The WSJ's education reporters have been on a roll lately, publishing a deeply reported series of stories about the unintended consequences of the fact that there's no lending cap on the federal government's "Grad Plus" student loan program. By allowing students with little to no income to borrow unlimited funds to further their education in the graduate domain (while leaving taxpayers on the hook for losses), pricey graduate degree programs have proliferated like the clap. And surprisingly, only a small fraction of these programs allow the average graduate to comfortably pay off their loans without financial help from their parents.
Back in June, WSJ published its initial deep-dive into high priced "useless" masters degrees offered by elite Ivy League Universities. The a few weeks after that, it followed up with a deep-dive on second- and third-tier law and MBA programs, which boomed in popularity over the past twenty to thirty years, only for many graduates to realize that six-figure jobs are mostly reserved for graduates from the top-tier programs.
Now, WSJ is targeting another universe of "useless" degrees: the master's degree in journalism. Expensive programs for what is by all accounts a dying discipline abound, with the "leading" programs found at Columbia, Northwestern and USC. Roughly a dozen other expensive programs continue to enroll students across the US. Together, they produce thousands of graduates a year for an industry that has seen the number of available jobs shrink practically every year for the last two decades.
While students borrow heavily, starting salaries from even USC and Northwestern are shockingly low at just $42K for the median graduate. Columbia's median number is stil just $49K (accounting for the dozen or so graduates every year who find decent-paying jobs at one of the country's top national outlets, like WSJ, Bloomberg or the NYT).
Interestingly, the University of Missouri, which has perhaps the best-known journalism program among America's public universities, leaves its graduate journalism students with much smaller debt loads (around $21K) with median earnings of $50.5K right out the gate. The dean of Northwestern's graduate J-school said ballooning debt for graduate students "keeps him me up at night."
"Graduate student debt is the thing that keeps me up at night," Mr. Whitaker said. He attributed some of the earnings differential to the fact that undergraduates often complete their degrees with multiple internships and years of experience on student publications.
One student who attended Medill shortly after finishing her undergrad career wishes she had been made aware told WSJ she wouldn't have gone if she understood how much trouble she would have paying off her student loans.
Katie Dzwierzynski said she was flattered when Medill offered her a scholarship of a few thousand dollars a decade ago. She lived at home to save money, and borrowed nearly $70,000 to cover the rest of her costs.
She now earns about $65,000 writing newsletters and summarizing healthcare news for companies. Most months, Ms. Dzwierzynski, has made her loan payments, around $500, but sometimes she could only cobble together half that amount while the interest continued to grow. Her student-loan balance now stands at $79,000, including $62,000 from Medill.
Ms. Dzwierzynski, 32 years old, said she understood that she would be going into significant debt for the degree but didn’t know how little she would likely earn.
Another student said that while they feel "fulfilled" in their new job, finances are definitely a worry. But if President Biden (or President Kamala) offer student debt relief.
Mr. Rhodes took a 40% pay cut from their New York job, but said they are more fulfilled in their new role. Still, the loans loom large. The federal government paused payments during the pandemic, but when that lifts early next year, the 28-year-old intends to enroll in a repayment plan limiting monthly payments to a set share of their income. After 20 or 25 years, the remaining debt could be erased, and taxed as income.
Mr. Rhodes, who also has $33,000 in loans for their bachelor’s degree from the University of Central Florida, is holding out hope for President Biden to forgive at least some student debt.
“I am admittedly stressed about finances,” Mr. Rhodes said. “But if there’s any time to take on this kind of debt, it might be when it is potentially going to be erased.”
He has a point. If anything, just the prospect of student debt forgiveness from the Dems might encourage more risk-tolerant (or risk-ignorant) young students to go for it, and try to live their fantasy of becoming the next Bob Woodward.
Ironically, as the power, prestige and financial backing of the media industry have diminished, public trust in the media has fallen to its lowest level in the history of the American Republic. One recent report found the US ranks last globally in media trust, despite its "free" press.
The real issue here isn't so much the money, but the fact that Bob Woodward didn't go to J-School. Michael Lewis took on the issue in a piece for the New Republic published all the way back in 1993, before the collapse of the media industry.
With a nip here and a tuck there, the inadequately schooled journalist could easily make the Columbia School of Journalism sound like a seven-month extension of this anecdote. Perhaps I am that journalist. The essential point here is that the desperate futility of journalism instruction becomes clearer the closer one gets to the deed. At journalism school, one does not simply report a story. One develops a “search strategy for mass communication” (see chart above). The principal text used at Columbia, in a section called “Truth Telling,” offers the mathematical formula: Story=Truth + X. “The story is never the full truth,” it intones. “There is always an X, a missing ingredient. Actually there is not an X but a series -- X1,X2,X3,X4....” This sort of irrelevant blather infects the entire curriculum. Here, for instance, is how the Columbia course bulletin describes one of the two main core courses, “Critical Issues in Journalism”:
At the end of the day, it's not only the academics that staff these programs who are complicit in fleecing the next generation of would-be "journalists". The elite media brands that tap their students for unpaid (or low-paid) labor, helping to give credence to the school's marketing, are also, in a way, responsible.