The “Do We Need J-Schools?” Debate, Part II: Solutions based on the World’s Ugliest Mini-Fridge and 1970s self-esteem commercials

In the last post, where I dug into the special report from Columbia Journalism Review on if we need J-schools, I promised that all was not lost if you chose this path in life. I doubt you all have waited with bated breath for the answer, but I hope this post will give you a sense that having two dudes with a myopic view of journalism education that starts and stops on the corner of 116th and Broadway argue about your future shouldn’t scare you.

Consider these points when you look at what you’re getting out of your J-school experience and see if this helps you feel a bit better:

What do you want to get out of this? Let’s call this “The World’s Ugliest Mini-Fridge” argument.

At one point, I owned a really nice mini-fridge to keep soda and beer cold in my basement. It was clean, new-looking and jet black and I really liked it. However, when my mother-in-law was put into assisted living, she needed one of these things and she didn’t have a lot of money, so I gave it to her. I then needed to replace it, as there’s no way I’m running up and down a flight of stairs every time I need a Diet Coke. If I did, I’d have thighs like Eric Heiden…

In any case, I ran into a lady at a rummage sale who told me she had one for $10. “It’s not that pretty, but it keeps stuff cold,” she told me. I bought it on the spot, even though the “it’s not that pretty” part was a drastic understatement:


Here’s the point: All I wanted out of this thing was to keep soda (and beer) cold. It did that. I could care less what it looked like. So why didn’t I just give my mother-in-law this one and keep the nice one? Because she has OCD (really) and she would rather die than have this Rorschach Test of an appliance within 20 feet of her. I got what I wanted (cold beverages) and she got what she wanted (a nice appliance that didn’t embarrass her) so it all worked out.

The point is, you have to start with an understanding of what you want out of your journalism educational experience because this makes the difference in terms of which side of this argument you want to be on:

The assumption both authors in the “Do We Need J-Schools?” debate make is equating journalism school to Columbia’s God Almighty School of Journalism and Deification. As we talked about last time, there are a ton of other journalism schools out there that will provide you with opportunities to get a great education, good opportunities and a fine life without having to hock a kidney at your local pawn shop. You will also have the opportunity to gain a strong sense of media literacy, something a colleague told me I shouldn’t forget when talking about J-school. (She was totally right. You get to be wicked smart on how media works in this world and why it matters if you go to J-school.)

What you want out of the experience is really where the rubber meets the road in this discussion. As I mentioned earlier, I had students who wanted to go home and run a local newspaper, so coming to us at UWO, getting a good degree they could afford and going home worked for them. I always push students to be as good as they can be, but I would never slight a student whose goal wasn’t to be the next Jake Tapper or Bob Woodward. Even more, I have had plenty of good students who came through this program and landed jobs at Facebook, ESPN and more. They set some goals, met some good instructors and got what they wanted.

If you feel that having the ability to say you went to Columbia or Northwestern or any other “name” school is the end-all and be-all, then by all means, go that route. The degree and its cache matter if they matter to you. I equate it to the guy next door to me at work who loves designer clothing. If I ever say, “Hey, nice shirt,” he’ll tell me, “Yeah, it’s a Ralph Lauren…” or whatever. (Every piece of clothing he owns has a name to it.) The niceness and the label matters to him. If you say to me, “Hey, nice shirt,” I’m more likely to say, “Thanks. I think Amy bought it for me for Christmas about five years ago…” For him, it’s the label. For me, it’s about not spending $200 on a piece of clothing I’m going to ruin by dropping my lunch on it.

If where you are is getting the job done in the way you want, J-school is worth it.

Weigh cost versus value: This goes along with the first point, namely that you’re trying to figure out what you’re getting and what you’re giving in this kind of relationship with your school. There is no doubt that student loan debt is scary, so treat it like the food trade off in “The Hunger Games” where you got extra eats if you put your name in the reaping more often: Keep this approach to a minimum as best you can and avoid it whenever you can.

With that in mind, and acknowledging that student loans are as much a part of life now as professors who think they’re funny and assignments you blow off until the last second, the best way to keep the loans low is to go places where you pay less and get more. I’m sure Columbia University is a fine institution, but that nearly $216,000 price tag seems to have the cost/value balance way out of whack. That costs more than TWICE what I paid for a really nice four-bedroom, two-bath house in Muncie, Indiana about 15 years ago. And this leads to the point: I’d rather have two of those houses in my really nice neighborhood back there than two years in Columbia, preparing me for a job where I’m making about $32,000 a year.

