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Correlation between Debt and Placement

February 7, 2017

Michael Bugeja, director,
Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication,
Iowa State University of Science and Technology

Editor’s Note: On Friday, Feb. 3, Michael Bugeja received the Iowa Newspaper’s Association highest honor, the Distinguished Service Award. This is the speech that he delivered at the INA’s award banquet.

This marks my final address as director the Greenlee School. In the past, I represented our program by touting its accomplishments. Tonight I will do so again, but with a different theme: emphasizing what journalism programs must do to reduce debt so that more graduates can enjoy fulfilling careers in community and service journalism.

Working for a community newspaper is a fulfilling experience in itself. You must be a master of content, reporting, writing, editing, shooting, recording and designing for an audience that knows the minutiae of town lore and will remind you about it at the drop of a name or a John Deere cap. You know your readers, and they know you, for better or worse, praising or damning coverage face to face or on Facebook. There are joys of making a difference. Your articles have impact. You ensure the free flow of information in a republic, and small towns are republics in their own right, with powerbases of school and zoning boards, with cultures of commerce and county fair, fields of dreams and soy, and courts of basketball, homecoming and small claims. There is human interest and lack thereof, with newspapers covering both.

As many here tonight will attest, you feel a part of something greater than yourself. That remains the allure of community and service journalism.

But journalism students cannot be part of that environment if they graduate with massive debt. The larger the debt, the smaller the pool of applicants. That not only affects quality of coverage but also indirectly audience interest, subscriptions, digital platforms, advertising rates … and publishers’ bottom lines.

That is the correlation every journalism program must acknowledge and confront.

We work tirelessly at the Greenlee School to mitigate the impact of debt on placement, especially in journalism.

Average beginning salaries in Iowa range from a low of $18,000 in small towns to a high of $33,000 in metro areas. Our graduates cannot afford to have a loan debt greater than their first annual paycheck. If debt equals beginning salary, they might pay off their loans in 10 years.

Reducing debt is a horrendous undertaking for the typical journalism program. You begin by streamlining curricula, eliminating outdated classes that some professors have been teaching for years and believe that they own. You delete emphases, options and tracks. If it isn’t on the diploma, you cannot built courses around it. You invite professionals to assess each course so that you are teaching cutting-edge material.

You require four-year plans of study in orientation to facilitate timely graduation. Each additional semester after four years costs an average $10,000 in housing, tuition and fees. Journalism students cannot afford that. Your professors not only network with professionals but know the curricula and advise with open doors. Nothing is more effective in retention. In sum, you recruit students into your program and get them out of the building into the workforce as soon as possible.

You underwrite career and networking fairs so potential employers can interview your students. You work tireless on building relationships with media companies, foundations and alumni to raise money for scholarships and internship support. If newspapers cannot afford to pay interns, journalism programs have to, or else debt mounts.

You require those internships, too, and promote the experience as capstone and proving ground. This is the only true gauge that tuition dollars were well spent. The goal is simple: Students must hit the ground running, reporting, recording, shooting and creating content without an editor showing them how.

For more than a decade, the Greenlee School has accomplished these objectives. Our enrollment has grown from about 600 in 2011 to more than 850 now. Journalism remains the largest of our three degrees. Skills classes remain small with fewer than 18 students. Because we streamlined curricula, faculty can provide one-on-one training.

This year we doubled our three-year graduation rates. One out of every 10 Greenlee majors graduates in 3 years. Seven out of 10, in four years. Average is 7.75 semesters.

We have excellent placement data. For the past six years, between 95 percent and 100 percent of our graduates have found employment within six months of commencement. We invite any journalism program to compare metrics with ours, and ours are public on our accountability page for taxpayers to see. To be sure, there is more work to be done. Our incoming director, Angela Powers, undoubtedly will improve our performance. Please give her your full support.

In closing, there is one more debt that must be repaid at the INA banquet, and that is to the publishers who have hired our graduates and to our alumni who have distinguished themselves in service to their communities.

If you graduated from Iowa State University or if you have hired an ISU graduate, please raise your hands. May your newsrooms prosper and your audience, grow. Goodbye, and thank you for everything!


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