MFA Programs Cost Too Much

The above-mentioned career-related concerns wouldn’t matter so much were not MFA programs so hellishly expensive. (Although the concerns about neglectful and inept and abusive teaching absolutely still would matter.) Most cost thirty-five thousand dollars or more.

I’m not disputing a program’s right, or even need, to charge high prices. I’m not even arguing that those prices are high relative to the services provided (assuming they are, in fact, provided). I simply want to call attention to the effect these prices have on students from nonwealthy families. (Their effect on contemporary literature I’ll leave to others to discuss.) In her essay “My Misspent Youth,”1 Meghan Daum describes how she wound up $75,000 in debt largely due to her MFA:

Even as I stayed at Columbia for three years and borrowed more than $60,000 to get my degree, I was told repeatedly, by fellow students, faculty, administrators, and professional writers whose careers I wished to emulate, not to think about the loans. Student loans, after all, were low interest, long term, and far more benign than credit-card debt. Not thinking about them was a skill I quickly developed.

Yes, Daum made mistakes, including attending the nation’s most expensive MFA program. But telling a young writer not to worry about debt is irresponsible in the extreme, especially given how badly the profession pays. It’s particularly galling that many of those advising her not only profited directly from her indebtedness via tuition payments, but had what most MFA students are destined never to achieve: a full-time writing-related job with a decent salary.

Daum’s essay is part of a growing genre I call “debt lit,” in which highly educated people tell how they got into huge debt, often via student loans, and often for postgraduate creative or liberal arts degrees. Another example is Beth Boyle Machlan’s essay “How Scratch-Off Lottery Tickets Have (Not Yet) Changed My Life”2:

All I know is that in spite of her upscale upbringing and four degrees from name-brand schools, the Irish girl is back in a Brooklyn basement, overeducated and utterly screwed. It’s possible to romanticize poverty. It is not possible to romanticize debt. If they could foreclose on my education like a house or a car, I’d happily pack it up, pull out my memories of each and every course-“Tudor and Stuart England,” “East Asian Art”-and leave them stacked neatly at the curb. (“Take my Ph.D.-please!”) Hell, I’d even downgrade, trade in my ivy and the New England Liberal Arts degree for any of your better state schools. But I can’t, and so I’m fucked.

In partial defense of the MFA programs, their conveniently irresponsible attitude toward their students’ indebtedness merely mirrors that of higher education as a whole. Thankfully, that attitude is finally being questioned. In a watershed article in the May 28, 2010 New York Times, “Placing the Blame when a Student Lands in Debt,”3 financial columnist Ron Lieber wrote about Cortney Munna, a 26-year-old woman from a middle class family who graduated from New York University with a liberal arts degree and more than $100,000 in student loan debt. “So why didn’t N.Y.U. tell Ms. Munna that she simply did not belong there once she’d passed, say, $60,000 in total debt?” Lieber asks. The N.Y.U. spokesperson’s answer – that it should be the family’s decision whether to get into debt – is disingenuous, since no one’s asking N.Y.U. to make the decision, but simply to advise.

In the original article Munna states, “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life slaving away to pay for an education I got for four years and would happily give back.” In a follow-up piece, she repudiated that statement, but said, “In retrospect, it’s absolutely clear to me that I should have thought more about the cost of the education versus career prospects.”

The bottom line is that you can get most or all of the important things an MFA program provides outside an MFA program, and far more cheaply and reliably. You can take high quality lessons at a community writing program. You can pay a teacher or editor (who might actually teach at an MFA program) for individual help. You can immerse yourself full-time in a creative community via conferences and retreats. You can even get quality time with celebrity writers and editors and agents via contests, conferences, and auctions, or plain old networking (Chapter 8.6).

If an MFA program is not financially onerous for you, and you can enroll in a great program with teachers who really care, then that could be an amazing experience. But proceed carefully, especially if you expect the degree to yield a career benefit.