Sunday, August 13, 2017

Guess who pays for those $150,000 Columbia journalism degrees? - By Monica Showalter

There's been some brouhaha about Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism's new data journalism degree, which comes with a whopping $150,000 price tag for the three-semester Master's degree. The lowly median annual wage for journalists is being repeatedly cited as reason for the questionability of the degree. At Forbes, Preston Cooper notes:
The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that job opportunities for reporters and correspondents will shrink by 8% over the next decade. These jobs currently pay a median annual wage of $37,820.
I'm not buying that as reason for the questionability of the degree. Median is just that, median, and an elite degree from Columbia University, the most prestigious journalism school in the country, will more than likely be above the median. What's more, the skills within the degree really are in high demand. The person with such a degree is almost certain to start with a salary far higher than that of the average person starting out in journalism with no special skills who begins at a small community paper. (Full disclosure, I went there.)
What is questionable is the issue of who pays for the degree. President Obama put limits on repaying back student loans at the 20-year mark, meaning anyone who takes out debt at the $150,000 level is only going to be repaying a fraction of that debt. The taxpayers will pick up the remainder of the tab. Should the taxpayers be paying for that? Particularly if the journalists being turned out end up being advocacy journalists on just one side of the political spectrum? That is worth asking.
Cooper makes a very important point in noting that the federal incentives for taking out high-dollar loans and the abbbreviated payment obligations make high-priced, questionable-value degrees on offer inevitable at places like Columbia, writing:
The federal government allows graduate students to borrow unlimited student loans to finance tuition and living expenses. After graduation, borrowers can repay their debt as a share of their income, and have any remaining balance forgiven after 20 years. If borrowers don’t repay their loans in full, taxpayers are responsible for the difference.
Consider a student who takes out loans to cover the full cost of attendance for the master’s degree ($147,514). If his earnings after graduation start at $45,000 and rise 5% per year, he will only end up paying $83,121 in inflation-adjusted terms—repaying barely more than half of what he borrowed. Meanwhile, taxpayers will forgive a remaining balance of $177,857.
If students bore the full cost of Columbia’s data journalism degree, it would hardly be worth the money. But with the federal government freely handing out subsidies, many students will enroll.
This isn't explicitly the fault of the school, it's just the school responding to the incentives put out by the federal government under the Obama administration. Of course a souped-up degree in a rarified specialty is going to be the result. The school makes lots of money from the loans taken out by the students so the more they take out, the more the school benefits. Cooper notes that the school is using Obama's successor, President Trump, as an incentive vehicle for selling the degree to students.
All the same, the anti-Trump tack might not amount to what j-school think it will amount to. The j-school is right in saying the degree is designed for what employers are looking for - and any survey of ads for journalism jobs shows it's obvious the skill is in high demand at news agencies. I like the argument for the degree in the press release:
Data have become an important source for reporters covering everything from campaign finance to sports, from climate change and global trade to government corruption. Data give journalists the ability to query large amounts of information, weaning them away from reliance on official and often uncooperative sources.
What they're saying, whether they realize it or not, is that leak-based journalism, such as we are seeing in Washington, where a few elite reporters develop secret, anonymous sources to leak as a means of advancing their own careers at the expense of their competition could be ending. Reporters are always stuck either developing those anonymous sources or else taking useless, fact-free PR handout sheets (Try dealing with the FDA!) as well as the slippery words of official sources trained in the narrative arts of spin and public relations. If this is the case, shifting to data-based journalism over that can't come soon enough.
It suggests to me that the journalistic style of two news organizations I have worked for, Forbes and Investor's Business Daily may become more common, and maybe wider and more developed in scope. At Forbes, there was always a strict policy of not chasing news, not following what the news pack was doing, doing only original work no one else was on. At IBD, the journalistic style was heavily data-driven, because the markets are so full of useless opinions, it was considered best to report from the hard data instead. In that regard, both agencies stood out as being something unique - because of their data-based rather than source-based journalism. If there are more data-based journalists who ply their trade well, there may be more of this kind of journalism as opposed to the leak-stuff that can accomodate a reporter's political bias and then be called 'news.'
Can this kind of journalism become the norm? Well, it already is in some places to some extent - and without the $150,000 degrees. Maybe if the feds get out of the news industry it might just keep growing. Subsidizing it usually does exactly the opposite.