Is College Best for Aspiring Photographers and Photojournalists?

Natalie Cole, U of M journalism junior, captures a photo within a photo.

According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, 68.1 percent of 2010 high school graduates were enrolled in colleges or universities in October; the top five college majors for 2011 are business, psychology, nursing, biology, and education, according to the Princeton Review. But what about  photography and photojournalism? Some top schools for gaining a photography or photojournalism degree include: NYU, Western Kentucky University, Syracuse University, Ohio University, and University of Missouri, but has our fast-paced, do-it-yourself, media-frenzied society deterred students from the value of pursing postsecondary education for these careers?

Is college really the best option, and more specifically, is it best for aspiring photographers and photojournalists? This topic has recently become relevant due to the the popular allure of photography and the easy access to top-notch photography equipment for producing high quality images. Many are drawn to the idea of being a photographer with all the self-help videos and how-to tutorials. Even though technology makes pursuing these careers easier than in past years, students must remember that the jobs entail more than what meets the eye.

“If you really want to be a photographer, it’s much more than just taking the pictures, which can be hard enough. Cameras these days have made it much easier… that’s why it’s so many people out there trying it, whether or not they’re good at it,” said Mark Weber, Commercial Appeal staff photographer.

When it comes down to income and career advancement, the reality of degree versus no degree hits. When the amount of money high school diploma holders typically make is compared with those having a college degree, there is a difference and the gap is growing every day, according to How To E-D-U. Also, even without a degree, having some college experience makes it  is much easier to get hired.

According to Georgetown University’s website, having some college but no degree or a postsecondary certificate is worth about $473,000 more than a high school degree.

“Between 2008 and 2018 there will be just under 47 million job openings, which will include 14.4 million new and 32.4 million replacement jobs. Some 29.9 million of these openings—63 percent of the total—will require at least some college education,” the site says.

A clear majority of the graduates reported they had been prepared for today’s job market by their courses, according to the 2010 Annual Survey of Journalism & Mass Communication Graduates.

“I came to college because I wanted to learn more about the field. It’s true no one can teach anybody how to create art and you can’t learn talent, but the University has taught me many things I would not have learned on my own. I have learned so many different processes and techniques that have developed me as a photographer,” said Marlon Turner, University of Memphis photography major.

College teaches skills that can be learned without holding a degree, but actually going to college and having hands-on learning in the classroom, an environment for testing out those skills in the darkroom, printing labs, studios, and feedback from educated professors, provides for a different level of knowledge and education. The majority of 2010 bachelor’s degree recipients said they had the skill when they completed their studies to write for the web, edit for the web, use still photography on the web, adapt to the digital environment generally, and use the social media professionally, according to

“We teach skills. Anyone can take a few good pictures. But we want to graduate students who have control over the image-making process, so they consistently produce strong work,” said Professor Coriana Close ,University of Memphis Advanced photography professor.

Another big advancement college can provide is networking. Networking with alumni, professor recommendations and internships, can do wonders for one’s career.

“…many of the professors here are in the field and have given great recommendations to me and my colleagues. It’s not guaranteed to all, but it sure beats being at home waiting for an opportunity to fall out the sky,” said Marlon Turner.

“…when you have the degree it gets your foot in the door per se, like any other major, etc. Newspapers pull potential employees from a poll of colleges just like any other industry. I think the key is individuality, skill, and making connections. When it comes time to apply for photography positions of freelance jobs, publications are going to look and see if your work is good,and if you happen to know the photo editor, the editor in chief or reporters at a particular publication, then your chances are higher of getting hired. That is why internships are important. If you do a good job and take it seriously, they will remember you, whether it is for a freelance job or staff position,” said Aaron Turner, University of Memphis photojournalism major.

Not all feel as though college will aid in their advancement or give them anything other than college loan despair down the road; some simply believe that they can save the cost by just using their own raw talents with whatever help they can pick up along the way. Or some say that college is just a way to stifle people’s  minds instead of helping them to embrace creativity. Even some of the photography greats such as Ansel Adams and Richard Avedon did not receive college degrees, let alone finish high school, but still achieved success.  There are even businesses and websites promoting this notion, such as (zero tuition college), where they claim to give you “a strategy for giving yourself an affordable, effective, and adventurous education without college” and, which states on its website that it does not wish to discourage college attendance but offer another way.

However, in today’s economy, with jobs being a sore spot for many, even people with degrees are suffering, and the fact that about 65 percent of workers will require some college or better in 2018, according to suggests that now is not the time to skip out on gaining a college degree; even if it isn’t in photojournalism or photography, it will still reflect well on you when seeking a job.

“Those who study in schools, the primary ones that come to mind are Western Kentucky and Ohio University, are going to be poised to land jobs more so than self-taught journalists because of connections they will make while in school and are given time to grow their craft under direction of well-respected professionals. 

Being a good storyteller is what will give you a competitive edge. I’ve seen photographers come out of school that couldn’t shoot their way out of wet paper bag, and others that will go on to win Pulitzers. Anything in life, whether it is photojournalism or some other profession, will be driven by what you put into it and how hard you are willing to work to achieve your goals. YOU are who will determine what your competitive edge will be, not a school or anyone else,” said Mike Brown, Commercial Appeal photojournalist.

8 responses to “Is College Best for Aspiring Photographers and Photojournalists?

  1. This is really well written. I’m sure that many photographers are able to force their way into the industry with no training at all. My friend Jackie Elison has done that himself.
    THis applies to a lot of industries. You certainly don’t have to go to culinary school to a chef but some people (myself included) can really use some structure to develop the kinds of skills needed to do pursue a profession.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Natalie! You did such a great job with this story, it had so many sources and then you also linked to other websites within your story. I learned a lot about aspiring sports photography and journalists by reading your blog. I wish I was good at taking pictures because I am really interested in sports! Awesome work! 🙂

    • Thank you so much Lauren!! I will admit that was the difficult part getting all the sources and stats. But I am glad it was helpful and a read-worthy piece so again thanks! If it is something you just enjoy I say do it (photography), doesn’t have to be for anyone but yourself. Thanks for reading! (:

  3. Natalie, I really enjoyed reading this story. It is something that your audience can read and really get into. Especially for students like all of us, we like to know where our education will take us…if anywhere. I love the look of the whole story, how you used text boxes for special quotes. I also really enjoyed how you linked MANY sources. It gives you credibility and it makes me want to do some more reading. Great blog, and great job. Good luck in the future.

    • Oh thanks a bunch Jordan! I am glad you enjoyed it and found it relatable. Kudos to Dr. Brown for suggesting the quote blocks lol Thanks for reading it and this awesome comment! All the same to you!!! (:

    • Thank you! I figured it would make for a very interesting semester topic…plus Dr. Brown did say make it fun if possible so hey! Thank you very much; I am still growing and improving though!

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