The wide world of publishing is changing; everyone will tell you that. But if you ask what about publishing is changing, you’ll likely hear about the decline of physical books or the growth of digital books. And while the loss of bookstores and the latest, lightest e-reader make for compelling stories, they overshadow a less visible change currently happening at the other end of publishing: how people are getting into the industry.

Increasingly, the front door of publishing is through a master’s in publishing program.

Consider this: New York University’s M.S. in Publishing: Digital and Print Media degree program accepted 26% more students in 2011 from 2010. At the University of Houston–Victoria, a program established in 2009, online enrollment quadrupled this semester. Out west, Portland State University began its program in 2001 with eight students. For the 201–2012 academic year, there are 100 students enrolled.

“The old apprenticeship industry no longer exists,” says Sherman Raskin, director of the M.S. in Publishing program at Pace University, one of the older programs in the country, founded in 1984. “The Pace program makes publishing more than accidental. Before we started our program, students would graduate from college and apply for an entry level position. If they were fortunate enough to be employed, they would sit in a particular department and perform the same tasks for years, not having any knowledge of the industry.”

That’s where today’s publishing newcomers differ from the ones of previous generations: they enter the industry as better-rounded professionals, and that’s largely attributable to publishing programs. “Students are getting savvier, smarter, and hungrier each year,” says Abbey Gaterud, director of publishing at Portland State. “There’s more innovative thinking happening among the students and faculty, and there are certainly more people with the skills, knowledge, and desire to start their own publishing ventures.”

But what is a master’s in publishing program? To find out, PW spoke with faculty and administrators in six programs around the country: the University of Houston–Victoria, in Texas; Emerson College, in Boston; New York University; Portland State University, in Oregon; Pace University, in New York City; and Rosemont College, outside of Philadelphia. There are basic similarities between all of the schools; they all offer either an M.S. or an M.A. degree, most have around 100 students enrolled, and each takes between one and two years to complete full-time, requiring between 36 and 48 credits. At every school, there is also one traditional fact about publishing that is still true: the gender breakdown heavily favors women, with all schools reporting that between 70% and 85% of their students are female.

The curriculum at a publishing program consists of a set of core courses (as little as three and as many as eight) required of all students; some classes in this area include Communications Skills: How to Present Yourself Effectively in Print and in Person (Rosemont) and Mastering Management and Leadership”(NYU), as well as the standard introduction courses. From this broad foundation of core courses, the master’s student track narrows, moving into the second stage of the program: electives. The pool from which students select their courses is designed to give them a more specialized concentration of study, and this is where the programs begin to differ.

The program at Emerson, for example, has a creative angle to its curriculum. “Our program helps students look beyond the business of publishing and understand how publishers and writers work together to create publications,” says Emerson’s graduate program director, John Rodzvilla. “Students in the program can take column and magazine writing courses from industry professionals as well as graduate level workshops on nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. Our students are able to take a mix of publishing, literature, and writing workshops alongside creative writers in the M.F.A. program.”

Two programs, UHV and Portland State, make working on respected publications a significant part of their curriculum. At UHV, “students have the opportunity to choose from a wide range of areas of specialization with our in-house and partner publishers,” notes Kyle Schlesinger, assistant director of the Center for Literary Publishing at UHV. Schlesinger cites American Book Review, Cuneiform Press, Dark Sky, Fiction Collective 2, Symploke, and Huizache (the first journal to be entirely devoted to Mexican-American literature, whose Fall 2011 issue is its first) as outlets where students can work and train. “Students in the Style and Editing class this spring will be working on a new collection of essays by Johanna Drucker that address the nature of the book, writing, the alphabet, typography, and digital literature,” he says.

Portland State’s unique offering is Ooligan Press, an integrated trade publishing house that’s staffed entirely by students. Says Gaterud, who is also the publisher at Ooligan: “Faculty serve as guides, but we only guide. The decisions are made collaboratively by the students enrolled in the master’s program. As the biggest shareholders in the program’s publishing house, they’re given the ownership and responsibility of a cooperative. Since they own it, they believe in it and want to see it succeed far more than any traditional employee ever would.” Ooligan, which publishes three to four titles per year, will have published 30 titles by February 2012, with 23 still in print. Two of the press’s bestsellers are Ricochet River by Robin Cody and Cataclysms on the Columbia by John Eliot Allen, Marjorie Burns, and Scott Burns, though Gaterud considers a book “a success if we can break even on the production, and even more important, if the educational experience provided by that book is rich and varied.” This spring, PW reported that Portland State’s program could be jeopardized by Oregon’s fiscal crisis, but since then, Gaterud, who is acting as interim program director until a full director is installed, says, “We were given an assurance that the program is invaluable to the university.” She stresses that the university understands the support the program has. “I feel optimistic,” she says.

