Journalism Enrollments Fell Two Years in a Row. Is it the Start of a Downward Trend?
July 7, 2014

Update July 11, 12:30 p.m.: See correction appended at the end of this story.
Total enrollment in the nation’s journalism schools has dropped, research by a team at the University of Georgia shows, triggering a variety of responses from the schools and raising questions about the future of journalism education.

At the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism, enrollment fell 9 percent over a recent two-year period, then rebounded after the university moved aggressively to boost financial aid to attract more incoming students into all majors.

Enrollment declines have been steeper at other schools—falling 33 percent over five years at Columbia College Chicago, for example, and 20 percent over five years at Indiana University-Bloomington, according to data collected by the Georgia team. At Indiana, the journalism program is merging this summer with related fields in the arts and sciences college.

Collectively, enrollments in journalism and communication schools nationwide recently fell two years in a row for the first time in two decades, according to an annual study conducted by the University of Georgia’s James M. Cox Jr. Center for International Mass Communication Training and Research. The nationwide decline covered the years starting in fall 2011 and fall 2012, and came at a time of growth for universities overall.

Researchers don’t have enough data to know if this represents the start of a trend, but they think the recent declines may have been triggered by negative publicity about layoffs in the news industry.

“It’s a reasonable question to ask as to whether it’s a good time to be going into something in journalism,” said Lee B. Becker, the University of Georgia professor who led the study.

“I do think the dramatic change in the media landscape is a part of it,” he said. “If you’re a parent, if you’re a young person looking at the future… you’re going to be wondering about the security of the enterprise, and the decline of the mainstream media certainly is something that you would expect the student and the parent to be aware of.”

The study, titled Annual Survey of Journalism & Mass Communication Enrollments, showed total master’s and undergraduate enrollments among 485 U.S. journalism and mass communication programs declined by 2.9 percent in fall 2012, following a combined drop of 1.1 percent the previous year. Previously, enrollment in journalism and mass communication programs had grown every year but two since 1993, the study said.

Both undergraduate and master’s enrollments fell by the same amount in 2012 — 2.9 percent — but their respective declines varied the year before. Undergraduate enrollment dropped 0.5 percent in 2011, while master’s enrollment fell 9.4 percent. Doctoral enrollments, by contrast, increased both years, rising 4.9 percent in 2012 and 4.2 percent in 2011.

Journalism and mass communication enrollment is “dominated” by the undergraduate population, the study found. Some 93 percent of the total 212,488 students enrolled nationwide in the major in the fall of 2012 were undergraduates.

The study found that advertising and public relations continued to expand within mass communication programs, claiming a larger share of the curriculum than pure journalism courses.

The Georgia researchers concluded that journalism education is falling behind other fields within universities, where overall enrollment trends are up. The National Center for Education Statistics, for example, projects 1 percent growth annually for all undergraduate enrollment through 2021.

Media analysts say it’s too soon to tell whether the journalism enrollment declines represent the start of a downturn. “Two years does not a long-term trend make,” said Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute.

He sees the recent dips as a natural reaction to negative publicity about the news industry. Rosenstiel noted that media outlets have extensively documented the crises of journalism employment for years, causing high school students to wonder whether studying the profession will result in a steady career.

“This [study], to some extent, probably reflects the fact that the economic model that subsidized news for much of the last century has been disrupted in ways that are well-documented and publicized,” he said. “If you’re a young person, you’re wondering, ‘Will I have a job?’ and, ‘How much money will I make?’”

The survey, released annually, is “the definitive research in this area,” said Rosenstiel. He said upcoming versions could be more telling: “What’s more interesting than what’s happened in the last two years is what the survey will find in the next three years.”

Still, after decades of growth for journalism schools, many are taking note of the recent numbers. And while the study’s lead author agrees that it’s premature to declare a trend, he considers the numbers noteworthy.

“This represents only two years’ worth of data, but the suggestion is that pattern of overall growth is no longer being experienced,” said Becker.

Becker authored the study with Tudor Vlad and Holly Anne Simpson in the Winter 2013 issue of the Journalism & Mass Communication Educator. The survey is compiled from a voluntary questionnaire sent to journalism and mass communication college administrators.

