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Aug. 17, 2023, 1:54 p.m.
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The Columbia J-School wants to help its alums in nonprofit news pay back their student loans

“It takes away a little bit of anxiety about pursuing a degree in journalism if you know that there is a path through which the cost can be covered.”

Law schools and other graduate programs have long offered loan repayment assistance programs to encourage graduates to pursue work in the public interest without the specter of unmanageable student debt. With a new, pilot loan repayment program, the Columbia University School of Journalism is bringing that idea to graduate journalism schools for the first time.

Here’s how it works: After you graduate from Columbia Journalism School and start working for a nonprofit news outlet, Columbia will disburse to you a forgivable loan for one year to pay back some of the debt you took on for school. The application requires, along with the usual financial documents related to student loans, a 500-word personal statement that describes “the nature of your position, your reasons for taking the job, the contributions you hope to make to the organization using your journalism skills and your long-term career goals.”

Alumni whose applications are approved will receive a minimum of $5,000 and up to a maximum of $10,000 to put toward their debt. The amount they receive will be calculated depending on their income and the amount of debt they have. At the end of each year, recipients can apply for an additional year of repayment assistance.

Columbia will provide, over the course of five years, a maximum of $50,000 per person, a number that dean Jelani Cobb said was calculated so the university could help the most alumni. The program is mostly self-funded through Columbia, along with outside donations, Cobb said.

“We’re hoping that this program makes journalism an option for people who, under other circumstances, wanted to have careers in news media, but don’t necessarily see how it can add up or how they can make it work,” Cobb said. “We also know that socioeconomic connections also impact the lack of diversity in the field. By taking away some of the financial burden that people experience, it makes it possible for people of all walks of life and all backgrounds to enter journalism.”

The eligibility requirements:

  • Have federal or private loans that were taken out to pay for Columbia
  • Employed full-time at a non-profit news outlet in the United States (part-time work or internships aren’t eligible)
  • Within five years of graduation

According to the program’s frequently asked questions, alumni who earn $70,000 or less will be given priority, although all qualifying alumni at any salary will have their applications considered.

Jobs in non-profit newsrooms are relatively rare and relatively well-paid in the news industry. The Institute for Nonprofit News estimates there are about 2,700 people working in editorial roles in digital-first non-profit newsrooms. An INN member survey showed the average nonprofit reporter salary was $82,943 in 2022. The average salary for journalists working for newspapers, in comparison, is $54,270, according to 2022 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nonprofit news employees were also eligible to apply for Public Service Loan Forgiveness last year.

So why limit the pilot to alums working in nonprofit news? Columbia says it wants to encourage its alumni to work in the sector because it’s growing.

“This was both a way to incentivize our students and graduates to enter this field where there actually is growth, and for the fledgling nonprofit newsrooms, a way for their salary dollars to go further, thereby doing a little bit to assist those outlets and being viable,” Cobb said. “A lot of people who are looking at journalism [see it] as a dead profession or are on the fence [about it being a] dying profession. For people on the fence, it takes away a little bit of anxiety about pursuing a degree in journalism if you know that there is a path through which the cost can be covered.”

Like many graduate programs, journalism school can be pricey, and “often cost[s] more than an annual salary,” Digiday reported in 2022.

The Columbia Journalism School currently offers six degree programs: an M.A., a full-time M.S., a part-time M.S., an M.S. in Data Journalism, an M.S. in Journalism and Computer Science, and a Ph.D.

For the 2023-2024 academic year, the total estimated cost for the M.A. program, which lasts nine months, is $115,748.

That cost breaks down into:

  • Tuition: $68,588
  • Fees: $9,521
  • Living Expenses: $37,639

For the M.S. in Data Journalism, a program that runs for 12 months, the total estimated cost is $173,291, which breaks down into:

  • Tuition: $113,022
  • Fees: $10,083
  • Living Expenses: $50,186

Cobb said that part of the reason Columbia launched this program was to help alleviate the burdens that stop people from pursuing journalism as a career. This program is a pilot and Cobb said the school hopes to expand it to help more alumni — including those who work in local news — over time.

“The business model of journalism has changed, which necessitates the business model of journalism schools changing,” Cobb said. “When we’re looking at the fact that there are people who come into the profession who are talented and enthusiastic and really care about what journalism does, and the way that it can impact people’s lives positively, then they have to leave because it’s not viable for them as a profession.”

Photo of Columbia University by used under a Creative Commons license.

Hanaa' Tameez is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (hanaa@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@HanaaTameez).
POSTED     Aug. 17, 2023, 1:54 p.m.
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