March 18, 2018

ALA Accountability and Accreditation of LIS Programs | Backtalk

Michael Kelley’s April 29, 2013, editorial, “Can We Talk About the MLS?,” and the 157 comments posted to that article so far prompted us to consider accountability for the American Library Association’s (ALA) accreditation of graduate programs in library and information science. We first turned to ALA’s Standards for Accreditation [PDF]:

“Accreditation assures the educational community, the general public, and other agencies or organizations that an institution or program (a) has clearly defined and educationally appropriate objectives expressed as student learning outcomes, (b) maintains conditions under which achievement of objectives can reasonably be expected, (c) is in fact accomplishing objectives substantially, and (d) can be expected to continue to do so. Accreditation serves as a mechanism for quality assessment and quality enhancement with quality defined as the effective utilization of resources to achieve appropriate educational objectives and student learning outcomes.”

Citizens expect that medical and law schools meet academic and professional standards and that their graduates are qualified to serve the public with knowledge and skill. This concept of accountability is now spreading at the state level where public colleges and universities are being required to report on student-centered indicators such as graduation and retention rates to qualify for full funding. The National Council of State Legislatures provides information on how states have allocated funding for higher education institutions based on performance indicators.

The ALA Standards emphasize what programs must accomplish in terms of strategic planning and student learning outcomes. ALA does not dictate what those outcomes should be nor does it specify any particular courses that must be offered in an MLIS program. So, what does it mean to be a graduate of an ALA-accredited program? Past competency debates offered philosophical positions that could not be tested without nationally based comprehensive examinations to certify library and information professionals.

Each MLIS program determines its own strategic planning goals and its own student learning outcomes. This approach protects the academic freedom of the faculty to test new ideas and create new methodologies. Nonetheless, the Standards are clear about what they are expected to accomplish:

“Within the context of these Standards each program is judged on the degree to which it attains its objectives. In accord with the mission of the school, clearly defined, publicly stated, and regularly reviewed program goals and objectives form the essential frame of reference for meaningful external and internal evaluation. The evaluation of program goals and objectives involves those served: students, faculty, employers, alumni, and other constituents.”

But this approach does not necessarily meet the intent of the Standards in providing a coherent and consistent body of knowledge to be mastered by MLIS graduates.

“…the curriculum provides … for the study of theory, principles, practice, and values necessary for the provision of service in libraries and information agencies and in other contexts.” [Standards, p. 9]

Under the current Standards, the 63 accredited programs at 58 institutions define their curricular objectives and course offerings independent of each other. The individual LIS programs define acceptable student learning outcomes at the local level combining course outcomes into program outcomes. However, ALA does not then combine the program outcomes.

If the program outcomes were merged and evaluated then ALA could report on the common knowledge skills needed by library and information professionals across all accredited programs. This, in turn, could define what it means to be an ALA-accredited graduate. At the next step, if the graduate obtains a professional position and performs satisfactorily then this gives credibility to the program’s accreditation and ALA’s articulation of nationally based library and information professional outcomes.

ALA’s Committee on Accreditation (COA) uses three means to evaluate programs:

  1. Program Presentations, in which the school measures itself against the Standards in a self-study;
  2. External Review Panel reports, in which a visiting review team measures the school and its program presentation against the Standards; and,
  3. Program annual statistical and biennial narrative reports monitored by COA over time.

It is not our intent to change the first two of these processes, and we propose that public accountability would be improved if Program Presentations and External Review Panel reports be made freely available. However, we do challenge the kinds of data collected and evaluated to improve accountability.

The Association for Library and Information Science Education (ALISE) has systematically collected MLIS program and statistical information from ALA-accredited institutions since 1980. COA has lent its name to this ALISE effort since COA uses a small portion of the collected data in its review of MLIS programs. The data used by COA includes three general areas: faculty numbers; student enrollment with degrees given, including diversity; and income/expenditures. Recently, the ALA Office of Accreditation’s PRISM report identified these data elements.

Trend data is useful in assessing program changes over time to assess consistency. Significant changes in program resources might be questioned. We propose adding statistical information to provide for transparency in interpreting program trends to provide additional evidence of public accountability. Institutional and program data are often used for three purposes to compare an MLIS program to: (1) a specific standard; (2) another program; and (3) itself from one year to the next.

Currently, COA uses the third objective above in its reliance on trend data over time for each program. But public accountability might, for example, uncover the need for prospective students to compare one program’s graduation or placement rate with another program.

The accreditation of a program also provides a de facto benchmark for other programs. The current Standards may lead to devolution in quality because indicators are established locally without reference to any national benchmarks. It is in the interests of ALA and COA to have its Standards linked to identifiable data that is respected and valued by member institutions, prospective students, alumni of programs, and the general public.