Some caveats: The study’s authors do not independently verify the data voluntarily provided by each institution. The study also does not examine whether curriculum, departmental or institutional changes resulted in large changes in enrollment data.

The numbers are not uniformly negative for journalism colleges nationwide. While enrollment has declined overall, the study found that finances, institutional stability and racial and ethnic diversity continue to improve at journalism colleges.

Enrollment counts vary based on many factors, including what time of year they’re compiled and who gets counted, so there can be significant differences between data reported to researchers and numbers published later by schools themselves.

Not all schools reported data to the Georgia researchers. Schools that missed a year are excluded from AJR’s searchable version of the data, which is presented with this article.

At Schools, Concern and Stress

AJR contacted administrators at a number of schools to see how they are interpreting and responding to enrollment changes. Administrators have access to more recent data for their own schools, because there is a lag between when the information is collected locally and when it is reported and analyzed by researchers at the University of Georgia.

At Columbia College Chicago, journalism department chair Nancy Day said the number of journalism majors has fallen from a peak of 739 in 2008 to a projected sub-400 number for the upcoming fall.

“We’re concerned about it, of course,” Day said. “It is a mixed bag in terms of, yeah, the numbers are down, but the successes of those who stick with us are good.”

Day also blamed negative media coverage of the journalism job market for discouraging prospective students from applying. “A lot of the newer jobs, people don’t know” about, she said. “They’re not the mainstays like NBC or even CNN.”

At the University of Missouri, internal data show undergraduate journalism enrollment dropped by 9 percent from the 2011-12 academic year to the 2013-2014 academic year, according to Lynda Kraxberger, the program’s associate dean for undergraduate studies. She noted that the decline followed a growth spurt, which is reflected in the Georgia survey. It shows undergraduate enrollment at the University of Missouri-Columbia rose 56 percent from 2008 to 2012.

Missouri’s journalism school includes public relations components dubbed “strategic communication” and is one of the largest in the nation, with a reported 3,046 students in fall 2012.

“Because of challenges in higher education, and because we have a very prestigious school of journalism, there was pressure on our school to begin to accept more students,” Kraxberger said.

While noting that a smaller number of journalism majors could still lead to a successful program, she said administrators worry over enrollment declines.

“Most everyone in higher education feels stressed by competing for what are perceived as scarce resources,” Kraxberger said. “One byproduct of getting smaller is you get fewer tuition dollars.”

In response to enrollment declines overall at Missouri, the university decided to up its aid packages to make the cost more palatable, Kraxberger said. This is happening across the country, she said: “Everybody’s becoming more savvy in competing.”

The rising tide lifted the journalism college, too. Compared to last year, the college’s total applications were down, but enrollment is up 11 percent for the fall of 2014, she said.

At the University of Maryland, where journalism and communication are in separate colleges, internal school data shows undergraduate enrollment at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism increased by 9.5 percent over the past three years, while graduate enrollment there decreased by 15.8 percent over the same period.

Lucy Dalglish, dean of the Merrill College, said its graduate enrollment increased during the recent recession, and has since been decreasing as the economy improved. “When the economy does poorly, people go to graduate school,” she said.

At Penn State, which has one of the largest communication schools in the country, the number of sophomores who declare the journalism major has declined by 3.1 percent from 2009 to 2013, according to Steve Sampsell, college relations director.

“I would call it normal fluctuations,” said Doug Anderson, dean of Penn State’s communications college. “Those shifts have been so gradual that we’ve never been in a panic mode …. It really doesn’t have much of an impact.”

Anderson has heard of other institutions approaching the enrollment declines as an opportunity instead of a failure: “A lot of programs, quite frankly, I’m sure, might regard this as rightsizing instead of downsizing.”

The survey’s author said the annual enrollment survey is one of the metrics through which college administrators, deans and presidents monitor the success of journalism and mass communication programs. “You have to be able to look at the number of students you’re attracting and the number of students you’re serving,” Becker said.

Changing Curricula, Blurred Lines

Enrollment declines affect journalism education not only in financial ways, but also through curricular changes. Advertising and public relations continue to grow in enrollment, the study found.

“Journalism has remained a strong core component of journalism and mass communication education, but it is clearly not the dominant part of the field and has not been going back at least as far as 1988,” the authors write. “Advertising and public relations are clear counterweights.”

