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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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Tuition, Debt, and Graduate Creative Writing Programs

How certain are we that some MFA programs aren't "predatory?"

January 30, 2017
 
 

As the creative writers of academia gather next week in Washington, D.C., for the annual Associated Writing Programs Conference, I was hoping I could inject a potential topic into the discussion that doesn’t appear to be on the menu

Tuition and student debt.

I raise this question in the wake of the somewhat embarrassing news that the A.R.T. (American Repertory Theater) Institute at Harvard was placed on the Department of Education’s naughty list for running afoul of the department’s gainful employment metrics for its “debt to earnings” ratio.

As compiled by Kevin Carey at The New York Times, those ratios are indeed grim. 

  • Two year tuition is $63,000
  • Average borrowing is “over $78,0000
  • Average graduates earn $36,000/year

As Carey says, “After accounting for basic living expenses, the average Harvard A.R.T. Institute graduate has to pay 44 percent of discretionary income just to make the minimum loan payment.”

Yikes.

The news is particularly embarrassing given that Harvard’s endowment is over $35 billion, and the American Repertory Theater is a nonprofit with a board that includes a Who’s Who of American music and theater music mixed with some really rich folks.

In response, as Carey reports, the A.R.T. Institute is suspending enrollment for the fall.

I don’t believe we should start measuring the worth of all graduate study in the fine arts against debt-to-earnings ratios. The motives for entering a creative writing MFA program, for example, are as varied as individuals are varied.

Some desire a career in academia with the MFA as a terminal degree. Some are already planning for a PhD. Some want to make connections to help get a book deal. Some are just looking for time and space to pursue their passion with little care or concern about future publication or employment. Some just want the opportunity to work closely with a particular mentor or even live in a particular place.

Some feel like they’re not sure about their prospects as a writer, but they’re definitely writing-curious, and graduate school sure beats your soul-killing job.

(That was me.)

There are approximately 3,000 newly minted MFA holders each year.[1] It is a good thing that many are not interested in academic positions because the Academic Jobs Wiki for creative writing this year listed a sum total of 102 tenure-track jobs across fiction, poetry, non-fiction, open, and mixed categories. Even presuming equal chances (which would be silly), the odds of landing a tenure track job are vanishingly small. The vast majority of those positions will go to people who are many years post-MFA with significant publications.

An AWP survey finds that the estimated cost of degree (tuition and fees only) for a full-residency MFA is just over $20k (in-state). For a low-res degree, it’s approximately $31k.

It is a little tough to know what to make of some of these numbers. Many programs (58 according to this compilation) offer funding to every student in the form of fellowships and/or teaching assistantships. Most other programs offer assistance to at least some of their students.

But at some programs, some students are getting help while others are paying full freight. At a place like Columbia, which boasts a faculty that includes Paul Beatty, Richard Ford, Leslie Jamison, Hedi Julavits, and Ben Marcus, among many other luminaries, the full-cost tuition for the two-year program is $120,000. Those students are also living in New York City.

Yikes.

When it comes to tuition and funding and student outcomes and what all that means, I think it’s worth programs asking some questions and seeing what kind of answers emerge:

Can we charge tuition?

Should we charge tuition?

Must we charge tuition?

In the case of, “Can we charge tuition?” the answer for the vast majority is “yes.” Even with so many programs, the demand for slots exceeds supply. According to AWP, the average number of applicants to full-residency programs is 56 while acceptances are 18.5.[2]

But just because you can charge tuition doesn’t mean you should, at least if we’re looking at doing right by students.

The A.R.T. Institute at Harvard is a great example of where we may draw this distinction. The gateway to success that its students are trying to squeeze through is so narrow, I’m betting they could charge even more in tuition and still find plenty of qualified and willing applicants. When it comes to people pursuing a career on Broadway, the heart wants what it wants.

And while the $1.5 million in tuition that the institute takes in every year is not nothing, as weighed against a $35 billion endowment, and the prominence of the American Repertory Theater, it begins to look a little unseemly, soaking acolytes and leaving them indebted when the program could likely keep running otherwise.

If I am wrong, and the A.R.T Institute is actually dependent on student tuition to run, then we are in the must charge tuition category, and if this is the case, questions should be asked, questions which may include the debt-to-earnings ratios of graduates.

The questions are more complicated for creative writing fine arts programs, however, as they are not strictly pre-professional. Using a heavy bureaucratic hand to police programs would likely do far more harm than good.

But I do believe programs should be asking internal questions and in the interest of prospective students, sharing some of those answers. If a program is dependent on student tuition in order to operate, in a very real sense, that tuition is paying the salaries of those working in the program. No tuition, no program.

What’s happening to those students post graduation? Here’s some of the questions I think programs could answer:[3]

  • % of students in stable, full-time academic positions
  • % of students who have published with commercial, independent, or university press
  • % of students who work in writing or publishing-related field
  • Debt at graduation/Debt at 5 years/Debt at 10 years/Debt at 20 years/Average time to debt free

Collectively, these questions give at least some sense of the employment and professional outcomes for those who complete the program. They are not the full measure of what is meaningful, but that doesn’t make them meaningless.

Additionally, in programs where some students get assistance while others pay tuition, it would be useful to see a comparison in outcomes. Do those who are judged worthy of assistance have better outcomes? Why?

We might discover how much selectivity matters. While growth surely happens during the period of study, maybe the most meaningful event in terms of future outcomes is admission, a signal that this is a person of uncommon promise.

What effect does prestige have on outcomes? Columbia is one of the most expensive MFA programs, but it also boasts that powerhouse faculty and rafts of accomplished alumni. Even if you have to pay tuition, it may be worth it to walk a similar path.

Idealist that I am, I think this data should be available to all prospective applicants so they can make the most informed decision possible.

My hunch is some programs will be delighted to boast about their outcomes. Others may see something different, in which case they can engage in some self-examination. If your MFA program is “turning a profit” but leaving students deeply indebted, in my book that’s a betrayal of the mission of a not-for-profit educational institution.

The Department of Education calls programs like that “predatory.”

As long as they’re transparent with students, though, I’d let the institutions themselves decide what to do.

I also think that students will continue to take risks on themselves that may not seem prudent from the outside in order to pursue their dreams, which is how it should be.

Let’s just make sure we haven’t created a system that’s exploiting many for the benefit of the few.

[1] More than 200 full-residency and low-residency programs times about 15 students per graduating cohort. The data is approximate and comes from an AWP survey of member programs.

[2] Though, I’d be curious to see what the full curve of data looks like given elite programs get in excess of 500 or even 1000 (or more) applicants, as in the case of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (25 are admitted).

[3] These are neither exhaustive, nor maybe even good. If anyone has better or different ideas, please share in the comments.

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