Can I Afford this Degree?

I’ve wanted to write on this topic for a long time, but kept putting it off. (There’s so many variables! Talking about money is weird and awkward!) What finally prompted me to knuckle down and do it was Anne Helen Petersen’s reporting on master’s degrees (and the accompanying Twitter threads and comments).

Articles two and three talk about, specifically, public service degrees like library science, education, and social work, and the debt that goes with them. Petersen gives the example of a social worker told that with a bachelor’s in social work, she’d make $25,000 a year, but with an MSW, she’d make $45,000.

In library work, we’re told something similar (or are already living it). I worked part-time at a public library for four years, and in that four-year period, discovered I really liked the work and would probably like to make it my career. My boss told me I should consider going to library school and getting my master’s. But I’d just come out of four years of getting my undergraduate degree, and still had the loans to pay off from that program. I wasn’t interested in taking on more debt. (I also wasn’t real keen on doing homework again, or going back to reading books I was assigned to read, rather than picking books up just for fun. But those were secondary reasons to the money thing.) I don’t think I’m alone in this. I don’t know anyone who says, ‘Ah, student loan debt! I love it! Please give me more!’

Eventually, obviously, I changed my mind. (Here I am, writing for a blog about MLIS students!) I have a full-time library job now (in a different system and, indeed, type of library), but, well, let’s be honest, librarians make more money than I do. And I would like to make more money.

It can feel almost ungrateful to talk about it in these terms. I’m not complaining about my job, per se, or even my salary. And it’s not even entirely about the money (although it is, largely, about the money). I’ve simply advanced as far as I can in my current career. There are no more steps – higher level title, higher pay rate, more annual vacation hours – for me to take without becoming a librarian, and for that, I need a master’s degree.

If I was closer to retirement, I probably wouldn’t worry about it too much. Most days, I like my job. I’d be happy to keep it into perpetuity. (I also recognize what a privilege this is, that I’m not trying to escape from a job I hate.) But I’m also going to need to keep working for another 30 or so years before I can retire. So I did some math.

At a community college local to me, adjunct nonteaching faculty (a.k.a. librarians and counselors) make an hourly rate of $45.56. (I’m in Southern California; take this with a grain of salt for anywhere with a lower cost of living.) SJSU iSchool, where I attend, charges $474 per unit and requires 43 units to graduate, erego, $20,382 plus textbooks. Even if, after graduation, the only librarian job I can find is a shift doing a few hours of reference work a week as an adjunct librarian, I could break even after about five years. ($45.56 x 3 hours a week x 32 weeks a year [two 16-week semesters] x 5 years = $21,868.80.)

Where this math gets tricky is when you’re also trying to factor in interest on student loans. But wait, you say, isn’t there a way to get your student loans forgiven? Well, sort of. For those of us hoping to work for public institutions (public libraries, public schools, community colleges), there is PSLF. PSLF, however, has its own issues. When the first wave of graduates passed their ten-year mark and started applying for forgiveness, it became rather famous (or maybe that’s infamous?) for only approving 1% – now all the way up to 2.4%! – of applicants.

The ALA (and other organizations) have called on the Department of Education to assist those having trouble with their PSLF approval, and maybe, by the time we graduate, the system will be up and running and free of mismanagement. But that’s still a pretty Indiana Jones-sized leap of faith we’re expected to take – take out federal student loans now, find a full-time public service job, get on an income-driven repayment plan, make 120 payments, and…cross our fingers that PSLF will be there to catch us at the end?

Whether you’re paying for library school out of pocket, taking out loans, or some combination of both, obviously the ideal is to spend as little as possible. PSLF and other loan forgiveness programs can be one way to do that, but so can choosing your program wisely. Emily touched on it here (and so did this earlier article), but the upshot is, you’re going to need to do your own math and work out whether you can go in-state (and if that even matters to your program), need to move, or can do a program fully online. Look at cost per unit and number of units needed to graduate (when making comparisons, you’ll also have to account for the fact that some schools are on semester systems and others are quarter-track). If you’re really getting into the spreadsheet life, you can even look at current exchange rates to see if attending an ALA-accredited school in Canada (or in the U.S., if you’re Canadian) will save you any money. Is this all wildly confusing? Yes! But it might save you thousands of dollars in the long run.

(You’ll notice I’m not really touching on grants or scholarships here. Yes, they exist, and you should absolutely avail yourself of them if you can. Check your school, check the ALA, check your local and state library associations, and check at your place of work. [Mine offers a $425 tuition reimbursement every fiscal year for employees attending grad school. It’s not a lot (for me it’s less than the cost of a one-unit class), but it certainly doesn’t hurt.] But these are more helpful-if-you-can-get-them sort of things, not something you should count on or choose a program based on. Also, applying for scholarships can be a lot of work, time, and effort, for both you and [as they usually require references] your professors and coworkers.)

Of course, tuition isn’t the only thing you’re going to be spending money on in grad school. Application fees, GRE fees, and textbooks all add up. Before you even begin, take the time to really do some digging online and get as clear a picture as you can of the average salary you can expect (hope) to make in your area once you graduate. People choose librarianship for lots of reasons, but making six-figure salaries usually isn’t one of them (although that can happen, sometimes, for some people, eventually). Compare this to how much you expect to pay, total, for the two or three or *cough* six years it’s going to take you to complete the degree. I’m certainly not here to try to talk anyone out of grad school – I’m in it, and decided that the math for me made sense, given how much of my working career I still have left – but it’s important to know what you’re signing up for. And, if you do end up deciding to put grad school off, or at least wait a while, remember you’re not alone.

Lauren is Associate Editor of Hack Library School and a second-year student in the MLIS program at San José State University. She is focusing her studies on academic librarianship and instruction and really misses going out to the movies. You can find her on Twitter @darthbookworm3.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Categories: Finances

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3 replies

  1. This is very clear and sensible. Do try for scholarships. Most state library associations give several and many of us in the field contribute to our state scholarships. Also assistantships can be often done remote and provide tuition remission. Some libraries provide tuition scholarships for staff. Some universities provide tuition remission for staff (mine does). There is no single way to describe the opportunities and they are different everywhere, but support does exist if you focus. REFORMA and BCALA give scholarships. There is the ALA SPECTRUM scholarship program. Textbook affordability programs can ease the way. Make sure your university participates.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. If you are fortunate enough to work for a university that has an MLIS program, many universities allow you to do additional degrees there at no cost, and some universities will pay for 1 class a semester at another institution if theirs does not offer the program a staff member wants (I used to work at Harvard, which has no MLIS program, but they paid for several of my staff to take classes). I also used to work at a CUNY (City University of New York) campus, and we were allowed to take classes at no cost at ANY of the CUNY campuses, and there were darn few programs that CUNY did not offer. Yes, you had to travel all the way to Queens College, and from other boroughs, that could be a schlep, but several people who worked for me did it. Free education can be a huge boon. I had my degree by the time I got there, but I also got mine in Canada, and thus did not have to deal with the GRE. My program didn’t request it. I am now at an institution that does not have an MLIS program, and doesn’t pay for staff to attend elsewhere, but I have worked with my staff to help pay some tuition costs. It doesn’t hurt to ask your library director.

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