The University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication: top notch…or not?

“You’re the top,” wrote lyricist Cole Porter. A lot of Oregonians feel that way about the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC).

SOJClogo

Graduates have a lot of pride in their school. One of the top journalism schools in the country, its champions say.

I’ve been a guest lecturer there and I’ve been impressed with the inquisitive students.

UOlecturehall

Nothing wrong with hometown pride, but does the school deserve the accolades? As a former reporter at The Oregonian, corporate communications manager and still a journalist, I wanted to know the answer.

With dead newspapers across the country, massive personnel cutbacks, and turmoil even at digital news sites, what are the prospects for the 646 students who earned a Bachelor’s degree and the 43 who earned a Master’s or PhD from the SOJC during 2018-19, one of the largest graduating classes in the program’s history?[1]

In many areas, the prospects are poor. “2019 crystallized something media people have known to be true for a while: While digital media dries out in the wake of the VC funding boom of the 2010s, and the country’s regional newspapers are swallowed by corporate consolidation and hedge fund vultures, there is very little stability to be found anywhere,” Maya Kosoff wrote on Dec. 16 in Gen, a Medium publication about politics, power, and culture. “If 2019 signaled a change, it was the realization that not only is the ship sinking, but that there aren’t any lifeboats.”

But SOJC is optimistic. “Today’s thriving creative and media economy offers a wealth of exciting career paths…,” says the SOJC’s website. “No matter which of our four majors you choose, you’ll get a strong foundation and the professional skills and connections to succeed.”

True or academic hyperbole?

wearenumberone

There are almost 500 U.S. schools with higher education journalism programs. Of those, there are 117 schools accredited by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC), including the University of Oregon’s SOJC.

Leaving aside the question of whether a journalism degree is even a necessary prerequisite for anybody entering the field (After all, Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame dropped out of the University of Maryland and Chuck Todd,  moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, dropped out of George Washington University), which undergraduate journalism school is the best?

Where does the University of Oregon’s SOJC stand in the rankings? From a mercenary point of view, which program will generate the best pay?

It’s tricky to rely solely on college ranking systems to pick the best journalism school. There are multiple ranking systems and they are all over the map in their selections and the factors they take into account. I recall one highly regarded college rating program, for example, that threw into the mix how many graduates joined the Peace Corps.

The ranking systems also change every year as ideas about how best to measure quality in education change.

U.S. News & World Report says, for example, “over time, the ranking model has put far less emphasis on input measures of quality – which look at characteristics of the students, faculty and other resources going into the educational process – and more emphasis on output measures, which look at the results of the educational process, such as social mobility, six-year graduation and first-year student retention rates.”

Niche lists the University of Oregon 101st in its “2020 Best 4-year Colleges for Communications in America.” Niche is not, however, as prestigious or as often referenced as other ratings services.

College Factual, another data analytics website for higher education, says U of O is 29th in its list of 2020 Best Journalism Colleges in the U.S.”

Journalism-Schools.com ranks the University of Oregon’s SOJC 74th in the nation.

QS World University Rankings ranks the University of Oregon 151st in North America among colleges offering Communication & Media Studies programs.

The highly regarded Forbes America’s Top Colleges 2019 places the University at #191, but doesn’t break down data by major.

Another well-regarded survey, U.S. News & World Report’s U.S. News Best Colleges, places the University of Oregon 104th among national universities, but also doesn’t rank the SOJC.

Do you go with Penn State’s Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications because it’s the biggest program, with 2,670 students in the fall of 2018? How about the University oi Missouri School of Journalism because it was founded in 1908 and is the oldest program? Maybe Columbia University’s Columbia Journalism School because it is uniquely positioned in the media capital of the world and is the home of the Pulitzer Prize? Or the University of Oregon because you plan to stay and work in the Northwest and the SOJC has over 17,000 alumni who could serve as contacts and mentors?

