May 8, 2010

First-Team All-Swindle, I

There is a catch, though. A huge, almost-six-digit catch. You see (sigh), the one-year Medill Master’s program costs (gulp) $84,000 (tear).

I recently received news that, in my mind, confirms two things beyond any doubt:

(1) I have the chops to be a real journalist, not just a nary-read blogger
(2) God or the cosmos or whatever it is that controls the world seems to have condemned me to a life of teaching English and blogging

(You can skip this bit of bio and get to the basketball-in-China stuff by going to Part II…)

In the middle of March, I learned that I was admitted into Northwestern’s prestigious Medill Master’s in Journalism program. There are few better programs in the country – or at least few programs with Northwestern’s reputation (it’s hard to tell sometimes what’s more important). The list of big-time sports journalists to go through the Medill school is staggering: Michael Wilbon of ESPN and the Washington Post; J.A. Adande of the Los Angeles Times and ESPN; Kevin Blackistone of the Dallas Morning News; Mike Greenberg of ESPN; Jon Heyman of Sports Illustrated; Brent Musberger of ABC and ESPN; Adam Schefter of ESPN; yadda, yadda, yadda. The list goes on. Basically, if you’re a sports fan, there is a decent chance that you have ingested coverage from a Northwestern alum in the past week. And for me, an aspiring sports writer who is stuck in a far corner of the world, going to Northwestern would be a way to insure that I never find myself scavenging the basketball courts of Jinan, China, in an attempt to find things to write about.

There is a catch, though. A huge, almost-six-digit catch. You see (sigh), the one-year Medill Master’s program costs (gulp) $84,000 (tear). I knew that when I applied, but the number was so outrageous that I kind of shrugged it off: Sure, they may list the price at $84,000, but there is no way they can honestly expect people to pay that. Get in and get scholarships, I thought.

The instant I got accepted, I went to a local computer store and printed out the necessary paperwork to procure some financial aid – a 2009 1040 Form, the NU financial aid application, a letter explaining that, you know, I’ve been working in China and have no money. I shot it off in the mail and, six days later, called the Northwestern financial aid folks to make sure they received everything they needed to award me financial aid. They assured me they had, and for the first time since the summer of 2008, a sense of having everything in order washed over me: I’d teach through the summer, go back in August, head up to Northwestern in plenty of time for the Sept. 20 start date. Yeah, there were logistical concerns – I needed a place to live, I would probably need to buy a new camera, etc. But for the most part, I was set. I was going to the best journalism school in the country, and afterward, I’d (finally) be on my way to procuring a job. Like, a real job.

But then I saw the financial aid package Northwestern offered me, and the ray of sun that had been following me around for the past month turned to a dark, dark cloud. Of that $84,000 total, Northwestern offered me only $12,000 in grants and scholarships; the rest of it was loans. It doesn’t take an egghead to do the math on that: I’d have to swallow $72,000 in loans. And really, it’s more than that. With the help of a financial adviser, I crunched the numbers and figured out that I’d have to pay about $790 per month for 10 years to repay that debt. Because of interest, that comes out to about $94,000 over 10 years. If this were law school or medical school or an avenue into some high-paying industry, I wouldn’t blink at $72,000 worth of debt. But this is journalism, where even good jobs don’t pay that much. If I paid $790 per month, that’s roughly $9,500 per year, and I have no idea when I will have a job where $9,500 isn’t at least one-fourth of my annual salary – even with a degree from Northwestern. I’d gladly take on $30,000, maybe even $40,000 worth of debt. But $72,000? My god.

I sent out a dozen emails to various contacts I have in the journalism biz – editors, writers, friends. I asked them, basically, if it was worth it: Is taking on gobs of debt to go to Northwestern at least going to insure that I have a place in the industry. Without fail, their answers were tepid. (Well, except last one here, which basically says it would be a gargantuan waste of money.)

* If the writing market isn't there, there's always teaching. I would think that getting a grad degree would set you up on that front!…

* But does it really HELP you? Depends on what tangible evidence you can show prospective employers when you’re done with school besides a line on your resume. At the rare times I’ve gotten to hire, the work that’s been done always speaks volumes louder than the school you went to or the grades you got, and the journalism experience OUTSIDE the classroom usually proves to be the most valuable. If you want to be a reporter, what you really need are good, recent clips reflecting varied internships and experience at multiple professional organizations….

