Should you major in journalism only if you have a trust fund?

By Trevor Butterworth

The question of the value of a journalism degree never fails to give journalists palpitations – or at least those who have educational loans to pay off – and the latest installment of this debate comes from The Chicago Reader, the Nation, and Poynter (which neatly summarizes the previous two, and the spread of tone from anxiety to denunciation of the whole idea of a journalism degree).

Adding a cool light to the over-heated exchange, is a recent study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, which gives some (but not all) of the numeric data we need to answer the question in more than anecdotal terms.

First off, the median wage for those with an undergraduate major in journalism was $51,000 – compared to $50k for advertising and public relations majors, and communications majors. The median for mass media majors was $45k. Earnings at the 75th percentile showed journalism majors pulling ahead, with $80k to ad and pr majors $73k.

For the 22 percent who got a graduate degree in addition to their journalism major (the study didn’t specify whether this degree was in journalism or another subject), the boost to earnings was 28 percent.

Unfortunately, the study didn’t calculate those who majored in another subject but switched to journalism through a graduate degree. Nor did it calculate the relative student loan burden on earnings over time.

What it did show was that, despite 59 percent of journalism majors being female, the female median earnings were significantly less than male – $47k to $60k. The difference was less, though still considerable, for advertising and PR, where 64 percent of majors were female, but the earnings divide was $44k v $55k.

Journalism majors were 84 percent White, 7 percent African American, 5 percent Hispanic and 3 percent Asian.

How did this compare with humanities and liberal arts majors? Overall, the median earnings were less for this group as a whole than journalism – $47,000, and the only exception when broken out by subfield was American history majors, who had median earnings of $57,000. Journalism majors did better than English majors (48k), and common foreign language majors (45k).

Humanities majors were, generally, twice as likely to get a graduate degree as journalism majors, but when they did so, got twice the earnings boost. (It’s not clear whether this means the median earnings would be even worse than journalism if the graduate degrees were factored out of the earnings for both groups.)

The gender earnings gap was less pronounced for humanities majors ($7,000 overall) with women, once again, a majority in the major group (58 percent to 42 percent for men). There wasn’t a noticeable difference in race and ethnic composition to journalism.

Obviously, earnings for journalism majors are less than for business, computing, and hard science majors, but one can argue that these majors don’t, in general, draw on the same pool. If you are majoring in journalism or English, you are unlikely to have also considered, say, chemistry or math as a major.

So the economic evidence is actually quite favorable for journalism majors, if we assume that the most likely alternative majors would have been in humanities subjects.

The surprising factor is the difference in pay for men versus women, which is more pronounced than in the other humanities, but less so for business or engineering. Of course, driving this might be the fact that women leave the workforce to have children right at the time when they are reaching senior pay scales; or, it might be that they are fired or pushed out if and when they have kids. As always, more research is needed.

(For a look at some of the other economic issues raised by this study, check out this week’s column on The Daily).

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One Response to Should you major in journalism only if you have a trust fund?

  1. mommy-fied says:

    I am currently a journalism major but I am considering switching to English major for several reasons. Which option do you think would offer more career options?

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