Columbia Journalism School is rolling out a new master’s degree in data journalism. The Ivy League university, apparently unsatisfied with its $9.6 billion endowment, will charge$106,282 for the twelve-month program. Estimated living expenses bring the total price tag up to $147,514.
Many observers, including journalists, were quick to point out that paying over $100,000 for a journalism degree probably isn’t worth it. That would be true if students were actually paying for it. But in all likelihood, taxpayers will foot a substantial portion of the bill for Columbia’s data journalism program.
The director of the data journalism program, Giannina Segnini, writes that the Trump administration’s relationship with the media makes such expensive degrees necessary: “Journalists are facing the challenge of covering one of the most unusual and unreliable governments in modern history: President Trump disseminates lies, twisted facts, and changes in policy in real time through his Twitter account. … Despite—or perhaps because of—all of this, investigative journalism is flourishing.”
“To that end,” Segnini continues, “Columbia Journalism School is launching a Master of Science in Data Journalism that we hope will advance data journalism education and contribute to building the next generation of newsroom leaders.”
The federal government allows graduate students to borrow unlimited student loans to finance tuition and living expenses. After graduation, borrowers can repay their debt as a share of their income, and have any remaining balance forgiven after 20 years. If borrowers don’t repay their loans in full, taxpayers are responsible for the difference.
Consider a student who takes out loans to cover the full cost of attendance for the master’s degree ($147,514). If his earnings after graduation start at $45,000 and rise 5% per year, he will only end up paying $83,121 in inflation-adjusted terms—repaying barely more than half of what he borrowed. Meanwhile, taxpayers will forgive a remaining balance of $177,857.
If students bore the full cost of Columbia’s data journalism degree, it would hardly be worth the money. But with the federal government freely handing out subsidies, many students will enroll. This is one reason why graduate students, not undergraduates, will drive a majority of the increase in taxpayer losses on student loans over the next decade.
When the federal government offers unlimited student loans and promises unlimited loan forgiveness, this is the predictable result. Ivy League schools with multibillion-dollar endowments can make money by offering expensive graduate degrees in shrinking employment fields—programs that would never survive in a free market. If a for-profit company attempted such a scheme, people on the right and left would rightly decry the government program making it possible as outrageous corporate welfare.
Some, including President Trump, have called for making the graduate student loan program less generous, which would help matters some. However, the best way to address the problem of universities offering high-cost, low-return programs on the backs of taxpayers is to privatizethe graduate student loan program altogether. The government currently hands out loans to any eligible student at any accredited school. Naturally, this creates an incentive for abuse, so universities can squeeze as much money out of taxpayers as possible.
By contrast, the private sector must be more discerning; private financiers who have their own money on the line would be more likely to back programs in which the expected return is worth the cost of attendance. Of course, this must be real privatization and not a return to the pseudo-private guaranteed student loan program of old.
As long as the government combines unlimited student loans with unlimited forgiveness, expensive but questionable graduate programs will continue to prosper. The federal student loan program has swelled far beyond its original purpose of helping first-time college students gain a foothold in credit markets. Congress wanted a simple program to help students pay for college. Instead it got corporate welfare for the Ivy League.