As a paper from the Knight Foundation, which promotes excellence in journalism, put it, “The best journalism school in America is … a mystery. There’s no sensible system for comparing programs or knowing if they are really healthy. The measurements schools now file…turn out to be about as useful as a jumble of mismatched socks.”

How about comparing how the graduates of journalism programs do in the workplace?

How does earning a degree from the University of Oregon’s SOJC work out in terms of finding a good job and moving up the pay ladder?

I asked the school:

  • Does the SOJC attempt to track the career paths of its graduates?
  • If yes, where are the graduates in their careers? Have the recent grads found jobs in their field of study? Are earlier grads still working in their fields of study?
  • What are SOJC grads earning?

“We love our alumni” and “Our alumni mean the world to us,” the SOJC says on its website, but it doesn’t keep track of them.

To my considerable surprise, the OSJC said it didn’t know the answers to my questions. “I can tell you that we do not have job placement data or salary data,” Andra Brichacek, then the OSJC’s  Interim Communication Director, told me earlier this year.

There are, however, other sources of data.

According to the U.S. News & World Report College Compass, median starting salaries by major for alumni of the University of Oregon are:

  • $45,300 for Journalism graduates
  • $46,500 for Public Relations and Advertising
  • $43,600 for Communication and Media Studies

College Factual, a privately-run website designed to assist in college selection, says SOJC journalism graduates earn an average of $37,000 when starting their career and $66,000 at mid-career. This compares with:

  • an average starting salary of $34,766 and a mid-career salary of $62,908 for journalism graduates across the United States.
  • an average starting salary of $36,000 and mid-career salary of $65,000 at mid-career for journalism graduates of the University of Missouri – Columbia
  • an average starting salary of $38,000 and mid-career salary of $87,000 for journalism graduates of Northwestern University.
  • An average starting salary of $44,000 and mid-career salary of $72,000 for journalism graduates of New York University.
  • An average starting salary of $41,000 and mid-career salary of $86,000 for journalism graduates of the University of Southern California.

The U.S. Department of Education is another source of earnings data.

collegescorecard

Under an Obama administration initiative, the government published schoolwide data on debt and earnings for undergraduates. In November 2019, the Trump administration expanded the program by publishing new data allowing comparisons of first-year earnings of graduates based on their college major.

Earnings were measured in 2016-2017 for students who graduated in 2014-2015 and 2015-2016, which are fairly recent.

The data, released as the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard, are based on information provided through federal reporting from institutions, data on federal financial aid, and tax information.

A key weakness of the Scorecard is that the earnings and debt data are based only on students who either took out a federal student loan or received a federal grant in college. Scorecard also doesn’t report the percentage of entering students at every school for which it has earnings data.

Scorecard also calculated student college loan debt to help prospective students determine their ability to repay it considering their expected earnings after graduation.

According to Scorecard, median annual earnings of bachelor’s degree SOJC graduates in their first job were $27,800; for SOJC graduates with a bachelor’s degree in Public Relations, Advertising and Applied Communication median annual earnings were $36,200.

This compares with median annual earnings in their first job of:

  • $37,300 for journalism graduates and $33,900 for Communication and Media Studies graduates of the University of Missouri – Columbia.
  • $42,000 for journalism graduates and $42,600 for Communication and Media Studies graduates of Northwestern University.
  • $33,500 for journalism graduates and $42,900 for Communication and Media Studies graduates of Boston University
  • $40,600 for journalism graduates and $39,200 for Communication and Media Studies graduates of the University of Southern California.

Then there’s a database is provided by Payscale, a salary negotiation tool. Their College Salary Report database provides self-reported earnings data by college for alumni who use their website tool.

Only nonprofit or public schools for which PayScale has a statistically significant sample are included.  Salary figures combine base annual salary or hourly wage, bonuses, profit sharing, tips, commissions, overtime, and other forms of cash earnings, as applicable.

Based upon PayScale survey data*, students graduating from the University of Oregon with accredited degrees in Journalism realize early-career earnings of $37,201 and mid-career earnings of $66,153.