Individual program statistics are now available on the ALA website, but it is our assessment that the measures fall short of providing a meaningful picture of a program’s adherence to the Standards. The movement toward increased public accountability of institutions of higher education allows students and the general public to have right-to-know factual data about the programs accredited by organizations such as ALA. The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) currently reports by college its default rate on student loans. Even campus crime statistics are publicly available.

COA can expect that measures of accountability will increase in the future, and it would be productive to address those now rather than later. We offer new indicators to provide a better picture of an MLIS programs’ ability to meet the intent of the current Standards, which state:

“Prospective students, employers recruiting professional staff, and the general public concerned about the quality of library and information services have the right to know whether a given program of education is of good standing. By identifying those programs meeting recognized Standards, the Committee offers a means of quality control in the professional staffing of library and information services.”

Public accountability measures can initially focus on indicators of interest to prospective students and employers. These might include:

  1. Applicants to the MLIS program: number applied, admitted, rejected, enrolled
  2. Qualification for admission for those enrolled: average GRE, TOEFL, and undergraduate GPA; percent holding other graduate degrees and percent waived from meeting each admission criterion
  3. Number and percent of: (a) students enrolled exclusively in campus, online, and hybrid courses; (b) courses offered as campus, online, and hybrid courses
  4. Number and percent of matriculated students who graduate (retention)
  5. Average student time in months to completion of master’s degree
  6. Percent graduating in 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, or more years
  7. Placement: number and percent of graduates who report full-time employment within one year of receiving master’s degree and average length of time it takes to obtain full-time employment
  8. Average number of students per course section for campus, online, and hybrid courses
  9. Average number of students taught by full-time faculty members and part-time faculty members per section
  10. Percent of students taught by full-time faculty members and part-time faculty members

It is important that the statistics collected provide some indication of the academic rigor or quality of the program. At this time, the Standards are liminal, providing only a threshold that must be reached, and not aspirational. According to the Standards, quality is defined as “the effective utilization of resources to achieve appropriate educational objectives and student learning outcomes.”

Academic preparedness is difficult to assess, and major universities often rely on standardized test scores as an indicator of academic rigor in the admissions process. GRE and TOEFL test scores are indicators of success in graduate school and the Educational Testing Service (ETS) produces reports depicting the relationship between GRE scores and performance in graduate programs.

Not all ALA master’s programs require standardized test scores for admission, which could place them at a disadvantage when compared to the business, law, and academic programs in their universities. A number of universities appear to have allowed their LIS departments to eliminate the GRE requirement from MLIS applicants, and this may suggest that these programs have changed their standards for this requirement. The validity of the GRE as an unbiased and strong predictor of success for graduate students is firmly established beyond ETS, and it might appear to the general public that the dropping of this requirement is related to concern over the admission of those with low scores. For example, one ALA-accredited program informs applicants they do not need to submit GRE scores, letters of recommendation, an essay, or a résumé since the program does not consider them in the MLIS admissions process.

Prospective students and the general public should be informed of how admission decisions are made based on past student performance and other indicators. Availability of retention and placement data are also matters of public concern for professional degree programs. There is tremendous diversity in the design and structure of MLIS programs across universities. There are programs with over 2,000 students and those with fewer than 100 students. Some are totally online and others only offer instruction on campus. Some might be regarded as library centric and others may be information focused.

These differences among accredited MLIS programs can be significant but each must adhere to the same set of ALA Standards if they wish to have their program accredited. We endorse such diversity but also note that the student experience at such different programs may need to be captured and shared since MLIS graduates receive the same accredited degree. It might be productive for ALA to sponsor social media opportunities where students can publicly share their experiences applying to and attending accredited programs. This information could enhance the public’s understanding of the quality of individual programs. Recent reactions in the blog appended to Kelley’s LJ editorial suggest that students have a variety of views about the value of earning an MLIS degree and its prospective value in seeking gainful employment.


Our proposal for change does not address other potential indicators. These might include the need for a critical mass of faculty to cover knowledge in LIS, measures of faculty scholarly productivity, tenureability, measures of institutional support for faculty, and adequate program administration. We hope that others might suggest ways to improve accountability for ALA-accredited MLIS programs.

Some programs require students to create portfolios to demonstrate student learning outcomes achieved across courses to include intern positions. The portfolios can also be shared with prospective employers. Assuming the employers have the time to review the portfolios of applicants, it shifts the burden of review from relying on the reputation of the program and university attended to scrutiny of the course work of the applicant. Our recommendations are to suggest that certain markers are important in distinguishing one MLIS program from another and that employers might favor graduates of a program with known indicators of quality.

