Career Strategies for Librarians
Paying for Graduate School
by Chrissie Anderson Peters

When I was approached about writing an article about paying for graduate school, I was incredibly
excited about the opportunity to do so. I admit up front that my case is not typical, but I managed to get my
MSIS without any student loans at all, accumulating no additional educational debt (which was nice,
since I was still paying for my BA education when I started the MSIS, even though seven years had
passed). This article discusses a variety of ways that those who might be contemplating returning to
school – or those already enrolled in a master’s program – can reduce the cost of their graduate
educations. Some of the options suggested can be utilized by everyone, but most target “nontraditional”
students, since that is my personal experience. Hopefully everyone interested in the topic will find
something that may be of assistance.

Nontraditional Students

Paying for graduate school can be a challenge at any age, but it can be especially difficult for people
returning for a second master’s degree or those who are getting their first master’s degree at a later
age. These students are typically considered “nontraditional” students, and their plight is an interesting

Most graduate programs do not recognize or cater to the financial aid needs of someone starting a
master’s program as a part-time student, a scenario that many of us must choose in order to continue
living the lives we have already committed to (e.g., family obligations, job situations, etc.). In my own
experience, the University of Tennessee’s graduate school had rules prohibiting anyone working a full-
time job (which I was) from also being a full-time student (which I was, but only for two of the seven
semesters I worked on my degree). However, the same graduate school did not offer financial aid
opportunities for anyone not registered as a full-time graduate student. So those of us working full-time
while trying to earn our master’s degrees were caught in a sort of limbo – a limbo that almost totally
excluded financial aid options, and certainly anything short of a student loan. Despite circumstances like
these, nontraditional students should not abandon hope of finding financial aid somewhere.  

On-the-Job Assistance

Since most nontraditional students are employed at least part-time, one place to begin looking for
financial aid is in your workplace. Especially if you already work in a library/information setting, you could
already be spending valuable time with one of your potential “benefactors” each day. During the early
part of my MSIS, I worked in two different public libraries. One had a deal by which the library agreed to
pay for your education in return for your agreement to work there for a specified amount of time after
completing the degree. Many public library systems offer such assistance. No, it is not without strings,
but if you really want to get your master’s degree, it is a feasible option to consider. The second public
library that I worked for during that time didn’t pay for classes, but did allow you part of the workday to
complete homework and projects. They also paid for professional association memberships – a benefit
not to be taken lightly (as explained further in “Professional Memberships” below).  

My current employer, an academic library, is in a community college that is part of the Tennessee Board
of Regents (TBR) system. Every TBR employee – library or otherwise – is encouraged to continue his or
her education and can take one class per semester at any TBR school, or at a University of Tennessee
institution. In other words, once I started working at Northeast State Community College (about halfway
through my degree), I could take one class per semester for free and be reimbursed for a second after
my grades had been reported. Many academic institutions offer free classes, either at their own
institution or, in the case of a system like TBR, in another program in that system. It might take longer to
complete a degree if you go one course per semester, but you will complete the degree without a
devastating dollar sign hanging over your head in the form of a student loan.

Other work-related options to investigate include scholarships/loans from Friends of the Library groups.
Many public libraries have Friends groups that are eager to assist library employees with continuing-
education endeavors. Even if your library does not currently offer such a program, it might be worthwhile
to discuss beginning such a program with your Friends group. This may be a program that they would
be enthusiastic about, but haven’t thought of on their own. You could help pioneer something to help
yourself and others who come after you to get advanced degrees!

Professional Memberships and Financial Aid

Almost every professional organization offers some sort of scholarship/financial aid opportunities to their
members. Rules and requirements vary greatly from association to association, but don’t be shy about
asking, especially if it is an organization in which you have been involved for some time. A scholarship
program may exist that you simply have not heard about. Email officers or executive directors and ask

In my own situation, I had worked for a number of years in various library positions when I began
applying to graduate programs. I worked in a library system that paid my membership dues to our state
library association in Virginia (VLA). After a few years of membership, I became involved with presenting
programs at annual conferences. These were positive experiences that allowed me to get to know more
people and also paid part of my conference costs. I was one of two VLA scholarship recipients in 2000
and earned a scholarship of $2000. My work as a librarian and my work within the association made me
more of a contender for the scholarship by demonstrating my dedication to VLA as well as my
professional potential.  

Another scholarship that I received was sponsored by what began as a regional consortium in
Southwestern Virginia (SWING – Southwestern Virginia Information Network Group). I had worked for
SWING libraries since 1993, but found out by overhearing someone else who was planning to apply for it
that SWING offered a $1000 scholarship annually, for up to four people.  