For comparison, students graduating from the University of Missouri – Columbia Based with a degree in Journalism will have average early-career earnings of $36,000 and average mid-career earnings of $65,000.

What else might be relevant in comparing programs?

College Scorecard shows how much student loan debt people can expect to owe based on their choice of major. Not only is that useful information overall, but the presumption is that the lower the ratio of student debt to income is for a given major, the higher the value of the investment in that major.

At the University of Oregon, median total debt for graduates with a degree in journalism is $21,030. For graduates with a degree in public relations, advertising and applied communication it is $21,500.

Compare that with the University of Missouri – Columbia: median total debt for students with a degree in Journalism is $23,250 and median earnings are $37,300; median total debt for students with a degree in Communication and Media Studies is $23,250 and median earnings are $33,900.

So, now where does the University of Oregon’s SOJC stand? Hard to tell.

First, it needs to be understood that the ranking programs are unreliable. No matter what the ranking factors and algorithms, it’s been widely reported that schools game the system and falsify data. There have been efforts, for example, to manipulate faculty salary reports, alter reported class sizes, highlight academic expenditures and minimize administrative overhead, and even give low ratings to competing schools and programs.

In 2019, Richard Vetter, who had administered Forbes’ Best Colleges rankings, wrote a Forbes article, Are Universities Increasingly Liars And Con Artists,” I think one consequence of the moral decline is that universities increasingly lie and cheat, both their customers (students) and the general public,” he wrote.

Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness wrote in Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education that universities engaged in a wide range of highly deceptive marketing and other practices that were  morally untenable.

With all this understood, the University of Oregon’s SOJC probably isn’t at the top overall, but for an individual student it might be.

I’m not trying to be wishy-washy. I know that, as with talk radio hosts, nuance can be difficult for an opinion writer.

But just an evocative photo of a bucolic campus doesn’t tell the whole story about a college, ratings are only part of the story.  Evidence suggests enrolling at a top-tier university with a highly ranked journalism/communications program isn’t necessarily key to getting a good education or having a successful career in those fields.

While there is some evidence that a college’s quality (or its reputation for quality) can have an impact on professional success, it may be a massive institutional deceit that obtaining a journalism degree at one well-regarded college versus another school is critical.

A research effort by Gallup, in partnership with Purdue University and Lumina Foundation, found there’s no difference in subsequent workplace engagement or a college graduate’s well-being if they attended a highly selective institution or a top 100-ranked school in U.S. News & World Report.

The study found it was students who were closely engaged with faculty or participated in an internship-type program who were more likely to be engaged at work and have high well-being after graduation.

The study also found a relationship between the level of student debt and a graduate’s well-being and working experience. “It turns out that student debt…hinders the individual life prospects of students who borrow too much of it,” said Purdue President Mitch Daniels.

In addition, graduates who had at least one professor who made them excited about learning, cared about them as a person, and was a mentor, had more than double the odds of being engaged at work and thriving in well-being.

Then there was the time-to-graduation factor. The Gallup-Purdue research revealed that graduates who finished their degrees in four years doubled their odds of being engaged at work and that more thrived.

So, despite my plan to reach a firm conclusion on where the University of Oregon’s SOJC stands in the panoply of options, I’m going to leave you a bit up in the air with, “It depends.”

You will have to just gather all the needed information and decide for yourself.

As the leadership scholar Robert Greenleaf observed, “On an important decision one rarely has 100% of the information needed for a good decision no matter how much one spends or how long one waits. And, if one waits too long, he has a different problem and has to start all over.”

__________________________________

[1]

Bachelor’s degrees by concentration:

Journalism: 141

Advertising: 308

Media Studies: 16

Public Relations: 218

 

Master’s and PhDs by concentration:

Advertising and Brand Responsibility: 11

Journalism: 10

Media Studies: 4

Multimedia Journalism: 8

Strategic Communication: 10

Source: University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication

 

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