Journalism jobs are hard to find. But it’s nice work when you can get it. 

That’s the takeaway from a new report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce on the payoff of journalism programs. An analysis of federal education and labor data reveals that journalism and communication bachelor’s degrees offer moderate payoff to their graduates, but only 15% of majors end up working in the field early in their careers. Newsroom employment has declined 26% since 2008, and researchers predict it will fall 3% over the next nine years.

“There is some good news in that the bachelor’s degree in journalism has solid payoff and does provide good opportunities for students,” said Emma Wenzinger, strategic communications specialist at the Georgetown CEW and co-author of the report. “The earnings aren’t as high as they would be for a STEM major, business, health majors. Those typically come out on top. But still, overall, the earnings are good, and we see journalism coming out with returns higher than we see for degrees in education, or psychology, history, English.”

For college and university administrators and faculty, the report could give insight into the right approach for offering journalism and communication programs — or other high-profile programs in shrinking fields. Overall, the field of journalism study is small, comprising only 1% of bachelor’s and master’s degrees awarded. The number of bachelor’s degrees awarded has declined 25% since 2002.

Even though few journalism and communication graduates go on to work in the field, about two-thirds of reporters and one-third of editors have a related degree. The dichotomy is likely due to the low availability of jobs, Wenzinger said, a result of an industry that has atrophied since the introduction of internet advertising.

Researchers calculated what they called graduates’ net earnings, meaning annual earnings after subtracting annual federal student loan debt payments. 

Bachelor’s degree holders in journalism, communication and related fields earn a median of $39,700 after debt three years post-graduation, the analysis found, using data from the federal College Scorecard. 

Top bachelor’s degree programs in the general field of study were Cornell University’s communication and media studies program, George Washington University’s journalism program, Georgia Institute of Technology’s radio and TV program, and California Lutheran University’s journalism and communication program. However, researchers were not able to parse how many graduates in those programs were working in the field, so some students may have entered occupations that are more lucrative than careers in media. Five percent of journalism majors become marketing and sales managers. 

Master’s degrees are a more questionable investment for prospective J-school students than bachelor’s degrees, researchers said. The analysis found that people with master’s degrees in journalism made on average $49,300 after debt three years post-graduation. That is higher than net earnings for bachelor’s degree holders, but only by about $10,000.

And those with master’s degrees in the field had almost twice as much median debt as those with bachelor’s degrees, $42,800 versus $22,500. Their median monthly debt payments were also higher, $480 versus $220.

The payoff for a master’s degree was similar to the payoff for a bachelor’s degree from the same institution, researchers found. However, at four institutions — New York University, Northwestern University, University of Southern California and University of Texas at Austin — those with master’s degrees in journalism and communication had net earnings lower than their institutional counterparts at the bachelor’s level, Wenzinger said. 

Some of that was due to high debt, but not all of it. Graduates of masters programs at Northwestern, USC and UT Austin earned less even than their counterparts at the bachelor’s level even before factoring in debt payments. Several factors may contribute to that outcome, Wenzinger said, including the share of graduates that work in the field, the locations they work in, and the industry demand for master’s degrees. 

“In some cases the loans contribute to it but actually the earnings are similar or lower,” Wenzinger said. “You’re going into the same job that you would be coming out of a bachelor’s degree program.”

Top master’s degree programs in journalism were found at the University of Georgia and University of Missouri, where graduates make a median of $52,000 after debt three years post-graduation. 

For communication and media studies master’s degrees, Columbia University and Northwestern University came out on top, while University of Washington topped the list of radio and broadcasting programs. 

Exactly where jobs exist doesn’t map out perfectly to the degrees colleges award. Some institutions give specific degrees in a type of journalism, like television, radio or online journalism. Others award broader communication degrees.

Most of the job losses for journalists have been at newspapers, rather than in broadcasting and digital news. However, at the bachelor’s level, journalism majors have higher net earnings than radio, television and digital communication majors. Communication and media studies is the most popular major in the overarching field. 

Wenzinger noted that prospective students are increasingly focused on the potential return on investment from their college degree. This report is part of a series from the CEW on the return in different fields of study. However, earnings and debt aren’t the only things that matter to students. 

“The importance of the major from a societal perspective motivated a lot of the report,” Wenzinger said. “The work that journalists do is really essential for democracy.”