The college journalism and communication experience

At a time of enormous change, how people learn — and how academic institutions, educators, organizations, student publications and others can help them — is a major issue. The survey asked people a battery of questions about how they learn, what they learned in school and their academic experience more generally.

In general, people view their academic experience positively. But schools clearly teach some subjects better than others, and there are longstanding underlying questions about what kind of experiences in school and on the job are most resonant.

We began by asking a broad question. Thinking about how people had learned their professional skills, we asked them to rank various methods of learning, from their core classes in college and graduate to professional on the job training and their own personal efforts at trial and error.

At the top of the pyramid of learning sits something more personal than what people found in a classroom. At the bottom sits what was organized for them in terms of professional development on the job, and even lower what they have found online or in distance learning. Fully 80% rated trial on their own as the most valuable way they have learned followed by mentors they sought out (60%) and then school classes (56%). The fact that classes comes in third behind trial and error and mentors may undercount to some degree the various indirect influences in education–where trial and error and mentors also occur. Stronger programs also will have stronger student media and more active and helpful alumni networks. But the findings point out how important those indirect influences are.

[chart slug=”journo-45A”]

When asked to evaluate their academic experience in journalism, communication, public relations or media generally, they regard it with fondness. About 9 out of 10 (92%) rate their journalism/communication school experience as either “very” (57%) or “somewhat” (35%) favorable.  Only 4% rate it as unfavorable.

[chart slug=”journo-46″]

When asked how effective their schools were at teaching specific skill sets, however, that picture becomes more nuanced. We asked this question a couple of ways. First, we asked about different fairly traditional journalistic skills that are taught in communication and journalism education — including audio and video storytelling, editing and opinion writing.

Writing stood again at the top of the list of skills for which people thought their academic institutions had prepared them well. Reporting and editing also stood high (No. 3 and No. 4 on a list of 13 skills). Interestingly, some skills that more than a generation ago schools identified as a need still sit low on this list of traditional items. Fluency with numbers and data ranked 11th out of 13 in the number of people who thought what they learned was effective.

[chart slug=”journo-47″]

How much do these scores change depending on when someone graduated? The answer offers some clue to how much curricula may have shifted over the years, at least for these core content-producing skills. The answer is there are signs of change, but perhaps not as much as some might suspect.

First, the fundamentals remain. The first four ranks — writing, newsgathering, editing and investigative techniques — remain the same from the oldest graduate cohort to the youngest.

But other skills have moved up. Video instruction has improved in the estimation of graduates (10% thought is very effective before 1981, 24% in the last decade.) Web literacy, naturally, moves up, from 2% to 24% calling the training they received very effective.  But some things did not change much. When it comes to teaching fluency with numbers and math generally, 6% rated their training very effective before 1981. Seven percent who graduated a generation later rated it so.

The list does not change as much if one looks by the nature of the degree earned, whether it was in journalism, public relations and advertising or communication generally.

Then we asked about skills that go beyond traditional newsgathering — from the same list we asked about ranking how important skills were in the workplace — everything from computer science and the economics of media to career development skills and using metrics.

Here ethics and media law stood out well. Issues that related to data and technology did not.

[chart slug=”journo-49″]

For these non-traditional and sometimes more digitally oriented skills, one might expect the date of graduation to make an enormous difference in how alumni ranked how effective the school was. That kind of shift, however, is not evident in the data.

Indeed, when one looks closely at the different eras, the overall picture is of an academy that has changed relatively slowly. As an example, 3% of those who graduated between 1996 and 2005 rated their schools as very effective at teaching HTML, the foundational and most basic computer language. In those who graduated in the next decade and most recently, that number grew by 1 percentage point to 4%.

