,000, I have more than I started with, like $119,000. It’s a little frightening that I can make all these payments and still have more loans than I started with”
“I am happy that I worked toward a MLS. I would have preferred to do so with less debt. The benefit of moving forward along a career path is worth the cost. That being said, having loan forgiveness greatly helps my outlook.”
A surprisingly high number of qualitative interviews brought up the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which forgives debt after 120 on-time, consecutive payments on consolidated direct loans. Currently, the program is not capped, provided that loans were paid after October 2007 and consolidated (FSA Loan Programs Fact Sheet, n.d.). The public service loan forgiveness program expands to all libraries, both academic and public, so an expanded public service loan forgiveness program would provide more pathways for loan repayment for a significant amount of librarians.
Library professional organizations should take an active role in advocating and lobbying for an expanded definition of the public service loan forgiveness program. As advocacy organizations, their voices matter in the fight for more student debt forgiveness and they represent a significant number of public service workers.
The library degree is too expensive, but its expense is also endemic of a variety of societal ills, from the student loan crisis to wage and job stagnation to the devaluing of skilled technical labor to historic devaluation of women’s labor to degree inflation. In addition, the research shows that the state of the field, while difficult to enter, has not always had this level of debt and gatekeeping, with student loans beginning to spike around 2012.
While most argue to change the content of the degree to teach more “practical” or “technical” skills, the problem appears to be in the degree itself. Library workers are content, but many are beholden to their loans at a rapidly and terrifyingly increasing rate. Graduate spending is outpacing undergraduate spending, and the degree needs to be reconsidered in order to keep up with the economic precarity of the current day.
What the recommendations in this chapter comprise, primarily, is an increased ethic of care within the library community. The concept of the “ethic of care” as introduced by Amelia Abreu in her talk “Towards an Ethics of Care” posits that jobs, economies, and educational institutions beg the question: “Aside from market assigned values of products and services, do organizations do a good job in treating people fairly, or do they leave certain folks behind, either systematically or anecdotally (Abreu 2016)?” By operating according to the ALA’s own code of ethics, “We strive for excellence in the profession by maintaining and enhancing our own knowledge and skills, by encouraging the professional development of co-workers, and by fostering the aspirations of potential members of the profession (ALA 2008),” we must advocate for an ethics of care that includes all potential colleagues, not just those who can make the sacrifice for the degree. The MLS should not be a contract you have to take — it should be a promise for a more fulfilled career, and it is up to us to make it so.