Journalism has a strong element of meritocracy to it. The people who hire you care what you can do for them, not where you went to school or what your GPA was in college. I have had more “C” students get great jobs because they got published, took good internships and showed skills than “A” students who could recite the meaning behind Times v. Sullivan. Are you getting good value for what you are spending? If so, you need the school and the school needs you. There is balance in the force.

All of which leads to the next point…

The “Mizzou Brain” discussion: I spent five years at the University of Missouri working on the Columbia Missourian and finishing my Ph.D., so I spent a lot of time at a place that calls itself “The World’s Journalism School.” My first job after that was at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where the kids there were mostly state students who had a strong interest in journalism. One of the big questions they had for me was, “Are we as good as the Mizzou students you taught?” The assumption there was what I call the “Mizzou Brain Theory.”

The Muncie students seemed to think that going to Mizzou was like opening the Wonka Bar with the Golden Ticket inside: You get lucky enough to go there and you get this magical experience that transforms you. I had to explain that the kids at Mizzou start off at the same point they all do (as in they can’t find a decent lead with two hands and a flashlight), but they get better through taking advantage of the experiences they have over the years (and there are many unique ones) that make them who they become.

Yes, the degree is a little shinier and the experiences are a bit broader and more available, but the students there don’t show up, hang out for four years and get a “Mizzou Brain” at graduation that has all the answers. In other words, the smartest kid I ever would get at Ball State wasn’t going to be dumber than the dumbest kid I ever got at Mizzou, simply as a result of their presence at that institution of higher learning.

And I was right about that: Many of the students I had back at Ball State went on to incredible careers as head editors of major news outlets, reporters for big city newspapers, graphics experts for international TV outlets like CNN and marketing professionals from everything from casinos to the UFC. They got a ton of experience at student media outlets, parlayed that into great internships and then leveraged that into great jobs. All for quite a bit less than what Columbia University charges.

In short, it’s not where you go, but rather what you do when you get there. Finally…

It’s all about you: I spent the last three-to-five books telling readers that they need to write for an audience, not for themselves. In short, “It’s not about you” should have been translated into Latin and emblazoned on my family crest. However, this is a case where it is ENTIRELY all about you.

With that in mind, look at the following things when you consider where you are and what you’re getting:

  • Professors:Are these people truly invested in you or not? This doesn’t mean you should approach this like you’re a customer at a restaurant and you expect the professor to be the waitstaff. I mean it more in terms of where the professors priorities sit. A lot of the “name” programs reside at what are known as “R-1” institutions, where professors are judged heavily on how much research they do and how many journal articles they publish. This “publish or perish” approach means less time spent helping you and more time figuring out the difference in uses and gratifications for media use by left-handed guys named Ted. A lot of institutions like this will have instruction completed by teaching assistants and graduate assistants. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, as two of my best teachers in college were TAs. Are you getting meaningful connections with quality educators who can help you reach your goals, whatever they are? If so, you’re fine. If not, see if that can change. If it can’t, look elsewhere.
  • Learning type:You know how well you learn, even if you can’t explain it to anyone else. For some people, it’s the small lab setting or bust. For others, they can learn in 900-person lecture halls just fine. Some folks need a lot of one-on-one time while others are completely fine being left alone. This goes back to the first point in this list, which is that if you feel you need to spend a lot of time with an active and engaged professor to succeed, you want to make sure those people exist where you are. If you go to a smaller school with classes that meet your needs, you’re fine. Don’t worry so much about how everyone else does things or how the God Almighty School of Journalism and Deification does things. Worry about how YOU need to get stuff done to be the best you can be. Take inspiration from the Jamaican Bobsled Team on this one:

  • Experiences:You get a job in this field based on the number of opportunities you have to improve your craft and publicly showcase your wares. In other words, you will live your own version of “publish or perish,” so you need to know if you can publish so you don’t perish. Does the institution have student media outlets where you can get cracking on building a skill set? How hard is it to get involved? What forms of student media are there? Newspaper? TV? Radio? Magazine? More?
    Also, does the place have an internship coordinator for journalism students, a strong alumni network of people who want to hire you and other ways to get you into the field? If you want to know the real “wizard behind the curtain” thing that makes Mizzou amazing, it’s all of this. The place owns the city a.m. daily newspaper, an NBC affiliate and a magazine. And that’s just the start. Add in the national and international program options for journalism students and massive network of “Mizzou Mafia,” you now know why it is that place pumps out J-grads like Alabama produced first-round NFL draft picks. Some places with a killer rep don’t have this while other places you wouldn’t think twice about have quietly built an amazing network of these opportunities.

I don’t know if this makes you feel better or worse about your journalism school choices, but I hope it helps somewhat. Either way, you’re always welcome to swing by and have a cold beverage of your choice here in Omro, courtesy of the ugliest mini-fridge ever.

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