The third scholarship I won in 2000 was also the one that most surprised me. The American Library
Association (ALA) has numerous divisions, round tables, etc. dedicated to various aspects of
librarianship, and most have established some sort of scholarship program. Additionally, ALA offers
awards like the Spectrum Scholarships. Many people – including lots of people already working in the
profession – tend to minimize what ALA can do (and does) for its members. I joined ALA in the spring of
2000, as I was still applying to graduate schools. The ALA scholarship applications were time-
consuming – you had to complete several copies of most of them – but I hoped that I had as much of a
chance as anyone else. Coming from a youth services background, I joined the Association for Library
Service to Children (ALSC), Young Adults Library Services Association (YALSA), and New Members
Round Table (NMRT). Note that student dues to ALA are very affordable, even to those who don’t make
large salaries – and these dues should be viewed as an investment in your future profession. By joining
ALA and these particular sections/round tables, I became eligible to apply for their scholarships (NMRT
doesn’t offer scholarships, but I quickly learned that they do have some excellent opportunities for
members to attend conferences at little or no cost). In May 2000, I learned that I had been selected as a
recipient of ALSC’s Bound to Stay Bound Scholarship, a $6000 scholarship for those wanting to pursue
a career in children’s librarianship. I had been selected from over 1000 applicants from the United
States and Canada. Again, my experiences in library work and in professional organizations had given
me a great edge in what I understand was some very stiff competition.

Thus, my advice to all who are embarking upon a master’s program is to join at least your state library
association and become active in it as soon as possible. Even if you do not apply for or receive its
scholarships/financial aid, you can really begin to build your professional experiences in this arena, and
those experiences look great when you look to future avenues of career-building activities and jobs.
Personally (and professionally), I also encourage membership in ALA, especially while you are eligible
for student dues.  

Location, Location, Location

Sometimes, where you live can be a great financial boost in terms of paying for your master’s degree.
For example, when I lived in Virginia, there were no ALA-accredited MLS programs in the state. Because
of this, I could pay in-state tuition at several great programs in other states through something called the
Academic Common Market, a program sponsored by the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB).
The New England Board of Higher Education offers a similar program (Regional Student Program or
RSP), and other regions have similar programs. So, if your home state does not offer an ALA-accredited
MLS program, be sure to contact your regional higher education board to learn more about programs
like these. It may not pay for a program completely, but cutting out-of-state costs to match those of in-
state students is definitely a step in the right direction!

Changes in Attitude

Some MLS programs are beginning to realize the value of nontraditional students in their programs and
are creating some financial aid opportunities for them. The University of Tennessee’s School of
Information Sciences, for example, now offers some scholarships exclusively to its distance education
(DE) students, most of whom are employed at least part-time in libraries/information centers. This
opportunity did not exist when I completed the program in December 2002, so I set about establishing
another scholarship (called the Pioneer Award) that is specifically for DE students. It is only a $500 per
year scholarship, but even that amount can be helpful in the long run.  

Some Other Avenues to Explore

Some other options to investigate exist that you may not have thought of. Many civic organizations such
as Rotary Club, Kiwanis, PEO Sisterhood, Freemasons, etc.,offer scholarships that are awarded to
deserving members who are trying to further their educations. Sometimes these organizations will open
such awards to nonmembers (in which case, winning one would likely lead to encouragement to join the
organization). When I was applying for financial aid, I had a member of our library’s Friends group
contact me about applying for a scholarship sponsored by the PEO Sisterhood. I had never heard of the
organization, but was flattered that she thought me worthy of applying. I didn’t get the scholarship, but
someone somewhere did.  

You Can’t Win If You Don’t Play

Frequently, I hear people talk about how nice it would be to win the lottery. I’m not encouraging everyone
to go out and play the lottery today, but I will also say this: you can’t win if you don’t play. Whether or not
you apply for any of the scholarships offered by professional or civic organizations is up to you. Applying
for scholarships can be time-consuming, but most of us have already learned from experience that
nothing worth having comes without some sort of cost. If a few hours of supplying information about
yourself and your professional experience and goals can result in even $500, that is a pretty nice payoff.
In a case like mine, the payoff was $9000 in scholarship money – and then some free courses as part of
the benefits package with my current employer. Paperwork is a part of life, regardless of what profession
you pursue. Make the most of it and get involved with some professional associations which allow you to
apply for financial assistance and/or conference-attendance assistance. Someone has to be selected –
give the people responsible for selecting the recipients every reason to make it you!

About the Author:

Chrissie Anderson Peters is a graduate of the University of Tennessee, where she was a distance
education student. A member of the Tennessee Library Association, Boone Tree Library Association,
and the American Library Association (ALSC and NMRT), she is a librarian for Northeast State
Community College in Blountville, TN. Her passions include writing, music, reading, traveling, her
"children" (the feline kind -- Mel, Reid, Xander, Willow, Ella, Lance, Sophie, and Mariel), and spending as
much time as possible with her wonderful husband Russell, who makes her life a joy each day.
Chrissie is also a Future Director in the Pampered Chef and enjoys growing her business in addition to
building on her library career.

Article published Feb 2007

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