The best journalism school in America is… – Knight Foundation

The best journalism school in America is…

Photo credit: Flickr user Ethan Lofton.

The best journalism school in America is … Pennsylvania State. Scratch that: It’s Columbia University. No, wait. It’s the University of North Carolina. Sorry, I meant to say Arizona State … errr … Missouri … ahhh … Northwestern. Correction, it’s the University of Georgia. No, it isn’t.

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 with their accrediting agency, Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications  (ACEJMC) turn out to be about as useful as a jumble of mismatched socks. Look at the data  and tell me if you can tell which school has the highest four-year graduation rate or the best record for grads getting media jobs.

This matters because college presidents base decisions on evidence. Other schools have national rankings. Journalism and communication schools don’t even have the metrics to begin to create a ranking. They can’t compete without numbers.

Some accredited programs – 108 of the country’s nearly 500 journalism and communication programs are accredited – say that means they are in the top 20 percent. That’s hardly definitive. So, like so many puffer fish, we inflate ourselves with anecdotes of famous alumni and roll our spikes toward anyone who disagrees.  

A few metrics make sense. Penn State (3,118 students) is the largest; Missouri (1908), the oldest; Columbia, home of the Pulitzer Prize, the most prestigious. North Carolina has won more “overall” Hearst collegiate journalism awards than any other school in the past 15 years; students from Arizona State, the most first place Hearst broadcast awards during that time period; Northwestern, the most writing awards, Western Kentucky, the most photography and multimedia awards.

Thank goodness for what we have, especially the Hearst Journalism Awards. But by themselves these data points are not nearly enough. How valid are surveys, such as the NewsPro-Radio Television Digital News Association poll that chose Missouri, Northwestern and the University of Georgia as the top three schools? How much weight should we give professor Dan Reimold’s College Media Matters, which lists 50 “best” undergraduate programs?

(If you don’t think a journalism degree is necessary, colleges become much easier to compare. Head to Princeton, Harvard or Yale, ranked Nos. 1 through 3, respectively, by U.S. News and World Report.)

I repeat: This matters. Not just for college presidents wanting to know how their schools compare when deciding if they should grow or shrink, but for faculty, staff and donors who work and funding decisions based on an amalgam of whatever measurements they can find.

Worst of all, the opaque nature of journalism education quality and the lack of general transparency is bad for the next generation of content creators, young people who increasingly struggle to get through college, all too often graduating after six years with a large student loan debt.

Here’s the problem: 1. Diagnosing the health of a journalism or communications school requires a lot of vital statistics, not just a few. 2. Most of the nation’s journalism schools do a poor job of reporting on themselves. There are few useful metrics. 3. Most field-wide research about journalism education is too tired or weak to be useful. 4. To know what to measure, you have to know what it is you are actually trying to do. What is a journalism school for, anyway?

On Friday, Feb. 28, in San Antonio, journalism and communications deans and department heads are discussing metrics in a meeting called “Time for a checkup. How healthy is your unit?” I’m leading a session called “Hacking the Metrics.”

So let’s start hacking. In the era of big data, here’s the  bottom line: What do we know? Almost nothing. What do we need to know? Practically everything.

Anyone who has read  knows I think j-schools need to get a move on. And the best schools are changing. The best professors are adapting. The best deans are reimagining. Their students are getting their money’s worth. We should honor the good journalism schools by measuring their reforms. We can help ourselves by tracking the speed with which these changes are sweeping through journalism education as a whole.

So here’s a wish list for what the entire field of journalism education should know, collectively:

Basic  benchmarks

How many applications do the schools get? As a whole, are they going up or down? What’s the ratio of applicants to enrollees? What are the minimum SAT scores needed for acceptance? Tuition? Financial aid dollars per incoming student? Percentage of total costs those dollars cover? Percentage of students from lower economic quartile?

How old are the applicants and where do they come from, ie., high schools, other colleges, employment, unemployment? For both graduate and undergraduate programs.

What majors are offered and what general categories do they fall under? What is the total department/school budget? Up or down? What is the student administration ratio? Student faculty ratio? Student per budget dollar ratio? Is any of this different at public or private schools?


Annually, for at least the first five years of their careers, ask: Given what you are doing now, what were the classes you wish you had? What were the best classes? Why? Looking back, what would you change?

We need dependable field-wide employment stats that focus in a detailed way on type of employer, salary, needed skills and knowledge. Are grads being hired in traditional news organizations, new media organizations, startups, public media organizations or in other types of companies or organizations?

In the digital age, when every company is a media company, borders get fuzzy. If journalism students write non-fiction stories for the website of a nonprofit or a company, the same stories they would write for a newspaper, what are they? Content creators? Narrators? Storytellers? The landscape is changing beneath us. We seem to be losing our grip even on starting salaries. A graphic artist at a newspaper might start at $30K per year. A graphic artist who can write code (an interface designer) might jump into a startup at $90K, with stock options.

Content and impact

How many schools practice the “teaching hospital model” of journalism education, producing actual journalism for the campus or community? We need to measure beyond student media into journalism clinics and media innovation labs. How much community journalism do they provide? What is the size of the community engaged with it? (My guess is journalism education serves millions of Americans without ever totaling it up.)

On the flip side, how many schools have public broadcasting licenses without any real volume of community news airing on those stations? We should measure that.

How many of the “teaching hospital” programs engage their communities? Do such programs engage communities in story selection, reporting, even crowd funding? Do such programs know what their communities think of their coverage and whether they act on it?

How many schools use their field clinics in journalism to test new technology experiments developed in their own classes or labs?

How many of those “learning by doing” models include marketing, advertising, business or technology students to build out those aspects of student or community media?

Digital change in the classroom

How many schools have classes that teach students how to quickly learn new technology and find its journalistic uses, regardless of the new tech?

How many schools teach students to write computer code, how many classes do those schools have, how many students take them and are they required?

How many classes teach mobile app development? How many classes teach product development? User-centric design? Business and entrepreneurism? How many classes or student media groups used Kickstarter to launch projects? How many routinely teach new digital tools? How many teach new devices routinely?

How many classes are new that year? How many old ones have been dropped? What percentages are these of the overall?

Are there minimum class sizes? What are they? What’s the national average?

How many schools have technology labs or centers? How large are they in staff/budget? Do they have specialties, i.e., drone journalism, sensor journalism, software tools?

The digital core

What must all students know? How many digital classes are required of all students at each school? How much computer-assisted reporting is required? Are all students taught how to query data sets, or, as Columbia Dean Steve Coll might say, how to interview an algorithm? Do all students take statistics? Do schools have a numeracy requirement? How many credit hours and what classes satisfy that?

How many schools offer one-unit classes on specialized technology or technique, and how many of those are there?

What is the percentage of digital classes at a school vs. all classes? How many schools offer digital media degrees? How many offer joint degrees or double majors with business or computer science or other schools?

Are community service projects, internships, capstone or portfolio classes required? Are they “digital”? Have “tracks” – print, broadcast, etc. –  been eliminated?

Faculty and teaching

What is the scholar-professional ratio at each institution? What is the tenure/untenured faculty ratio? What classes do adjuncts teach vs. tenured faculty? What is the race and gender diversity in the various categories?

How schools offer professional development for faculty? How much does that cost per faculty member? What is developed? Do professional journalists pay to have their skills freshened at the school?

What are the faculty salary averages at different schools? What is the average number of years of service of the faculty?

What are the fundamental learning models? What percentage of the classes are “flipped,” with lecture material consumed as homework and class time used to “make” things? How many classes are paid for their class products by “clients”?

How many classes are online? How many massive open online courses (MOOCs) are offered? How many schools emphasize year-round learning?

How many scholars publish in the most read and cited academic journals as opposed to the least popular and least cited? How many of the books written sell well?

How much grant money comes in for research? On what topics and in what departments? How much research is “digital”? How many patents? How many new companies, products or tools, were born at the school?

I could go on. The point is that the current field-wide studies and accreditation reports either don’t ask what they could ask or are not kept up to date. ACEJMC accreditation comes every six years, which is 3.5 lifetimes in digital device time.

If accreditation requirements called for the schools to collect the right data and make it available in a standard open format, we’d have real-time insights. Accredited programs that drop below standards could receive automatic probation. Non-accredited programs that rise above basic standards would know that immediately. 

Think about the things you could know. How much student debt, on average, did the graduates have at each school? At average starting salaries in the field, assuming a reasonable payout, how long would it take to pay those off? How many of the lower-economic segment of the population are graduating? What is their debt? Is college playing its historic role of helping people move up?

“The more things you measure, the better your feel for the overall quality of a program,” said experienced Penn State Dean Doug Anderson.

Other schools at universities  –  business, law, education, medicine – have much more data about what they do than do journalism and communication schools.  If journalism schools don’t get some numbers, and get them fast, they will lose internal budget arguments, get downgraded and shunted aside.

At Knight Foundation, we have invested more than $220 million in journalism education at universities during the past 25 years. As we began to focus on how the digital age was disrupting journalism, our journalism education funding has shifted from traditional “best practices” programs at mostly large campuses to more innovative programs at increasingly smaller universities. Innovation can come from anywhere. Better metrics will help us understand where it is and isn’t happening.

My final point is a journalistic one. For years, journalists have crunched everyone else’s data. The children of the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (NICAR)  grew up in fields of Big Data before it had that name. The Investigative Reporters and Editors group has  extraordinary data sets on its website. It is no longer geeky to look at data; we all want to do it, but we seem to be able to look at everyone’s data but our own.

The whole point of querying databases, of finding the stories in those trends, is that there’s real journalism in there. The insights, the revelations, can help improve the way organizations behave. We owe it to ourselves to use the same process to improve journalism education.   But we can’t do it without data. As Sherlock Holmes cried out to faithful scribe Dr. Watson in “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”: “Data! Data! Data! I can’t make bricks without clay!”

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