A Dilemma: Liberal Arts College vs. Journalism School

I received an email over the weekend from a mom who is stressing about whether her accomplished daughter would be better off attending a liberal arts college or a journalism school.

I happen to be a graduate of the the nation’s oldest journalism school at the University of Missouri (see photo) and I’ll share some thoughts after the mom’s note. If you’d like to weigh in,  please use the box at the bottom of this  post.

Regina’s Note:

Hi Lynn,

I enjoy your college blog and I have learned volumes about how to evaluate colleges/universities.

My daughter is a junior, very bright and driven. She has a 3.94 GPA and she attends a very academically competitive Christian school. She’s a varsity level athlete in volleyball and track and field. She hasn’t take the SAT or ACT yet but from the PSAT and PLAN test she scored pretty well. Swarthmore, Reed, and Rensselaer, Dartmouth, Brown and a swarm of other universities have been writing and sending her mailers since her PLAN test in sophomore year.

She is highly involved in athletics and her father and all (4) of her uncles played college football so she has high level of appreciation for the sacrifice and discipline that comes with maintaining top academics and being a high performing athlete.  She thrives in highly charged academic environments. She wouldn’t mind the opportunity to play college level volleyball, but she would only play at a school that benefits her overall plan.

Some Possible Journalism Schools

Based on the research I have conducted from the sources you provide, I believe she would best be served at a liberal arts college since she is a very cerebral and engaging student. I think the opportunity for her to be taught by professors would serve her best overall for her future.

She has a passion, however, to have a career in sports communications/broadcasting/public relations in the industry of professional athletics.  So she had identified Syracuse University and the SI Newhouse School of Communications or UPenn and the Annenberg School for Communication.  We have discussed between the totally different approaches between these two schools. Additionally, they are world’s apart regarding providing for financial need. We are definitely in the category of a family who needs financial assistance. I am a recent widowed mother of two.

What is your advice in this situation? How can an education at a liberal arts college meet the needs of someone determined to make a career in the field of communications/public relations? Does it even matter as an undergraduate? She does plan to get a master’s in mass communication and I know that more students from liberal arts college have success with admission and graduation with higher degrees.

Oh yes, she also does not want to stay in the West. She is determined to go East Coast or  Midwest or New England area but nothing on the West Coast.

Any advice you can give is greatly appreciated. I have been studying the Carnegie Classifications and the College Results online but I’m sure any word from you will help to make the information from these sights more meaningful.


 My Response:

Regina covers a lot of ground here, so I’m just going to number my thoughts.

1. Obviously as a high-achieving student, your daughter enjoys a tremendous amount of options. Only your daughter can answer what type of school she should attend. She sounds like the kind of teenager who would excel wherever she lands. I think the most obvious solution would be to continue to explore both liberal arts colleges and journalism schools. Preferably you can visit and whether or not that is possible, email/talk with professors and students at those schools.

I wrote a post two years ago about this issue when my nephew, Tommy O’Shaughnessy, was debating whether to go to Missouri’s School of Journalism or Truman State University, a public liberal arts college. He is now a sophomore attending Mizzou and he’s hoping to get admitted into the J School. Here is that post:

Which Is Better: A Liberal Arts College or University?

2. I appreciate your daughter’s interest in a liberal arts college which comes with smaller classes and often far more interaction with professors. A student can make the experience at many universities more like a smaller school by qualifying for its honors college.  For instance, the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism encourages top students to apply for the MU Honors College.

3. If she attends a journalism school, ideally your daughter would be in smaller classes once she actually starts taking classes in her major. This is something she should inquire about when talking with students and professors.

4. You don’t need to attend a journalism school to obtain a job in communications. I can’t think of anyone that I work with over at my CBS MoneyWatch gig that attended a journalism school. That said, a plugged-in journalism school can help students find that first job. If you go that route, I would recommend narrowing your search to schools that enjoy tons of ties to the industry and can help with internships and jobs.

5. I question whether your daughter would need a master’s degree in communications. I’m wondering how she would benefit if she already knows how to write and communicate well? (My husband’s got a master’s in journalism degree from Columbia University as a way to get the heck out of Alaska and his dad picked up the tap.)  You might want to think hard about this, particularly with money tight.

6. Just because schools are sending your daughter literature doesn’t mean she would get accepted no matter how accomplished she is. To find out why, read this post that I wrote in September:

Should You Be Flattered By a College’s Red Carpet Treatment?

7. This is obviously a side issue, but your daughter’s chances of playing sports will improve at a smaller school. At Division I universities, student athletes can essentially become employees of the institution. They have little time for anything else and they can be limited to the major they choose because of the sports time commitment. Division III can be a superior choice for a scholarly teenager.