The publishing programs usually culminate in some form of internship or thesis project. Pace, for example, lets students choose either a thesis or an internship, the former evolving from participation in a graduate seminar and the latter requiring students to prepare a report on their experiences to be presented to the faculty. At Rosemont, a thesis is required, and an internship can count toward “special topics” class credit. Echoing the sentiment of her peers, Lynn Rosen, director of graduate publishing programs at Rosemont, has seen a lot more entrepreneurship in thesis projects, reflecting the “savvier” breed of young publisher today. One particular thesis project Rosen mentions is an online cookbook, bringing in “all types of digital elements that I don’t think I would’ve seen even two years ago.”

The master’s program formula (core courses, specialized electives, thesis/internship) is working, judging by placement rates. All of the schools surveyed report high numbers in this area: Emerson states that 75% of graduates end up with jobs in publishing within six months of completing the program; NYU reports 76% of current students are currently working or interning in the industry, and 86% of 2011 graduates have already found work; at Pace, 90% of graduates are working in the industry, and Raskin notes, “many of them return to teach courses in the program.”

The jobs where publishing graduates find themselves after graduation vary due in part to the increased diversity of the students themselves. Rodzvilla says Emerson has seen “the mix of applicants becoming more diverse in the past five years in terms of age, region, and ethnicity.” In addition to the more traditional destinations one might expect, such as Random House and HarperCollins, publishing program alumni are finding jobs as freelance literacy consultants for schools and as editors at museum display manufacturers, to name a few.

The newer publishing programs are also changing the industry by diversifying publishing geographically. New York City is certainly still publishing’s hub, but the four programs surveyed for this article located outside of New York (UHV, Emerson, Portland State, and Rosemont) have all forged strong ties to their respective communities. At Rosemont, which is 20 miles outside of Philadelphia, Rosen says two local publishers, Running Press and Quirk Books, consistently have internships filled by Rosemont students that have turned into jobs. In Portland, according to Gaterud, “Most publishing ventures and literary organizations have either hired a PSU graduate or had a PSU student as an intern. Our students have brought an amazing amount of energy to the city and the university.”

But like all things in today’s publishing climate, it all comes back to the digital revolution. And just like every other area of the industry, publishing programs are trying to keep up with the changes. One change caused by technology is the way the courses are taught. Forty of Pace’s 122 students are fully online; more than half of UHV’s students take classes online, and the school’s primary focus is creating the best online learning environment for that growing need.

Curriculums have also been altered by digital, becoming an essential component in the introductory core classes. NYU has rolled out a series of classes specially tailored for digital, including Book Metadata and Infrastructure: Understanding the Supply Chain, App Creation and Development, and Web Architecture and Content Creation. At Emerson, an electronic publisher-in-residence was hired to develop classes. And at Rosemont, e-publishing was added in November 2010 as one of four full concentrations for students (along with editorial and writing, production and design, and sales and marketing). According to Rosen, 10% of students now have a concentration in e-publishing and it is “growing fast” (editorial and writing is still the leader at 30%).

The adoption of digital is just the latest example of how publishing degree programs have answered publishing’s bell and increased their vitality within the industry. The increase in application numbers, certainly a product of the bad economy, but it is a consequence of the growing need for publishing programs in recent years (three of the programs surveyed began in the last 15 years), and it’s this growing need that signals a sea change in publishing as a whole. Rosen has an interesting take when asked why publishing programs have become more important to the industry within the past 15 years. “My theory is that’s around the time the “bottom line” approach started to really take hold in the industry—when we finished the transition, which I think began in the early ’90s, from the gentleman’s business that book publishing was to a more profit-oriented approach,” Rosen says. “For many publishing jobs, one once took an apprenticeship type of approach, starting entry-level and learning on the job from a more experienced supervisor. In the late ’90s, I think, suddenly actual academic training began to make sense.” Andrea Chambers, director of NYU’s Center for Publishing, sees the rise of publishing programs as the fulfillment of a new need in the industry: “Certainly the industry grew more complex at that time and the traditional feeder sources [college English departments] simply did not provide sufficient preparation. Publishing companies recognized the need for students trained in specific publishing skills.”

These academic environments that provide these specific skills don’t end with master’s programs—there are far more publishing certificate programs around the country than master’s programs. City College, which began its certificate program in New York in 1997, has a curriculum similar to that of the master’s programs, only truncated: it takes two semesters to complete (at two courses per semester) and has an internship requirement at its end. At City College, students benefit from prestigious internships (at Penguin and Hachette, among others), but pay a fraction of what their master’s counterparts pay—tuition is $215 per credit for in-state CUNY students and $320 per credit for in-state non-matriculating students; tuition in the master’s programs can run more than $600 per credit.

Whether it’s at certificate programs or in master’s classes, there are still young people hungry about books and there are still people who want to make a career in publishing, and many expect the students coming from these programs to carry more of the industry’s load going into the future. “I see publishing programs taking the lead in figuring out how to preserve and nurture a love of reading and great content while offering the public the multiple formats it seems to crave,” says NYU’s Chambers. “This is not an easy formula to master, but students trained in publishing fundamentals and the full spectrum of digital platforms and practices will lead the way.”