With one of the most significant and expensive overhauls of the American health care system about to begin, the City University of New York’s (CUNY) Graduate School of Journalism recently decided to suspend its health/medical reporting concentration due to low student interest.
Students in the eighteen-month program must specialize in one of five disciplines—health/medical, arts/culture, business/economics, international, and urban—in order to complete their master’s degree. But when it came time for the most recent crop of students to pick their concentrations at the end of first semester, only two opted for the health/medical track. Three classes have graduated since the Graduate School of Journalism opened in 2006, and during each of those years the concentration attracted seven to ten students out of fifty to sixty in total.
“There just wasn’t much student interest,” said Trudy Lieberman, the director of the health/medical track at CUNY (and a CJR contributing editor who covers health care for the magazine and Web site). “It’s kind of hard to fathom because this is the story of our time at the moment.”
Moreover, the class that entered in September was 25 percent larger than the year before, having grown from sixty to eighty students. Applications to that class were up 50 percent from the year before. Applications to next year’s class, which were due in December, were up another 25 percent over that, but the school has already decided that it will not offer the health/medical concentration then, either.
Stephen Shepard, the founding dean of the journalism school, said that with the assistance of the faculty he would conduct a thorough review of the track’s design, and eventually hopes to revive it.
“We understand that it may be the smallest [concentration of the five], and that’s fine,” he said. “But what was it that the students didn’t like about it? Or was it simply that they had other preferences?”
The arts and culture, international, and urban concentrations are the most popular at CUNY, according to Shepard. Business/economics is the second smallest track behind health/medical. That somewhat ironic, Shepard added, because he believes that business/economics and, to a lesser extent, health/medical offer relatively good job opportunities.
“Not a lot of places are hiring critics or arts writers,” he said, “but you know, the students choose what they want partly for career reasons and partly because it’s an interesting subject concentration, they like the mix of the courses, or they like the instructors—whatever their personal interests may be.”
Alex Green IV, who graduated in December, said that while he found the education valuable, he did not enjoy his health/medical classes. Green entered the program knowing that he wanted to cover health/medical, and still does. But he said that he and others felt the workload was too heavy, that the instructors could be arrogant and dry, and that there wasn’t a good balance between teaching medical information and teaching journalism.
Because of such factors, Green said, he and some other graduating students discouraged their incoming peers from following the health/medical concentration unless it was something they were certain they wanted to do professionally. “We all felt on edge,” he said. “I’m sure that other students weren’t quite as harsh as I might have been, but they still weren’t enthusiastic.”
At least one of Green’s classmates demurred, however. “The classes definitely pushed me outside of my comfort zone, but in a good way,” said Jeanmarie Evelly, adding that she had had no experience in health reporting prior to enrolling at CUNY and would recommend the health/medical concentration to other students.
Still, Shuka Kalantari, who graduated in 2008, said that some of the complaints that Green mentioned were common during her year, too. She called the curriculum “amazing,” however, and said the rigorous education helped her get her current job as an outreach coordinator for KQED Radio’s Health Dialogues program.
“I think that’s a huge reasons why the health/medical concentration is no longer around is because people thought it was too hard, and that baffles me,” Kalantari said. “It’s not just about knowing how to make a Final Cut video and write a lede. If you don’t know the issues, why would you then be the voice that people listen to or read? You have to work really hard. You have to learn the subject inside and out, and you owe it to the public to do so. We need good health care reporters right now, and I was very disappointed in the decision to drop the concentration.”