Last October, only 56 percent  of recent journalism and mass communication graduates had landed a full-time job. And enrollments in those programs dropped 2.9 percent  last year, marking just the second time since 1997 that enrollments have dropped two years in a row.
Not exactly the ideal time to start up a journalism program, one might assume.
But those dim numbers aren’t stopping Texas A&M University from reviving its journalism degree 10 years after giving it the ax. Rather, officials are betting that their new, liberal arts-focused approach will pay off for graduates.
“From my standpoint, the real question is, what are we preparing students for with that interdisciplinary approach to education that includes an emphasis on critical thinking and writing?” said Dale Rice, director of A&M’s journalism studies program. “I think we are preparing students to go out and be journalists, but we are also preparing students for a wide variety of fields. I think huge numbers of employers want people who can think on their feet, who know how to ask and answer questions, who know how to do research and who have a broad-based background.”
The “Liberal Arts Degree in Journalism” curriculum will include a variety of electives and cross-listed courses as well as classes on new media, writing and reporting on multiple platforms that were already required in the interdisciplinary journalism minor, whose enrollment has quadrupled to 80 students since A&M introduced it five years ago. The university will no longer offer the minor, and majors will be required to minor in two other subjects, one within the liberal arts college and one in any subject of their choice.
“In 21st-century journalism, critical thinking might be the most important skill you could take into the field, and thus we wanted to keep that interdisciplinary approach,” Rice said. The faculty senate, which approved the major Monday, expressed no concern about the move in light of the job market and declining enrollment nationwide.
The plan has been in the works for a while, Rice said; reviving the major was the end game of officials’ expanding the journalism minor courses over the last several years.
Paula M. Poindexter, a University of Texas at Austin journalism professor and president of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, agreed with Rice on the job market front: j-school graduates aren’t just going to newspapers, she said, they’re becoming entrepreneurs, they’re working at Facebook and Google and Twitter, they’re working at startups.
“I can understand those who have concerns about the fact that the job market has been thoroughly poor over the past few years with the recession and so forth,” Poindexter said. But she noted that the most recent data actually showed ever-so-slight improvement in employment rates. “It’s a whole new ballgame today, and I think that there will be opportunities for new graduates coming out.” (Asked if there were other colleges that killed and then revived their journalism programs, Poindexter said she couldn't recall any.)
Rice isn’t concerned about demand, either. In fact, the major was cut a decade ago because demand was too high; the university lacked the money and faculty to keep up with it. Rice believes that since then, many students who would have considered attending A&M ruled it out from the get-go. He already got a call from the father of one soon-to-be college student, who has newfound interest in A&M.
One A&M graduate who had to change majors when journalism was eliminated told Poynter  on Thursday that he knew lots of high school seniors who chose different colleges because of it.
“I still think A&M missed almost a full generation of good students who could be telling the stories,” he said. Another graduate who left before the elimination agreed: “I think we lost some really top-flight students during those years.”
The major will start small next fall with 25 students, and expand over the next four years until enrollment is capped at 100. (Rice expects some level of attrition will make room for students to enter after their freshman year.) Because it’s replacing the minor, the addition of the major will be revenue-neutral, Rice said.
“I celebrate the decision of Texas A&M to bring back a journalism major,” Donald Heider, dean of Loyola University Chicago's School of Communication and president of the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication, said in an email. “The need for good journalism is not going to decrease in future years.”