Here is a post that I wrote for US News & World Report on athletic scholarships:

7 Things You Need to Know About Sports Scholarships

9. Use a net price calculator. With money a concern, be sure to use a net price calculator to get a personalized estimate of what each school on your daughter’s list will cost! Here is one of my posts on these calculators:

College Cost Calculators: Getting Wildly Different Answers

8. I flew back to my alma mater in December 2010 after I was asked to be the commencement speaker at Mizzou’s J School. It was a tremendous honor and I’ll never forget it. For all you would-be journalism majors out there, you might be interested in what I had to say:

School of Journalism’s Commencement Speech

Good luck! Anybody else have any suggestions?

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution, an Amazon bestseller, and she also writes a college blog for  CBSMoneyWatch and US News. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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  1. I’m a college prof in comm with a journalism degree. Honestly, I’m torn here. A few paths come to mind: (1) big school with honors/small college with a liberal arts focus (and maybe a journalism program) and the opportunity to get involved with sports broadcasting on campus if it’s a big 10, for example. (2) A small college, a solid liberal arts education, and internships as a way into the world. (3) a journalism undergrad program directly, with contacts, etc.

    My recommendation, especially for a high-achieving student, is to do a dual major, regardless — combine journalism/communication with another major, to get a solid liberal arts education (useful no matter what she does — she may change tracks), and to find the balance between the two, so that she gets both a broad education and the specific journalism experience. These days, in journalism everyone needs to have multiple, multimedia skills, plus a classic liberal arts education is always helpful in terms of critical thinking. Well-rounded candidates will have both.

    Some options indeed — Annenberg at PA (though USC is worth looking at — excellent programs there), the University of Michigan (no journalism, but communication studies, liberal arts available, plus big 10), UW-Madison (excellent journalism undergrad PLUS liberal arts available, plus big 10), plus all the big schools like Newhouse, Mizzou, etc.

    Best not to have too many loans, if possible. I sort of favor track 1 above because it gives her all the opportunities. UW-Madison might be a great choice, actually. I do encourage a double major, if she can do it. Journalism and a liberal arts subject.

  2. My daughter is struggling to make this very choice in the next few weeks. Syracuse’s Newhouse School, Mizzou’s J School or a very good, beautiful, west coast liberal arts school. I’m at a loss to offer advice. I’m starting to believe that the best financial deal out of these three will be the best choice. If a school is willing to put its financial resources toward my daughter’s success then we both have a vested interest in her experience.

    Just my thoughts today as I try to compare three great alternatives.

  3. Plan Test takers beware – Sometimes what we think is “interest” is just another mass mailing, we got two dozen this month for our sophomore! Ask her what she “thinks” is her career in TV Communications. if you are on the west coast, take her her to the studios. Show her that it is a very tough profession. Let them talk to the employees and ask questions. Either major has a very tough career path. Our nephew on the east coast worked 4 years at a bank until he landed a part-time job at CBS. He now works in the industry half time, and hopes to be full time in another 2 years. Regardless of the degree, it’s like advertising – you start at the bottom and prove yourself. So, wait on the graduate degree – that might be good for teaching and conference speeches, but not now.

  4. Your daughter has a lot of options – having done so well.
    Liberal Arts college or large research university with a honors college or liberal arts college likely great fit for her. With financial aid, some of these well known / great schools could be cheaper option for her than state schools. Liberal Arts college (Beloit, Williams, Lawrence, Kenyon, Oberlin, Wellesley, Swarthmore, Harvard college or Yale college and the like) education would be great and launch her into great journalism career – without a “journalism” degree or “masters in communication” degree. She will get a good job – which may pay for her graduate degree down the line, if and when she thinks she must get one.

  5. Great post as usual. If I may add 2 cents to it, since Division III schools are not allowed to award sports scholarships, can one hope for a larger merit scholarship if their child is an athlete as well as academically talented? That way the student still has scholarship money even if he/she gets injured.

    1. You’re right Patty. Division III schools don’t award athletic scholarships, but the merit awards at these schools can often exceed athletic money. And you can keep the merit award regardless of whether you decide not to play volleyball any longer.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  6. The mom doesn’t say what state she lives in, or how competitive it is to get into the state’s university system. I would say to check out the J-school at the flagship campus, and also look into options that help “shrink” a state university down to liberal-arts-college-size, like an honors college, living-learning centers and journalism interest groups. Some universities (like the one my kids attend) have direct-admit programs to their J-school for stellar students and support them as if it was a liberal arts college.

    But if she is looking for a liberal arts college with an excellent communications program and good financial aid policies, check out DePauw University in Greencastle, IN. They have tons of internship opportunities in journalism with alums.

    1. Thanks Julia, Great ideas. I believe that the teenager is from California and UC Berkeley, the flagship, doesn’t offer an undergraduate journalism degree.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy