With back-to-school season upon us, it’s time to re-examine that million-dollar question–or, really, the $100,000 question, give or take. Are MFAs worth it?
It’s a perennially provocative topic across the country–including at Fast Company, where earlier this summer, the author and proud MFA circumventer Michael Kimball shared a version of his writing advice book, The One-Hour MFA (In Fiction).
Online forums for prospective MFAs and alumni are filled with the back-and-forth of both criticisms and defenses of the credential.
And this spring, The New York Times published a lengthy examination of the state of the Master of Fine Arts degree in the U.S., aiming to explain the rise in program offerings and applications each year for a degree whose connections to financial prosperity are tenuous at best.
According to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), there are 229 total creative writing MFA-conferring institutions–a more than 100% increase from a decade ago, when there were 109.
And the AWP reports that 3,000 to 4,000 new graduates from MFA writing programs compete for about 100 academic tenure-track creative writing positions each year. That means most MFA grads hoping to teach with their degree must vie for mostly adjunct positions with little or no employee benefits. Glassdoor estimates the average salary for adjunct professors is $30,000.
Yet the question lingers: Is an MFA worth it?
Quantifying an MFA’s worth is complicated by the fact that the professions it produces are often nebulous and difficult to assign financial success to: poets, artist-activists, metalsmiths.
Add to that the fact that many students don’t approach the two-year dedication common in MFAs as a means to a financial end, but instead as an opportunity to focus solely on their craft.
“I didn’t go to my MFA programs with dreams of being a star. I went there to learn to be a better writer,” says novelist Tayari Jones, who earned her MFA in fiction from Arizona State. “I’m pleased with the professional connections I made, but I am primarily grateful for what I learned about putting one word beside the next.”
Some don’t expect to make back the money they spent or borrowed for grad school (or they couldn’t if they tried).
“I wasn’t able to make the work I intended to while at school because I had to work three jobs to survive in San Francisco,” says furniture maker and interior designer Robert Santee, who graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute with an MFA in new genres in 2006. “I wasn’t able to get a job in my field after school–or at least find one that paid a living wage–so I ended up working in construction for five years until I had enough resources to start my own business. I still owe $54,000 for a degree that I will never use.”
But some don’t spend money at all, which makes makes quantifying an MFA’s cost just as complicated as quantifying its perceived worth.
Some programs–like the one novelist and startup founder Michael Fitzgerald attended at the University of Montana–offer waived tuition, offering students work studies or teacher’s assistantships in exchange for admission to the program.
Others are low-residency, meaning most of the coursework can be done remotely and concurrently with a full-time job. Goddard College in Vermont and Washington State was the first to pilot the low-residency model more than two decades ago, says Ju-Pong Lin, who directs the interdisciplinary arts MFA program there.
Elena Georgiou, acting program director of Goddard’s creative writing MFA program, says that low-residency MFAs aren’t the sprawling programs being debated in the news and by alumni on their worth. Most of the students coming through Goddard aren’t what she calls the “traditional” twentysomething pupil attending more residential programs. They often come to Goddard later in life, with a full-time job and a family. Furthermore, she says of the 360 or so living MFA alums who have provided employment information to the college, only two have said they are unemployed. Teachers account for the most respondents (20%), and about 15% are writers or journalists.
“Honestly, the ‘metrics for success’ are simply that they keep writing, they publish their books or produce their plays, they stay in touch, and they do good work in the world, and by ‘good work’ I mean that they put what they have learned to good use beyond their own work,” Georgiou says. “They use writing to help others.”
And Goddard isn’t guilty of trying to expand its program’s headcount, either. In its 40 years, the Vermont campus’s creative writing headcount has hovered between 70 and 75. The West Coast campus has hosted between 40 and 45.
“We like these numbers. They work for us. I guess we could go up if we wanted to, by five or so on each coast, but not much more,” Georgiou says.
The least affordable on the MFA spectrum tend to be the full-time residential programs, some of which (like Rhode Island School of Design and Yale) can run up a tab higher than $100,000 for a two-year stay.
After graduating with an MFA in digital art from Maryland Institute, College of Art (MICA) in 2003, Matthew Thomas says he worked as a strip-club host and a part-time club bouncer in New York, and now works as a day trader, on-call photographer for a real estate company, and freelance commercial artist in Tennessee, where he’s based. Tuition and fees at MICA are currently more than $42,000 a year, not including living expenses.
“The experience was worth the confidence I gained, but the Sallie Mae-Navient price tag? Not so much,” Thomas says. “For me, raw talent and life experiences gave me the drive to create, not a degree. The costs of education degraded that drive and somehow replaced it with the entrapment of discipline. If anybody knows of an app that can block Sallie Mae and Navient incoming calls, please email me.”
The AWP reports that 20,000 creative writing MFA applications were sent out this past school year. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop–the U.S.’s original “MFA program,” founded in 1936–received 1,382 of those applications: a 9% uptick from last year’s 1,267.
So why are the numbers of (mostly creative writing) MFA programs and applicants growing?
Shahirah Majumdar, a writer who earned an MFA in fiction from Columbia University’s School of the Arts, told Fast Company this might be because writing-focused MFA programs tend to produce so many teachers.
“After I finished my MFA, I taught creative writing and composition for three years, which is what creative writing programs really prepare you to do. To teach writing, not so much to actually produce it. Hence the ever-increasing number of MFA programs everywhere,” says Majumdar. “I wrote an advice column for a while. My business card said ‘digital content producer.’ Talk about taking the romance out of the writing profession.”
The Times proffers another explanation for the MFA growth: the fact that an obsession with following in the footsteps of exalted writers has been growing in America ever since the Iowa Writers’ Workshop cropped up in the 1930s.
