In 2017, Xavier Lopez applied to a prestigious journalism program hoping to establish a career in public radio.
In some ways, that’s exactly what he got out of his graduate degree. He learned how to pitch, cut tape and produce radio spots. He took a class with a respected audio journalist who referred him for an internship with WHYY, a public broadcasting station in Philadelphia, that eventually led to an associate producer position. But while valuable, those digital reporting skills and professional connections didn’t merit the school’s exorbitant cost, he said.
“I shouldn’t have had to take out $100,000 in student loans to learn the basics of audio and know somebody who’s in audio journalism,” said Lopez, now an audio producer at CNN.
Elite programs like these can feel stacked against students from working-class families. To make ends meet, he had to work full time while studying, which often meant finishing assignments during his shift. Though he now has a well-paying job, he’s facing up to two decades of $1,000 monthly loan payments.
“For the social aspect, journalism school has been wonderful,” Lopez said. “For the financial aspect, it has not.”
Few questions are quite as divisive among working journalists today as that about the usefulness of J-schools. Is it wise to enroll in a prestigious undergrad journalism program, or to spend another year or two in grad school, while taking out six-figure loans and break into an industry with a median annual pay of less than $50,000 — and a much lower entry-level salary?
Some prominent journalists, including Axios’ chief financial correspondent Felix Salmon, argue that the mere existence of journalism schools is morally indefensible because the financial harm they cause contributes to the diversity problem newsrooms already face. Others, like Slate culture writer Rachelle Hampton, say these schools level the playing field for students of color, who made up just 17% of newsroom staff as of 2018, by providing invaluable networking opportunities in an “industry rife with nepotism.”
In her piece, Hampton brings up another solid point: You don’t have to go to an expensive school to major in journalism. In fact, you don’t have to major in journalism at all to get a journalism job. Because for many J-school alumni, the cost-benefit analysis of attending such expensive institutions, especially with the advantage of hindsight, isn’t so clear-cut.
The pros and cons of going to J-school
Some alumni of top journalism schools say a bachelor’s or master’s degree has clear perks: a solid training in the basics of multimedia reporting and a deep understanding of the news business that helped them get a head start in early-career jobs.
While studies show that overall enrollment at many undergraduate journalism programs has declined over the past decade, the 2016 election of Donald Trump triggered a surge in admissions at several top-ranked schools in the past few years, including Northwestern, Syracuse and Arizona State.
Drake Hills, a soccer reporter at The Tennessean, said studying at the University of Oregon and Northwestern University gave him “a sturdy foundation and a perspective on what the industry is and what it will be.”
Hills said he got hired because of connections he made in graduate school at Northwestern and the National Association of Black Journalists. These connections were particularly crucial because there’s not much soccer coverage in local media, and therefore not a surplus of demand for soccer writers.
“Going to journalism school was much more about the sport and getting ahead in what I presumed to be a growing market in journalism,” he said.
Journalism school alumni and faculty networks also provide aspiring reporters a leg up in today’s fragmented media environment, according to Angie Chuang, an associate journalism professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “The education can probably be learned on the job,” she said, “but you may not get the job if you haven’t done the media internship, which you may not get until you’ve had some writing and reporting experience. A master’s program would give you that experience.”
Going to school also allows you to learn the craft less painfully. “Having a class gives you a cushion to stretch yourself, experiment, make mistakes and not have to deal with angry sources or corrections,” Chuang said.
But, of course, the specialized training journalism school offers doesn’t always translate into practical skills in the newsroom, especially in an increasingly competitive post-pandemic job market where you must adapt to fit the role.
Kimberly Yuen, a Hawaii-based digital producer at Newsday, said she learned the basics of broadcast journalism at Chapman University but didn’t end up using it in her career. When she didn’t get any offers from local stations after graduating, she took a job as a web producer at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and had to pick up new skills on the job, such as running a home page and writing headlines.
“What helped me at Chapman was making connections, building confidence, and learning some translatable TV skills,” she said. “But journalism is a field in which your hard work and your experiences will get you the job.”
Journalism school, especially grad school, can also be downright expensive, with some programs exceeding $100,000 a year. An ongoing criticism of high-profile journalism master’s programs is that they don’t sufficiently prepare heavily indebted students for the grind, volatility and low salaries of entry-level positions.
Chuang said she advises students to be realistic about how an unstable job market might affect returns on investment. “You should be willing and able to take on whatever debt you have to incur without presuming that whatever job this degree might lead to will allow you to pay it off quickly,” she said.
Shearon Roberts, an associate mass communications professor and the director of Xavier University’s honors program, offers more direct advice. Many of her students at the historically Black university are the first in their families to go to college, so if a graduate program wants to offer one of her students a tuition waiver, she tells them to take it — this is a form of reparations. Otherwise, she said, “There’s a moral obligation in advising students of color to weigh whether a graduate program is valuable or not.”
The number-one priority of Jelani Cobb, Columbia Journalism School’s new dean, is to find solutions for students who are worried about their education costs and the amount of debt they’re incurring (tuition and fees for yearlong programs range from $75,000 to $118,000). At the moment, Cobb said, about 73 percent of students who applied for scholarship aid received funding, and the school awards roughly $5 million annually in scholarship money. The median award is approximately $40,000.
Hills agreed schools need to create more funding streams for graduate programs specifically, whether it’s more scholarships or on-campus work opportunities. He said The Tennessean has given him one raise in three years, which he’s grateful for but isn’t quite high enough to comfortably cover the student loans he’d soon have to repay.
“Journalism schools have to recognize that the industry isn’t willing to bail out students,” he said.
The pros and cons of not going to J-school
Many working journalists, of course, bypassed J-school not only for financial reasons. Some 30% of college-educated newsroom employees majored in journalism, according to a 2019 report from Pew Research Center. Twenty-three percent majored outside of the arts and humanities, often in the subject matter they wanted to cover because real life experience in fields outside of journalism can foster a richer and more varied perspective on their selected beats.
When Jarod Facundo, a writing fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based policy magazine The American Prospect, got his political science degree from Michigan State University, he did not plan to become a reporter. But he developed an interest in exploring immigration and health-care policies, and in journalism job applications, he leveraged his experiences as a legislative intern and a political campaign organizer to show that he knew the inner-workings of government agencies, as well as the incentives for those making policy decisions.
“A lot of people undersell what they already have,” Facundo said. “I can’t think of a single job someone might hold before journalism that they can’t translate into being a reporter of some sort.”
Facundo said that when he graduated in 2020, he got rejected from dozens of internships, due to increased competition during the pandemic and a lack of published clips. But going back to school for journalism, or anything else, was never an option.
“I have a lot of debt already,” he said. “If I hadn’t landed a gig with the Prospect or Dissent in early 2021, I would have done something else.”
Some reporters have made successful midcareer switches into journalism without relying on the networking opportunities that J-schools offer.
Mark Puente, an investigative reporter at The Marshall Project, drove a truck for 15 years before starting a career as a local news reporter at The Plain Dealer of Cleveland. Not only are journalism schools unnecessary, he said, the insular academic environment that elite institutions breed can have the adverse effect of training students to be dismissive of people on the margins of society.
“Many people who went to top-tier schools are absolutely clueless about how to connect to the working class of America,” he said. “I’ve seen so many stories that were missed because so many journalists look down upon the frontline workers in agencies.”
In nearly two decades covering government accountability, Puente said, his background as a truck driver made him gravitate toward secretaries, administrative aides, janitors and other low-level employees who helped him produce award-winning journalism that brought about serious change.
Ultimately, choosing to go to J-school or not is a matter of weighing whether the skills — and connections — you already have will land you in a newsroom.
“While the industry has changed,” Puente said, “I’d still tell a young person: If you want to be a journalist, as long as you can read or write well, just try it.”