* I have a master's in Creative Writing. I acquired it through scholarships and teaching assistantships and avoided debt. The discipline of graduate school is good for you. And congrats on getting into such a respected school. But would I recommend taking on a big debt for that degree in journalism?

The honest answer is that I – [anonymous person] – would not. I love in fact that good journalists don't need the advanced degrees. But it would give you the option to teach. Or a better chance at teaching. Which is a good fallback….

* That's a really, really tough call. I am not big [on] debt (who is, right?). But that is a great school with a sterling reputation and a lot of contacts…. It's also amazing to me how many people (including my wife) have the option to teach journalism if they need tom, as long as they have a master's degree. And having a master's from such a great school could be beneficial in a lot of way….

* If this is what you really want to do, then Northwestern or any other master's program is a waste. A master's won't really impress anyone in this business. If you're hoping to teach, that might be a different story. Someone else might have better information on that. But as far as being a reporter or editor, no. A master's won't help you get or keep a job and the debt you're talking about would just be a huge burden for absolutely no benefit. If anything, this business is going to less formal education….

Of course, I don’t want to teach. That’s kind of the whole point of me going back to school (so I can quit teaching) and this blog (so I can divert my mind from teaching). I know teaching English here is different than teaching, say, high school journalism back home. But still, I don’t like teaching. I don’t have the patience to teach. I want to be a journalist.

But unless something drastic happens in the next week – like, say, I fall into $70,000 – I simply don’t see how I can justify it.

So there it is – how it’s possible to have the best news of the year turn into the worst news. Congratulations! You, the 24-year-old desperate to be a journalist, have been admitted to the best journalism school in the country (world?)! Now, here’s your piddly financial aid package. Go find $70,000 – psst…it’ll be more like $95,000 when all is said and done – and come on board!

Part of me wonders if I am just being a wuss, if I need to bite the bullet and swallow the debt if this is really what I want to do. Another part of me wonders if that is a decision that could ruin the next 10 years of my life.

1 comment:

  1. First off, your being a total wuss, more on that later.

    Nash is also my favorite player, mainly because as your girl illustrated, you never expect someone that looks like Nash to be that damn good. He is more than a basketball player, he is an artist. However, he is the second best PG in the league, and not to Rondo. Deron Williams has almost identical stats to Nash, but there is one big difference, Deron's defense is way beyond Nash's. But yeah, go Los Suns, I want to see them win, but I am sticking with my Laker prediction.

    Great stories today, and there wasn't a doubt in my mind that Goel was coming back. I see the phone ransom scam pulled almost monthly, and I have never seen anyone work the reverse angle. Sounds like your losing some naivete in China, and part of that process is to become overly suspicious. In China also be wary of anyone asking you to see a student art exhibit or pose for a painting, it also leads to a swindle.

    Back to your wuss status. You know how many success stories begin with "I was down to my last dollar...." or "I hocked everything we owned...". Your going to sit on the sideline because of some debt? Yeah, a big arse chunk of debt, but are we talking about your dreams or just some job you think would be 'neat'. It sounds to me like this is your dream man, and if thats the case, it shouldn't even be a question. People that know you probably don't want to tell you to go for it, and feel guilty if you don't make it and become straddled with debt.

    Sure, there is a point to be made that it is a different world now, but come on, who's getting that job with SI or ESPN, the guy with talent and a NW journalism degree, or the guy with talent who really wrote some cool stuff on his blog!

    I've never met you, so I will give you my straight opinion, your looking at 3 scenarios.

    #1. Go into a huge amount of debt, taking a chance at doing the one thing you really want to do, making it happen, and being able to pay off that debt, all while feeling happy and fulfilled and making a decent living.

    #2. Go into a huge amount of debt, taking a huge chance at doing the one thing you really want, not making it, and spending the rest of your life at least knowing you did everything possible to achieve your dreams. Whats worse, not being able to pay that debt and having to welch on it, or having to say you "what if" forever. There is always the chance, that you could make it in some unforeseen way and still pay off the debt even if you don't make it as a journalist.

    #3. Play it safe and hope that your talent is enough to overcome the cutthroat competition of today's job market in which you will be competing for that dream job against a whole bunch of other people with talent, and well, degrees from prestigous journalism schools. Because ya know, we all realize that helping out people from your alma mater never comes into the hiring process.

    If its not really your dream, then please, don't even think about doing it. But you clearly have the talent and if this is the one thing that you really want to do with your life, well, then....

    Sack up!