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What colleges can learn from journalism schools

Students with newspapers at a University of Maryland basketball game in 2012.
Students with newspapers at a University of Maryland basketball game in 2012.
G Fiume/Getty Images Sports
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

It's easy to make the case against journalism school.

You don't need a degree in journalism to get a job in news, and professional journalists are much less likely than academics to say the degree is valuable. Newspapers and magazines shed 50,000 jobs between 2003 and 2012, while journalism school enrollments climbed. A year after graduation, 60 percent of the graduating class of 2012 from 82 journalism and communication schools had a job in their field of study; 13 percent were unemployed.

But however beleaguered, it turns out journalism schools are doing one thing very right: They embrace practices that make it likely that students will be successful after graduation, no matter what career they go into.

Gallup conducted a nationally representative survey of 30,000 college graduates earlier this year. The research firm, as part of a project with Purdue University and the Lumina Foundation, was searching for another way to measure the value of a college degree. They asked adults about their college experiences, and tested them to see if they were thriving at work and in their lives — a high bar involving a mix of measures of financial, personal and professional well-being that most American adults don't meet.

The Gallup researchers uncovered what they say is a six-step formula to have a good life, as the research firm describes it. Three of the steps relate directly to the academic experience:

  1. Have at least one professor who makes you excited about learning
  2. Feel your professors care about you as a person
  3. Find a mentor (whether a professor or a peer) who encourages you to pursue your goals and dreams
There's no reason to believe journalism schools are much better than any other academic discipline at making those three things happen. But Gallup also found three colleges experiences related directly to reported well-being in adult life.

It turns out that by working around a central problem with majoring in journalism — that it's hard for even the best classroom to emulate a newsroom, and that the best way to learn journalism is by doing it — journalism schools have embraced all three:
  1. Get extremely involved in an extracurricular activity
  2. Have an internship or job that allows you to apply what you learned in the classroom
  3. Work on a project that takes a semester or more to complete
Semester-long projects are fairly common in journalism schools — writing, photography, video or programming projects often take weeks to complete — but they're common in many other academic departments as well; the senior thesis is the classic example.

Where journalism schools tend to go above and beyond is on the other two measures of experiential learning, which are so much a part of a journalism education that they're written into the journalism school accreditation standards. Accreditation for individual programs, such as journalism, isn't required by the federal government, but it's generally considered a symbol of educational quality.

Usually, college professors don't spend a lot of time urging students to join Greek life or to lead on-campus nonprofits, particularly when "extreme involvement" can often come at the expense of time for study and research. Journalism faculty, staff and advisers, though, encourage students to write for campus news websites or newspapers, or to report for radio or TV stations. Often, those extracurricular activities are attached to the journalism schools themselves. This isn't the best way to insure journalistic distance, but it does make it more likely that students will participate.

Internships are also considered a key part of journalism education, and also included on the accreditation standards.

Journalism has a clear advantage over other majors in getting these experiences off the ground, because working for the student paper and getting internships either during the school year or in the summer have long been considered the starting point for getting a job in the field. So faculty are only doing what's logical to give their students a head start.

But Gallup's findings suggest the effect could be broader. The research firm found that it doesn't matter what kind of extracurricular activity students are involved in, as long as they're extremely involved in one. Nor did they ask if the internships students got related directly to their eventual career.

Journalism schools often argue that a journalism education prepares students for success in other fields because it requires them to learn to write and to think. But it turns out what journalism education is doing right for students who don't pursue a career in news might not be in the classroom, but outside of it.

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