Saving Money with a Second Master’s

Editor’s note: this post was originally published on November 22, 2018.

In past installments, I’ve shown you how to test your job marketability with a deferred enrollment and how to cheat on the language skills section of your résumé. Today, we will do something even more counterintuitive—we will save money by getting more degrees.

We’ve all seen the daunting ads that move candidates with a second master’s to the front of the line. Sometimes the reasons are obvious, as in academic positions requiring a subject specialist. In other cases, the preference can seem almost entirely arbitrary, accepting a second advanced degree in any field as an equivalent to a certain amount of job experience, for example, or simply as an indication of overall ability to understand and meet researchers’ needs. That there is real value in the library job market to having a second master’s few would dispute. The trouble is that, in most cases, there isn’t enough value in it to justify the $20,000 or $30,000 price tag of the average US master’s degree.

In a few cases, though, you can obtain your second master’s for much less and thereby bring your return-on-investment up into positive territory. We’ll go over three of these options and then consider how, if you haven’t done your MLIS yet or are doing it part-time, you might actually save money not just over other ways of getting second master’s, but over getting the MLIS alone.

Option 1: Flee the Country

US prices for higher education are not normal. Not even remotely. Even just going to Canada can shave thousands of dollars off tuition and the same applies to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India… Throw a dart at a globe and you have good odds of hitting a country where the tuition charged to international students is lower than the tuition charged to in-state residents at the average American state university. In some countries, such as Germany, master’s students study for free. In most of these cases, however, you are left on your own for living expenses and, as a full-time student, have either limited or no rights to work in the host country, which can negate the tuition advantages, depending on your circumstance.

An exception to this is for doctoral programs in Scandinavia, where Ph.D. studentships are treated as a form of university employment and come with salaries. This is somewhat like the rest of Europe and North America (and elsewhere) when graduate or research assistantships include stipends, but Scandinavia’s salary model is both more generous and more stable. That goes somewhat beyond the scope of a second master’s, of course, but it can be a very cost-effective way to add a subject-area credential.

Option 2: Convince Someone That You’re a Genius

While not as lucrative as a Scandinavian studentship, stipended assistantships can make all the difference. While these are much more common for doctoral study than for a master’s, fully-funded master’s programs in a wide variety of fields do exist; it just generally takes a bit more digging to find them. If you’re in a position to continue (or go back to) living on ramen, it can pay to ask around within your field.

Option 3: Check the Bargain Bin

Besides library job ads asking for a second master’s, the other thing we’ve all seen is ads from online colleges promising to issue degrees dirt cheap. Most of us have learned that something that seems too good to be true probably is and we spam filter all these promises away. Every once in a while, however, something that glitters actually is gold. There are legitimate, extremely cheap online degree programs, if you know how to tell the sheep from the goats.

In the US, everything is about accreditations. Every library school student (or prospective library school student) is familiar with ALA accreditation. This is one of many cases where a powerfully influential professional organization sets standards for programs in its field and those standards come to be regarded as a gold standard insisted on by employers. A library degree that is not ALA-accredited has almost zero chance of getting you a library job. This kind of accreditation (called programmatic accreditation), however, has no legal significance. An MLIS lacking ALA accreditation will not be accepted by employers who specifically ask for ALA accreditation (which is basically all of them), but it is still a legitimate master’s degree for all other purposes as long as it is either regionally or nationally accredited.

These terms refer to a very specific set of organizations and institutional consortia (called accreditors) that evaluate the standards of institutes of higher education and advise the US Department of Education (DoE) on the quality of schools. There are seven regional accreditors recognized by the DoE (the ALA requires an LIS program to be located in a school accredited by one of these bodies before it will issue its accreditation for the program). Compared to national accreditation, regional accreditation is the older system and the more prestigious. One will sometimes see requirements for admissions to graduate programs, for example, that specify that a degree from a regionally accredited institution is required. This is extremely rare in job ads, however, which almost always ask simply for a degree from an accredited institution.

This is to leave the door open to degrees from schools that are served by a national accreditor, rather than a regional one. This is a newer system and established academics sometimes turn their noses up at it because it is associated especially with for-profit schools, technical colleges, trade schools, and similar institutions. It is also, however, commonly used by online schools (which often run into trouble with the standards of regional accreditation that may specify, for example, details of the physical spaces of a school’s library) and by schools run by nonprofits and others on shoestring budgets (because the fees involved in national accreditation are more modest). The key part is that as long as a national accrediting agency is recognized by the DoE, degrees issued by the schools it accredits are legally equivalent to degrees issued by regionally accredited programs. (In fact, foreign institutions often assume that nationally accredited degrees are more prestigious, because in most other countries the national accreditation system is considered higher-level than the regional ones operated by states or provinces.)

A degree from a nationally accredited institution—which can often be much cheaper than from a regionally accredited one—can thus be a really smart manoeuvre in the right circumstances. One survey, for example, determined that the average cost of an online MBA from a nationally accredited school was less than half the cost of an online MBA from a regionally accredited one. You have to be aware, though, that degrees from nationally accredited schools will sometimes not be accepted as preparation for further degree work (this is at the discretion of the graduate school you may be applying to), so if you are looking at a master’s to be a stepping stone to a Ph.D. (not generally a concern for MBA students), you might want to stick with a regionally accredited school. If you are working at an academic institution, a degree from a nationally accredited school is also not going to count for much in the way of water cooler bragging rights, so if one of your primary aims is to lobby for faculty status, it might not be your best choice. On the other hand, if you are simply looking to show specialized knowledge in a particular domain or even just to check off the right box on the job application (which may have its box-checking arbitrated by computer before any human ever sees any part of it), it might be just the thing.

You have to be sure the agency is recognized by the DoE, however. So-called “degree mills” often list all kinds of “accreditations” they have, but that doesn’t guarantee that they are legally recognized. Some of those accreditors may be programmatic, as mentioned before. Some may be unrecognized by the DoE. Some may be dummy organizations set up by the school itself. Some may be legitimate, but they don’t actually accredit the school that claims to be accredited by them. Always check directly with the accreditor a school claims to be recognized by to make sure the school is really on their lists, and then also check directly with the DoE to make sure that the accreditor is recognized. The forums at DegreeInfo can be a great help in finding reputable programs as well.

More Credits for Less Cash

If you already have your library degree (or almost already have it), the tips above can help you add that second degree for the least additional expense. If you haven’t done your library degree yet, or are chipping away at it part time, you can use these tricks to save money overall. The average online MBA mentioned above costs about $12,000, but many master’s degrees online can cost less. One of my own almae matres, Nations University, charges a flat tuition of $360 per academic quarter. Someone completing a master’s there over a leisurely two years would spend $2880 plus some assorted fees.

Now consider that many MLIS programs—like my current one at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee (UWM)—allow up to six credits from a prior master’s to be applied toward their total credit requirement. At UWM, which offers a generously cheap flat tuition of $800 per credit for online students, those six credits are worth $4800—tuition I didn’t have to pay because I already had a degree that cost $2000 less than that for the whole degree. In my case, a second master’s ended up being a net savings.

Even some of the cheaper regionally accredited schools have online programs that, depending on how fast you complete and how high your future MLIS tuition is going to be, could still be cheaper than the six credits you won’t have to take.

The Moral of the Story

Adding a second master’s to your résumé or CV doesn’t have to bury you in (more) debt and, in the right circumstances, it can actually make your route to a library degree more affordable. You might need to have a little flexibility about what you study, but if you didn’t like reading large books on random subjects you wouldn’t be looking at librarianship now, would you?

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