Of paramount importance is the availability of consistent, reliable, transparent data. We are advancing a position to expand that data to include additional indicators. These statistical indicators, the Program Presentation, and the External Review Panel Report should be available on ALA’s website as a central source the public can refer to when seeking information about accredited MLIS programs.

Photo: Perspective: Lecture hall, Attribution License

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  1. Drexelgrad says:

    I deeply regret attending library school;

    I tell everyone I can, do not do it;

    I have been working as a librarian, but soon realized the prospect of having a good life is not possible; low pay, and no prospect of a future…

    If you have any idea about going, and don’t mind 30K in debt, then…find a globe, spin it, and using your finger, find a geographic location…go ahead and do this multiple times, so you arrive at a livable place…whatever that place is, buy a backpack, hop on a plane and walk through that continent…write, take pictures, meet people…then come back, and find might actually have spent less and have more to show for it. That’s what I wish I had done…

    Now, where is my hot tub time machine?

  2. I’m guessing by the astounding lack of comments that other readers were struck with the same sense of wonder at the depths of the verdiage and lack of substance as I was. Frankly, the authors lost me after paragraph three:
    “The ALA Standards emphasize what programs must accomplish in terms of strategic planning and student learning outcomes. ALA does not dictate what those outcomes should be nor does it specify any particular courses that must be offered in an MLIS program. So, what does it mean to be a graduate of an ALA accredited program? Past competency debates offered philosophical positions which could not be tested without nationally based comprehensive examinations to certify library and information professionals.”
    So, ALA doesn’t set standards. What else needs to be said about the future of our profession.

    • Mary Jo says:

      I am not sure how you read this article and came away thinking there are no standards. It mentions that there is a university self-evaluation against standards and there is an external evaluation against standards (items 1 and 2 on a list of 3). There is a link to a 14-page document on ALA’s website outlining standards for missions, goals and objectives, curriculum, faculty, students, administration and financial support, and physical resources and facilities. What the ALA does not do is design the curriculum for the university – it identifies what it should include but allows the university leeway beyond that. The article suggests if there were some outcomes that all universities were required to report it would help students and employers compare them.

  3. I somehow get the feeling that there is going to be a push for a more corporatized version of librarianship. Good luck with that, as we already know that the corporatized primary education model is proving to be a tremendous failure. As little use as I have for ALA as an advocacy organization, I think they do a reasonable job in allowing libraries to be libraries, and not a cubicle heaven.

  4. VickieWentToSimmons says:

    I agree with SteveM that this article uses an awful lot of academic-ese in order to say that ALA accreditation doesn’t mean much because it doesn’t require much. The school defines it’s own goals, and then shows ALA that they are meeting them. Sure, I set my own goals at work, but you bet my boss adds to & edits them before she approves them, and that she has specific expectations that I must meet.

    Am I glad I got my degree? Yes, it let me get a head of tech services job, because where I live, the MLS is required for a department head position in the libraries that offer decent salaries (not great, just decent.). If I could have gotten that position without the MLS, I would have skipped it.

    I’m very lucky that my husband’s salary supports our family – mine only adds a security net. The MLS doesn’t pay for itself for a LONG time, and I’m not even sure it’s needed. I think a BA program would better reflect job & pay potential, and meet the educational needs. (My program was not rigorous at all.)

  5. dennisWentToRutgers says:

    Definitely an “academic” article–where’s the tl;dr version?

    Maybe it’s different in the university, etc. arena, but my degree isn’t all that helpful for a public library position, like i have. Glad i have the degree for the doors it opens, but usefulness? Not really. It should be a BA program instead.

  6. I always thought it would be interesting if library science programs merged with university’s existing computer science and/or digital arts programs, and the deans of those schools crafted a curriculum. It would be a smaller program, but rooted in programs that have been more successful.

    • Just to clarify my point;

      Computer science and digital arts exist and the fact or purpose of their existence is not as questioned; it was at one point, but these fields managed to craft a position for themselves in society, define standards, even in a dramatically changing landscape…technology changes constantly and both digital arts and computer science must respond; and have!

    • So, I emailed my alma mater and on a whim suggested they merge with the computer science program; the response was, we are in talks to do that! I wonder if this will be a (welcome) trend; bring on the revolution!

  7. Stephanie says:

    I’d disagree with anyone who says the GRE is useful for an MLIS program. In Canada, there’s no library school that requires it (in fact, few grad programs there do – it seems to be more a US thing), yet I think my library school (University of Toronto) has quite a good program. So do several other Canadian universities – and they’re all accredited and all compare favorably with their US counterparts. What the GRE has to do with anything library-related is beyond me. In my opinion, it’s a useless hoop.