Put another way, the ranking of mean ratings of the first six items on this list of non-traditional skills is virtually the same whether one looks at those who graduated before 1981 and those who graduated after 2005 (understanding the economics of the news business and being prepared for being a lifelong learner switch places). Schools get clearly higher rankings for some things: The teaching of career management skills rises progressively from 6% rating it very effective prior to 1981 to triple that number (19%) for those who graduated in the past decade. The teaching of social media skills increases sevenfold in the rankings of those who graduated between 1996 and 2005 versus those who graduated after 2005 (from 2% to 15%). That shift, and relatively high ranking, suggests communication schools have seized on the importance of social media strongly — particularly given that Facebook itself was founded in 2004.

But looking across this data more generally, not only do communication schools remain strongest in the ratings of older skills when it comes to those that move beyond core reporting and writing (such as media ethics and media law), but also the level of change on new skills is relatively low.

[chart slug=”journo-49a”]

To verify what schools do well even more, the survey asked a follow-up: In which topics did people feel “most prepared,” asking them to pick up to three choices. Here, as one would expect, the three most traditional and core skills, transferable across topics and even industries stood out. But only one skill was cited by more than a majority.

The majority (though a slim majority, 53%) named writing skills, and roughly a third (37%) cited “editing” and then news and information gathering/reporting and interviewing skills (36%). No other skill set rose above 15%, though different people in this very large respondent base named many different skills as ones they were best prepared in.

[chart slug=”journo-50″]

This list changes in subtle ways, rather than dramatic ones, when one looks at when people graduated. While the rankings are similar across generations, fewer people who graduated after 2005 say they feel most prepared in newsgathering than do those who graduated before 1981 (31% versus 43%, and successively fewer in each age cohort in between. The patterns and the numbers show an almost identical drop in editing. (The pattern does not hold for the evaluation of writing training.)

Conversely, more people in the youngest graduation cohort say they were most prepared in video storytelling and production, social media and career skills, and design.

[chart slug=”journo-51″]

We also asked what people felt least prepared in. Many of the answers, but not all of these, are more digital skills, and the answers vary significantly by when people graduated. But some of the top areas that people felt ill-prepared for — such as fluency with math in general, career development and business management — are hardly items that are a function of digital technology.

[chart slug=”journo-52″]

Interestingly, too, more recent graduates are more likely to say they were least well prepared for various digital and multimedia skills. For instance, higher percentages of those who graduated in the past decade feel ill-prepared in graphics and web design. Fully 27% of these most recent graduates say they feel least prepared in HTML, the highest percentage saying they were ill-prepared for any of the skills queried. That finding, for a skill many high school students now receive, stands out.

[chart slug=”journo-53″]

To some significant degree, these numbers may reflect ongoing issues educators face. There are limits to how many journalism and communication credits schools can teach due to accreditation. As the list of skills needed grows, the available credits to teach new courses cannot grow at a commensurate rate. Faculties and curricula may change more slowly than industry. But the numbers raise issues.

Student media and internships

One area educators are curious about and that the survey probed with some granularity is the experience and impact of student media organizations — from publications such as print and television to advertising clubs and public relations societies. Another was the impact of internships.

Not all graduates participated in them, though most did, and student newspapers were the most popular, with more than a third (39%) saying they had spent some time with them. But the list shows some significant change over time. Prior to 1981, more than half of students worked on a newspaper in school. That had fallen to 40% between 1981 and 1995 and stands at 31% for those who graduated between 2006 and 2015. Radio participation has declined as well. Magazine work has become more popular. Online work still lags well behind most other kinds of student publications, even in the past decade.

[chart slug=”journo-54″]

Of those who did participate, most people spent a sizable amount of time on student media organizations, too. More than half (56%) spent at least three semesters working with them.

[chart slug=”journo-55″]

The majority of those who worked on student publications (six out of ten), did not hold senior management positions on them–which often can take enormous amounts of student time. But those who did take on those management roles did so for long periods. More than a quarter of all those who worked on student publications held senior management jobs for at least a year.

[chart slug=”journo-56″]

The study also looked at internships. Fully 7 out of 10 said they had internships of some kind. And 41% said they had more than one.

[chart slug=”journo-57″]

Share with your network

You also might be interested in: