Working in the communications field the past two decades, I admit I suffer from a slight education inferiority complex. As a technology public relations resource the past 15 years after starting as a journalist, most of the technologists and executives I work with sport impressive degrees in complex fields from engineering to economics.
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It’s not that I’m not proud of my degree in journalism that I’ve been fortunate enough to leverage into a productive career. It’s just that you can become occasionally intimidated hanging out with razor-sharp engineers from the Stanfords and MITs of the world.
It only adds insult to injury when firms like Bankrate.com issue reports, published last month, that label your degree one of the worst for return-on-investment. Granted, Bankrate.com’s analysis was focused on current students who use loans to pay for their education, and not journalism students of the past. But the report still stung when it ranked journalism as the second worst degree in terms of value — just ahead of marriage therapists.
Bankrate.com used tuition data from the National Center for Education Statistics and job data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to calculate the average time it would take a worker to pay off their student loan debt (assuming an average interest payment of 6 percent).
Following that formula, the report theorizes a four-year journalism degree carries a debt level of about $52,000. At an average salary of $37,000 a year, it would take working journalists about 31 years to pay off student loans if 10 percent of their salary was dedicated to this task. That’s terrible ROI, anyway you size it.
On the other hand, advertising and marketing workers, with an annual median salary of nearly $108,000, can pay off their student loans in less than six years — the best ROI of any profession. Economists follow behind at a ROI of slightly more than seven years on average, and engineers (no big surprise!) come in third on the ROI scale at around 8.5 years to fully pay off student loans.
Rounding out the bottom of the list along with journalists and marriage therapists are teachers, who on average pay off their student debt in more than 20 years, and veterinarians who require eight years of school and average about $84,000 annually in pay — meaning it will take them about 28 years to pay off their loans.
Why is the analysis interesting? For starters, society preaches to youth to pursue a career in whatever they choose — to follow their passion. And while that romantic vision may still work for some, the country is also dealing with an epidemic of unemployed college graduates with no short-term ability to repay student loans. Estimates indicate that about 37 million U.S. borrowers are saddled with more than $1 trillion in student loan debt.
Is the solution for all youths to become engineers? It certainly wouldn’t hurt if more American students focused on math and science. This is especially true since the majority of advanced degree earners in technical fields are foreign nationals who are more frequently taking their education — and their future achievements, which are what originally spurred the technology industry here in the U.S. — to their home nations. This has put America’s position of technology dominance into question.
The solution isn’t for everyone to study the same thing. As some experts on the topic have written, it wasn’t so long ago that college was more about enlightenment in general and less about what a student specifically studied.
It seems the ideal path is to follow what interests you, then work as diligently as you can to become the best — the absolute expert — in that particular field. Experts are successful at whatever they choose to do because they rise above the masses. After all, we can all think of myriad journalists who have enjoyed lucrative careers, from Matt Lauer to Anderson Cooper, love them or hate them.
Indeed, a journalism degree still has value if you want a career rich in writing, communication and experiences outside the walls of an office. In many cases, journalists still have the privilege of seeking out the truth. Professional rewards are present even if the salary is relatively low.
And if you choose to someday cross over to the PR side of the fence, get ready to be a little intimidated, but be confident that you can continue to make a difference. There is always a role for communicators in the office, especially when they are surrounded by a pack of engineers.
Dan Francisco is an El Dorado Hills-based public relations consultant to the high-tech industry.