Is the cost of a journalism degree worth it?

Of course, we do not go into journalism for the money.

But, unfortunately, passion and commitment to be a watchdog for the public good won’t pay the bills.

We’ve watched the painful evolution (many would argue erosion) of the news industry over the past five years, and what we’re seeing is a profession that is losing value as the combination of advancing technology, changing readership habits and cheaper labor pools have left thousands of trained, experienced journalists without a decent way to eke out a living.

Couple that with the increasing costs of higher education today and you have to wonder: Is a journalism degree worth it anymore?

(An aside: This started as a discussion with a colleague about Congress cracking down on for-profit colleges, which federal studies say have a higher default rate on student loans. Under federal proposals tom make the schools more accountable for their practices, my friend – who is employed at a for-profit — noted the amount he paid for his education from Northwestern University’s Medill School would not pass what the feds are proposing for the for-profits.)

Is spending well over $100,000 for a 4-year degrees that promises an average starting salary in the mid-$30,000’s  (and more likely less in much of the country) worth the investment? In particular, will the cost of the nation’s premiere schools such as Medill ever pay off (especially noting a recent Sun-Times story listing a one-year master’s program at Medill for around $84,000)?

Some may argue that a degree from Medill or Columbia or other prestigious schools may have more clout in the business than other schools. But as traditional newsrooms get leaner and meaner, will we be seeing more of those graduates finding their first jobs at places like Patch or, where average pay is below the figures mentioned above?

Journalism many years ago was treated as a trade, where scribes worked their ways from the copy boy to reporter to editor, honing their crafts in the real world and learning from mentors. Somewhere along the way colleges developed degreed journalism programs and the craft evolved into a profession. However, unlike other professions, journalism had no accrediting boards to certify and regulate a set of standards and ethics among its members (like a bar association or AMA) — that was left to the individual newspapers.

As the industry struggles to find a new ground, journalism schools continue to adjust their programs to meet potential future needs. One trend we’re beginning to see is median companies partnering with schools  to provide real world laboratories through their hyperlocal sites. AOL’s has created Patch U. to provide its growing hyperlocal network as a real world laboratory for  budding journalists, and the Tribune Co. has recently made similar arrangements with local colleges for its Triblocal hyperlocal products.

These programs, however, harken back to the “trade” days when a journalists cut his teeth through real work, instead of in a classroom or laboratory. If a student completes a couple of years training at Patch U., will that make his diploma from State College moot? The answer to that lies in whether that experience could replace a journalism degree when the new journo is ready to make the next step.

The other question is where that step will be — if there will be any.


One thought on “Is the cost of a journalism degree worth it?

  1. I love this article. I’ve always wanted to be a journalist. It sounds so busy and maybe a little stressful. I want to be where the action is. I want to (eventually) be the editor-in-chief of a newspaper or magazine. I want to be in charge and make the decisions.


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