The Atlantic suggests that the MFA glut is such that some institutions are requiring doctoral-level education for its tenure-track positions, presumably to more easily discern from among the growing pool of MFA applicants.
And according to AWP numbers, 2014 salaries for creative writing academic professionals with master’s degrees were virtually indistinguishable from those with four-year degrees only. Whereas at the doctoral level, professors made more than 60% more money than those with master’s degrees if they graduated from private institutions, and 40% more if they graduated from public institutions.
“I wrestle with whether my MFA was worth it or not,” says a poetry MFA from the University of Maryland, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, as she’s still hoping to land an adjunct teaching job. “From a purely monetary standpoint, I am told I am lucky because I have no debt from it. I have friends who went into debt for $60,000 or more and are still not able to find good jobs. During my two years of teaching while in my MFA program, I made more money than I have since. From a creative perspective, though, it is a different story. Several years out, I am not only no longer writing poetry; I am no longer sure I know how to read it any more. I don’t trust my intuition or my abilities. “
While in some ways it seems this poetry MFA has lost her way, she is still writing. She says she has a couple of short stories being published soon, and is on the final draft of a novel several years in the works.
It should be noted here that while creative writing MFA programs often get a bad rap as being an overpriced ticket to a seat at the literati table, MFA programs in design are actually something of a professional prerequisite for those hoping to work in the field.
“Having started Parsons in 2008 at the downturn in the economy and graduating two years later in 2010 when the economy was just starting to pick up was opportune,” says design consultant Conway Liao, who graduated with an MFA in design and technology with a focus on interaction design. “Interaction design was a major plus with no lack of jobs, as companies and brands started to move quickly into digital.”
Most of the creative writing MFA graduates interviewed for this story were either currently teaching or had taught in the past. Those MFAs with an art background tended to be working or were trying to work in their respective genres of art.
Goddard’s Ju-Pong Lin says the merits of an MFA education shouldn’t be thought of in terms of a monetary value at all–especially not in terms of the ever-increasing price tags attached to MFAs today. She approaches the issue the same way she teaches interdisciplinary art to her activism-minded students: by asking objective questions.
“I encourage our students to think about what the fairness of this economic system is in which students incur such great debt, and to look at, historically, how we got to this place,” says Lin. “What are people doing about this? Who are the activists asking questions about student debt?”
But Michael Fitzgerald suggests the problem with creative writing MFAs lies in how the programs are constructed and perceived. Students shouldn’t be bred to teach in those programs–they should be made to see how much the skills they learn are applicable in the business world.
“Writing and editing are wildly undervalued skill sets. One of the bigger problems with MFA programs is that they suggest that there’s only one path: MFA, publish, teach. But really the skills you acquire in MFA programs are incredibly valuable in business. The ability to tell the story of your product or company is priceless. Programs undermine themselves by not being explicit about this,” says Fitzgerald, whose content submissions platform Submittable is used by thousands of publishers and currently employs three MFAs.
“Artists and writers are doers. They’re used to working when they’re not asked to, and often when they’re not being paid. These are exactly the kinds of people you want to hire: people who come into your business and just start doing things.”
For all the criticisms levied at the MFA degree and the growing number of institutions that peddle them, the decision to pursue one boils down to personal circumstance.
“The key is that you need a good program that’s a good fit. It’s like marriage. It’s all about the chemistry, the fit, and the money,” says Tayari Jones. “If you can swing it without massive debt, what’s not to like?”
Alongside the decision of whether you can be away from the workforce for two years or which program to attend among those that are funded, low-residency, or fully residential, it seems that even more introspective research is in order.
The most satisfied MFA graduates surveyed by Fast Company tended to be those who had entered their programs in the right state of mind: expecting only to better their crafts by dedicating themselves to their work for the duration of the program–not a direct financial boon.
“The decision to get an MFA has to be anti-capitalist at heart, since the result is very likely not going to satisfy the market for saleable goods or services. Too many people probably get an MFA thinking it will result in a job, but that really isn’t and can’t be the point,” says Kim Beck, a visual artist and professor at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, who holds an MFA from Rhode Island School of Design. “If one feels a calling to teach art in the university context, as I did, then an MFA has to be part of that equation.”
The success of a campaign inside an MFA program can also depend on external forces in a candidate’s life.
“If you have a job you really like, a family, if you love where you live and would have to relocate, if the funding is bad, if you are already in a writer’s community and writing consistently, if you don’t like getting feedback on your work, if you are looking for quick results– there are many reasons an MFA might not be the right choice,” says Rachel B. Glaser, a writer and creative writing teacher, who received her MFA in fiction from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2010.
Teacher and visual artist Jamea Richmond-Edwards waited six years after college to get her MFA in painting from Howard University.
“You should only go for an MFA if you’re clear about your goals and prepared to be a lion for your own cause, which takes maturity and a great deal of discipline,” says Shahirah Majumdar. “Otherwise, it’s just a privilege to be there, not an investment.”
But Samantha Chang, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, has a simpler metric for the decision: happiness. She says society is problematic in that people are asked to be workers first and foremost. The MFA program allows a student to have an “inner life,” for two years at least. “I think that’s why so many people are willing to pay for it,” she told Fast Company.
“If it makes you happy in a way that other things don’t make you happy, you should consider it. This depends on how happy you want to be in life, or what value you place on that. I know economists have a way of figuring that out. If you’re going into it with all the information, with your wits about you, then you’re not making a mistake.”
An earlier version of this story stated that tuition at MICA is $42,000 a semester. It is $42,000 a year.
Click through the slideshow above to see what other graduates had to say about earning their MFAs.
Did you get an MFA? Was it worth it? Would you do it again if you had the chance? Please tell us all about it in the comments section below! We may use your response in an upcoming article.