What makes a school a degree mill?

I should be doing my metadata final right now but I have this BURNING question in my head, that I want to have clarified. In light of reading Will Manley’s post about the value of the MLIS, I have to ask myself, what schools are the “degree mills”? I have found a paradox of people not trying to rip on the online schools, but then complaining about “degree mills”. Is every school a degree mill in this case? Is it every school with lax admission practices? Probably. I had even posed this question to my fellow HackLibSchool editors and while we are all familiar with the term, they weren’t sure what actual schools are considered a degree mill. I am curious to hear what others have to say about this.

I am also reposting my comment on Will’s blog here. He really set up a great conversation, just by asking reader’s questions.

My Response: 

I am going to jump off librabbie’s comment here because I am at the other IU campus and from what I read, our programs are very different. We technically have the same degree but my campus is very focused on practical experience, but some of us would like more of the information science classes that Bloomington offers.
Anyway, LIS education is a topic that is very dear to me, and as a current student, I have put a lot of thought into what kind of program I wanted. On to the questions!

#1: Should graduate library schools make an effort to restrict their enrollment to the prevailing job market?

Yes I think it would really help to have standards for good applicants. I had considered one program, but all they asked for was $50, filling out an application, and maybe your transcripts. No letters of recommendation, no personal statement…how exactly were they going to determine if you were a good fit? That application process alone told me that this would not be a good school for me. It made me pre-judge the quality of the program because if they don’t care who joins the program, why do they care about what they teach? Of course, now that I look back, I see that I could have been wrong, maybe the school produces strong graduates.

Context #2: Are graduate library schools distancing themselves from the public library market by becoming too ivory towered in their approach to training future practitioners?

At IU, the core classes are very traditional and geared towards the traditional library roles. We all have to take reference and library management. Like some of the other commenters mentioned, most students have a lot of electives so they can gear their courses towards what area of librarianship they want to go into. I have a few friends interested in public libraries and youth services, so they have signed up for courses that reflect those interest. I am lucky because my program does offer classes that cater to academic, public, and school libraries.

Context #3: Why have graduate library schools not forged closer ties with working libraries and focused their research on projects that can actually have practical value for libraries?

Again, I feel fortunate that my school is located downtown, near many great libraries who welcome SLIS students. Almost every semester I have at least one class that has us talk to professionals in the field, or shadow them to get an idea of what a librarian does day to day. This is actually very valuable to someone like me who has limited practical experience. I also think that seeking out mentors in the field is another valuable way for someone to supplement their degree.

What disheartens me is reading comments from professionals in forums like this, who say that taking on volunteers or mentors takes up too much work and they simply don’t have the time. If you look around, you’ll see plenty of people complaining about the state of LIS education, of the divide between the practical and theoretical, but what will YOU do to change that? It’s easy to sit around and say “This degree is useless.” If people really feel that way, then we all need to do something about it. (Disclaimer: I write over at HackLibSchool and these are very important issues to us)

Context #4: Because on-line education is now the dominant delivery approach for graduate library school is too much emphasis being placed on the library as an on-line data center accessed from the homes of patrons?

I think the physical space is still important. I know that I see lots of people using computers at the public library, not everyone has access to the online data center. Of course, if your school is online…that’s another story.

Does graduate library school have any real value anymore other than as a place that issues union cards?

In a way, I would say yes, it’s like a union card but I honestly feel like my MLS is so much more than that. It has put me in contact with librarians and library students across the country. I have gotten some really great practical experience from my program and I have made a great group of friends/future colleagues. I truly believe that library school is what you make of it. I know people who skirt by with the minimum and those who are obsessive. It’s really up to you what you want out of this degree. I most likely wouldn’t have been able to even get my foot in the door in terms of jobs at a library without this degree, and when I step in, I know I will be thoroughly prepared. I think it’s just as important to learn the theory, as it is to learn the practical.

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3 thoughts on “What makes a school a degree mill?

  1. Annie, great post. I agree completely that the value of an MLS degree is exactly what you put into it–it’s no surprise that HLS writers have found jobs, they’ve proven themselves to be engaged professionals.

    However, it is a little disheartening when, at the end of the day, someone like you and me will have the same credentials on our job applications as those who simply skirted by. What can employers do to ensure that they’re getting the “cream of the crop” so to speak? Perhaps if employment standards became more rigourous (not only requiring the degree, for example, but also some amount of engagement with the profession) the degree would be “worth more”.

    Thanks for your thoughtful post!

    • I know what you mean, but I think by being more engaged, you have more to show/put on your resume. For example, I have a section on my resume called “Professional Service” and I list my student group position, HLS, and a conference planning committee I am going to be a part of. Plus, adding volunteer and job experience really helps round out the resume. I just hope that kind of stuff shows through.

  2. High5 Annie for tackling the ‘value of an MLS’ question. I believe as Library Information Professionals it is our duty to constantly promote and advocate our VALUES. What happens if the ‘system’ is down- do patrons know how to search the stacks or how to evaluate a source? Whether a person takes class on-line or at the campus, should not be a big issue. I believe it’s how you build upon that degree. Are you writing or contributing to the profession? How are you building your skill set after your degree? The information/library profession is larger than we give ourselves credit.

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