Jacking Up J-School Tuition

A proposal to add $10,250 to the annual price tag for Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism worries many students, faculty members and alumni.

September 23, 2014
UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism
Dean Ed Wasserman

A proposal to raise tuition at the University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism has some faculty members, alumni and students worried about destroying the school’s distinctive character.

Faced with a half-million-dollar budget gap, Dean Edward Wasserman announced plans to recommend a tuition increase for the 2016-17 academic year in a memo to campus members earlier this month.

He said the increase is necessary given the school’s financial standing, and that the amount students pay doesn’t actually cover what it costs to provide that education.

He also said that the school would remain devoted to affordability and dedicate a large portion of the sum raised through the new fee to financial aid.

Much of the online response to the idea has been negative, with several people questioning how journalists can afford to pay an additional $20,500 over two years for a degree in a troubled industry with historically low pay.

Students speaking about the proposal online and in interviews for this article said that affordability was one of the major reasons they chose Berkeley’s two-year master’s degree program.

“We’re here because we care about social justice, and we want to tell good stories,” said Mara Van Ells, a first-year student. “We’re not necessarily going to make a lot of money when we graduate, especially in today’s market.”

The fee represents a 65 percent increase over the $15,802 that in-state students are paying this year in tuition and fees. (Out-of-state and international students pay $31,084.) About three-quarters of the school’s roughly 100 students use loans to finance their degrees, according to Wasserman’s memo.

The increase falls under an area known as professional degree supplemental tuition, in which all the money raised stays within that academic department. Wasserman pointed out that this type of supplemental tuition is the norm for other professional graduate school programs. In California, the fees range from about $39,000 for the business school to $4,000 for the social welfare graduate program, according to his memo.

Everyone recognizes that journalism students aren't likely to have the same capacity to repay loans that graduates of other master’s degree programs do, Wasserman said. But that’s why he isn’t asking for a $40,000 additional fee, he said.

“We think our students will be entering the work force at a very high level,” he said. “They should be able to demand good pay, and we’ll help them in whatever way we can. But we’ve got to deal with the cost of educating them first.”

Right now, the journalism school isn’t getting enough money from the University of California system and Berkeley's central administration to pay all its bills, Wasserman said. The school also needs to improve its fund-raising and career services.

The school’s budget shortfall of $500,000 is forecast to increase by 60 percent over the next five years if the school doesn’t bring in additional revenue, he said. The $10,250 fee is expected to bring in an additional $1 million a year, and that should be enough to put the school on a more sustainable path.

“If [students and faculty] look at the numbers and look at the realities of the financial picture we face, I think they’ll agree changes need to be made,” Wasserman said.

Forty-one percent of the money raised would go back toward scholarship money, he said. Some of the money would also pay to beef up the school’s development office, which has only one employee right now, Wasserman said. The rest would go toward improving career services to help students in their job searches, upgrading technology and advancing the school’s name and image, Wasserman said.  

In the meantime, the school is also looking at other ways to raise revenue, including expanding its classes for non-degree students looking for continuing education in journalism and studying the possibility of launching a one-year master’s degree program focused on digital media.  

The journalism school has never instituted a supplemental tuition fee, but this isn’t the first time the idea has been floated.

Former Dean Neil Henry, who’s still on the faculty as a professor, suggested a $5,000 fee in 2010, but faculty members rejected the idea and it was never passed.

No Consensus on the Faculty

Professor Lydia Chavez hopes that will be the case again. When she received an email from the dean over the summer saying a fee increase was a possibility, she told the dean that he ought to take a poll of the faculty members first.

New fees are never popular with students or alumni, so it’s important to have a unified position of support from the faculty, Chavez said. And that doesn’t seem to be the case here, she said.

The struggles of the journalism industry right now are well-documented and the debt burden of higher education is under scrutiny. No public institution should be adding to student debt right now, she said.

“In terms of public relations for the school, it’s horrendous to have this out there,” she said.

Chavez described Berkeley as a gateway institution that opens doors for students who work, are immigrants, or are the first in their family to pursue a graduate degree.

“We should be accessible to those people,” she said. “I think people will see that price and not even apply.”

Faculty members will vote whether to support or reject the plan in the coming weeks, before it heads in November to the university system’s Board of Regents, which has final authority. The board can adopt the fee, deny it or approve a smaller amount.

A second-year journalism student, Mark Boyer, said the proposed fee increase is the hot topic on campus right now, despite the fact that it wouldn’t affect current students.

Like Van Ells, the first-year student, he doesn’t think he’d have been able to attend Berkeley if he’d had to pay an additional $10,000 a year. And that’s what he’s heard from all the students and alumni talking about it, he said.

“I think it’s disappointing that the university system isn’t providing enough toward paying the bills for the journalism school,” he said. “But it’s also disappointing that the journalism school thinks this is the only way to address these financial issues.”

Boyer said a $10,000 per year spike seems like a radical solution, and he fears it could change the culture of the school by pricing out low- and middle-income students.

Jennifer Chaussee, also a second-year student, is encouraging students to attend a town-hall-style meeting at the Berkeley campus today where they can hear the dean’s proposal and ask questions. Today’s meeting follows one last week at which the proposal and related financial information was presented to faculty members and lecturers.

One of the biggest questions still circulating is whether the administration has exhausted all its revenue and fund raising possibilities before introducing this worst-case scenario of passing on the cost to students, she said.

Wasserman has only been in his role as dean since January 2013, and it takes time to build relationships for successful fund-raising campaigns, she said.

Chaussee said she also hasn’t seen much explanation for how the figure of $10,250 was calculated.

 “They’re essentially doubling what we’re paying, and that’s nuts,” she said. “If they want a couple thousand dollars more a year, that’s one thing… But this amount seems excessive.”


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