Seven out of 10 students in journalism and mass communications are studying advertising and public relations, as has been the case for more than two decades, the study found.

“Journalism education has changed dramatically over time, from a field primarily associated with instruction for a career in a single occupation — journalism — to instruction designed to prepare students for careers in a variety of communication occupations,” the study said.

The big concern, Kraxberger said, is in the decline of interest in classical journalism, which involves holding governments accountable, exposing inequities and reporting on world affairs.

“In 2001, we had a lot of people coming to school because they wanted to see better reporting of international news and they wanted to see more critical reporting on global events,” Kraxberger said. “We were probably starting to hit the peak of that when we hit the recession.”

Declining journalism enrollments put pressure on administrators to make drastic changes to structure and curricula.
The study found that 80 percent of administrators said they had made changes in their curricula since the previous year—such as adding multimedia and social media courses, merging various curricula and creating public relations specializations—nearly the same amount as for the past two years.

In the study, 74.6 percent of administrators reported sharing a program or collaborating with other academic units, an increase of 10 percentage points from 2010.

Journalism administrators cited limited resources, faculty reluctance, job vacancies and bureaucracy as obstacles to change, the study found.

At Indiana University, the study shows a 20 percent decline in undergraduate journalism enrollment from 2008 to 2012.
Reflecting a trend of conglomeration and blurring the lines between journalism and other academic fields of study, that journalism program is merging with related fields in the arts and sciences college this summer.

“I know [the merger] has caused some concern,” said Anne Kibbler, the communications and media relations director at Indiana University’s journalism college. “But we have been reassuring our students and our alumni that journalism is still going to be first and foremost for us.”

Lagging or Leading Indicator?

Becker and Rosenstiel said it’s not possible to extrapolate future enrollments from the existing data, and neither speculated about what would happen in the coming years.

“To some extent, we don’t know whether journalism school graduates are a lagging or a leading indicator,” Rosenstiel said. “In other words, do they point to the future or do they tell us what we already know? If they’re a lagging indicator, then this is no surprise.”

Because high school students “guess” where to go to college based on past media coverage, Rosenstiel said, the survey’s results are a lagging indicator.

There was a surge in enrollment in journalism schools in the 1970s, and Rosenstiel recalled a Columbia Journalism Review article that featured actors Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in the 1976 film adaptation of the Watergate chronicle, “All the President’s Men.” 

“The point of the article was that there were now more students in journalism programs in the U.S. than there were jobs in journalism in the U.S.,” Rosenstiel said. “Not job openings, jobs. Period.”

The Watergate scandal and ensuing media frenzy had made journalism “about as cool as it could get,” he said. “It was not a leading indicator of where things were going. It was a reflection of what had happened. And I think that’s what we’re seeing.”

What has happened? The number of jobs in traditional newsrooms has shrunk, Rosenstiel said, and a bevy of bad news revolving around 2009 discouraged students from pursuing journalism.

But new jobs are growing in less publicized places, and digital innovators see this era as a “golden age for news,” he said.

“You actually have Internet-based entrepreneurs who are moving into the journalism space,” he said. “That’s probably more of a leading indicator: That you have people with new money who want to move into this.”

Becker said in the coming years, journalism schools will need to turn their analytical prowess inward using data from his survey and other sources to help them respond to the changes occurring in journalism and education. He noted a trove of useful data exists from journalism college surveys dating back to 1934.

He remains optimistic about employment prospects for journalism and mass communication majors and the field overall—if colleges are responsive to changes.

“The potential for communication education is really, really positive,” he said. “And I think the prospects are quite good if the field is reflective, tries to understand what is happening in a very, very dynamic environment.”

Update July 11, 12:30 p.m.: CORRECTION – This story originally included a list of schools that experienced large enrollment decreases (and some that experienced large increases), based on data from the University of Georgia’s James M. Cox Jr. Center for International Mass Communication Training and Research annual enrollment survey. It also included a graphic containing enrollment data from 2008-2012 for hundreds of schools that was originally published in the annual University of Georgia surveys. AJR removed the list of schools and the accompanying graphic after additional reporting by AJR found several errors in the University of Georgia survey data. AJR is working to determine how these errors affect overall enrollment totals referenced in the story.


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