JOURNALISM schools have changed a lot in the past two decades, and nothing exemplifies that better than 24-year-old Traci Vasilik. A 1985 "communications" graduate of George Mason University, she now produces two employe newsletters for DynCorp., a 15,000-employe international technical services firm with headquarters in McLean.

Twenty years ago, Vasilik would have majored not in "communications" but journalism, and as a female she would have been part of a distinct minority in her classes. Most journalism majors were men who intended to pursue careers in newspapers. Today's graduate is more likely to be a female interested in an advertising or public relations career.

Traditional journalism education consisted of classes in news-editorial skills, law and history for students interested in newspaper work. Today, journalism schools are just as likely to be named schools of mass communication and offer classes in advertising, public relations and broadcasting, as well as news ethics, technology and theories of how the mass media operate in the United States and elsewhere.

The changes are not without controversy. Critics question whether public relations or advertising programs really offer intellectual rigor. Students want more journalism instruction and less liberal arts, according to a recent survey by the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund, but some outside critics complain that liberal arts are still being given short shrift at journalism schools.

Journalism is a booming major, although its fastest growth was in the early 1970s. In 1976, there were just under 60,000 students majoring in journalism at 190 schools that responded to a survey conducted by Paul V. Peterson, a journalism professor at Ohio State University. Last fall, a decade later, his survey turned up 88,000 enrolled students.

Some credited the surge of enrollment in undergraduate journalism programs during the early 1970s to newspaper reporting on the Watergate affair, including that of The Washington Post, which won a Pulitzer Prize for it. But Peterson said the increase preceded most of the publicity about Watergate.

While journalism enrollment had been primarily male, by 1977 the sexes were equally represented, said Peterson. But in his survey last fall, nearly two-thirds of the majors were female. Meanwhile minority student enrollment is up only slightly -- 8 percent currently, of whom three-fourths are black, Peterson said.

Most of the growth has been in the non-traditional fields, with a greater share of students signing up for courses in broadcasting, public relations and advertising. In the fall of 1976, nearly 32 percent of journalism majors concentrated on news and editorial courses, which train students for newspaper work. The news-editorial sequence still accounts for the largest percentage of students, but its share had shrunk to less than 19 percent by 1986.

Public relations, the field of only 5.8 percent of journalism students in 1976, drew 12.6 percent in 1986. Advertising, which enrolled 10.3 percent of students in 1976, attracted 17.8 percent. The two broadcasting specialties also have grown, from 14.7 percent of students in 1976 to a combined nearly 20 percent in 1986.

Women graduates are far more likely than men to pursue courses in public relations or advertising. In public relations, for example, females accounted for more than two-thirds of the majors -- 6,641 out of 9,308, Peterson said. According to the Dow Jones survey of 1986 graduates, women took nearly 79 percent of all advertising jobs and 85 percent of all public relations jobs.

To some extent, they are following the job market. "In Columbus, in the last few years, we have seen 40 or 50 advertising and public relations firms open up, and we have lost one newspaper," said Peterson. "We not only see the agencies, but we see corporations grow in size. When a new business opens, one of the first things they think about is communication."

"Some of it has to do with the job -- the demands, the image," said Susanne Shaw, executive director of the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications. "I see fewer students interested in going out and being reporters. Some don't like the hours. Students will tell me that they want to go into public relations so they don't have to go out and harass people, and they know they will make more money."

Some schools have resisted change. The Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, which has always been oriented toward newspapers, began offering graduate courses in corporate public relations and direct marketing only this past year. Next fall, it will add creative advertising for those intending to work for agencies. At the undergraduate level, there is one advertising class and nothing in public relations, which is how dean Edward P. Bassett says he intends to keep it. "I'm not persuaded that it's great education," he said of advertising and public relations. After a course or two, he said, it gets "terribly redundant."

At many newspapers there remains an ingrained suspicion of journalism graduates. "There's still a lot of feeling that almost everyone can do it," said Northwestern's Bassett.

"If I had to make a choice between a beginning journalist with a good strong liberal arts education and no journalism (classes), and a beginning journalist who is strong in journalism and no liberal arts (classes), I'd take the former," said Claude Sitton, editor of the Raleigh (N.C.) News and Observer. Sitton also serves on the national accrediting board for journalism schools and is a sharp critic of what he sees as a trend away from liberal arts at those schools. But he praised the accrediting board for its recent action lifting credentials of three schools in part over their alleged failure to require enough liberal arts coursework.

Others have different criticisms of journalism education. Allied Daily Newspapers, a 55-paper group in the Northwest and Alaska, is establishing a journalism school rating program in the region in response to its editors' complaints that reporters were learning too much theory and not getting enough practice, and that new faculty were being hired for research expertise and not real-life experience.

The program will include $100,000 in grants to participating universities for scholarships, conference travel and residencies at newspapers for professors. "Some of these guys haven't been in a newsroom in years," said Ted M. Natt, editor and publisher of the Daily News in Longview, Washington, and current president of the newspaper company.

While the old snobbery about journalism school still lingers, it may be diminishing, according to Medill's dean Bassett. "The eastern part of the U.S. tends to hire liberal arts or science majors from the Ivy League," he said. But "most newspapers are turning to journalism schools."

Journalism graduates are finding an increasing demand for their skills, often in other fields entirely. According to Richard R. Cole, dean of the journalism school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, "Law schools really like journalism graduates. They are educated in looking at a large amount of information and synthesizing it. That's sort of the same skill" as a lawyer has.

D'Vera Cohn covers Fairfax County schools for the metropolitan news section of The Washington Post.