    On another note – am I glad I got the degree? Yes. If I didn’t have it, I certainly wouldn’t be where I am (I run a mid-sized academic library). But I finished in a year that was the worst ever for employment of MLS grads. I was 1 of 2 grads who got a full-time permanent job within 6 months of graduation (though most eventually did) – but it was exclusively because of strong tech skills. I’m a former computer science student. I no longer highly recommend people go into library science as a career, much as I love it. If they’re determined, I tell people that they’d best take all the tech-related courses they can if they want to get a job in libraries – it’s their best bet.

  8. Mary Jo says:

    There has been a lot of moaning on the blogosphere about the MLS of late. People don’t think they learned anything useful in their MLS, they feel it was an unnecessary burden to doing work they already knew how to do, they can’t find a job or the job they found doesn’t pay well, and the degrees are not equal. They paid good money for their degrees and are understandably upset that the degree did not translate into good pay or in some cases, even a job. They suggest we should throw out the MLS…

    This article addresses the question of how we could actually make the MLS stronger and more reputable. It proposes greater public accountability of MLS programs which might help prospective students and employers compare degree programs and might force MLS programs to share in accountability for placement of graduates. It proposes stricter admissions requirements, which would make for a stronger and probably smaller student population – it might also raise costs and affect the university’s ability to offer a decent-sized diverse faculty. The article dared to take an academic approach which any MLS graduate should be able handle, but alas readers complained!

    There are definitely issues with the MLS. Colleges offering the MLS are sometimes required to churn out graduates in order to pay the bills and keep the doors open – they produce more graduates than the industry needs and more graduates than really are capable of masters’ level work. Students who may never find work as librarians are helping to fund the education of those who will. This is a horrendous state of affairs that goes against the values we teach in library school.

    And perhaps there are issues in library employment which should be studied. My own experiences as an employee have been very good. As a library director, I hire MLS grads and we work to give each one the opportunity to grow according to their interests and potential. Perhaps other libraries hire MLS grads and give them work that is not challenging, that does not draw upon their education, and that does not stretch them toward leadership. I can say as an employer, that when we offer non-MLS positions, MLS grads apply. I want to reward the effort to get the degree, but I recognize the person will be under-employed and I will tell them so. Maybe employers ask for the MLS even when it is not strictly necessary because they know MLS grads will apply – they will get a very capable employee, and they will be giving employment to someone who has shown a dedication to libraries. If there were fewer graduates, employers would probably not require the degree as often.

  9. While I fully support the authors’s assertions that we need to be more “aspirational” than “liminal” in setting standards for LIS programs and their conclusion that “of paramount importance is the availability of consistent, reliable, transparent data” (a recent LIS grad told me that he didn’t feel he was given an accurate picture of the availability of jobs by instructors and advisors in his program), there are something significatn missing for me in their analysis.
    Speaking as someone who has been in the public library field for a very long time (over 25 years), and who had 18 years of public library management experience (in a small library) before getting my LIS, I see no consideration of the effect on success in the program (and in the field afterward) of that experience. Two of my classmates also had considerable previous experience and all three of us had to jump through additional hoops to get accepted, in part because we were also “mature” students whose undergraduate degrees had been taken years ago. All three of us did very well in the program, often mentoring fellow students with less experience, and have gone on to quickly distinguish ourselves in our careers. Having that context and framework on which to hang the theory and practice taught in LIS programs should be far more valued.

  10. I think there needs to be a greater accountability towards the students who are paying for these degrees and expecting to be able to enjoy a professional career afterwards. I graduated with my MLIS in 1999 and I had so many job offers and opportunities that it was overwhelming. Now these online programs are cranking out an irresponsible number of graduates simply to collect the tuition money with no market analysis about whether or not there is sufficient job availability to support professional employment. I do not wish to single out Library Science as being more predatory than any other academic discipline because I have seen virtually all manner of programs going after the free flowing student loan dollars, but as a librarian I feel the need to fight for the integrity of the profession. I think the ALA should be less generous when offering their approval to these puppy mills and instead be protecting the reputation of the profession. One of the unfortunate outcomes of the massive amount of LIS grads flooding the market is that the already low salaries are dropping even further. When I have had positions open in my library these newly graduated applicants ask for less money than I did when I graduated almost 15 years ago, which only serves to devalue the profession. I think the unemployment statistics of recent graduates need to be examined and addressed by the ALA when offering accreditation of LIS programs.