Should You Go into Debt for an MFA?
August 5, 2019 § 9 Comments
By Victoria Buitron
Over the past week, my Twitter feed has been embroiled in yet another “Is an MFA really worth it?” discussion. I’ve read Tweets about how real authors would never get an MFA, posts from graduates upset that they didn’t get the teaching position they wholeheartedly expected, a few lukewarm “NO regrets!” posts, and Kelly Link’s thread detailing the staggering amount of debt people have acquired for an MFA. The figures are shocking and disheartening. But I am one of those individuals who is going into debt for an MFA program with my eyes wide open, and I’d like to share my debt story.
Think of it as a Money Diaries post except it’s only about grad school and it’s not anonymous.
I would have begun an MFA program as soon as I graduated with a BA in 2015, but I didn’t have any savings or the work experience I wanted. That year I landed a position I love as a translator and editor and began saving for grad school. Thanks to social media interest trackers, the Fairfield University MFA website would regularly appear on my browser over the following three years. I googled all the teachers and fell in love with their work. It’s a low-residency program, based in my state, and there was a list of a few graduate assistant positions. Although the opportunity didn’t mean I would get an assistantship, I wanted the option to be available.
It was important for me to know I would have a shot at additional funds. I’m an immigrant who has lived between two countries, the United States and Ecuador, for most of my life and I’ve only put down official roots in the U.S. since 2012. The only way I can save money is by doing gigs on the side: house-sitting, dog-sitting, babysitting, editing, translating, and tutoring in English and Spanish. There have been times I’ve put kids to sleep at 8:00 p.m. and then written until the parents arrived at 1 a.m. I put all those savings away for MFA application day.
I had $3,000 in student loans when I graduated with my Bachelor’s (shout out to Hunter College–CUNY) and I felt I could afford a maximum of $15,000 in student loan debt with accruing interest for an MFA program. Nonetheless, I wanted to do anything legally possible not to take out that amount.
In early 2018, once I chose three low-residency MFA grad programs, with Fairfield University as my #1 choice, before sending out my applications I requested a meeting with my boss. There was nothing in the employee handbook that indicated tuition reimbursement existed, but I had to ask. I’m a confident woman, I know what I’m worth, and if you don’t ask, you’ll never get anything.
My employer informed me they would pay up to 50% of my tuition, with stipulations regarding my grades, the type of degree I would get, and the amount of years I’d work for the company. I accepted. Afterwards, I applied to Fairfield University’s MFA in Writing and was accepted.
In the first year, my employer paid half of my tuition, leaving me with around $10,000 to pay off. I had $5,000 in savings ready to use, leaving the need for $5,000 in student loans. Towards the end of my second semester, I was informed that a new graduate student position became available to serve on the staff of Brevity. I had read the magazine religiously even before I entered my program, was a submissions reader for the magazine during my first two MFA semesters, and had been in a workshop with the founding editor. I applied and got the position, which comes with a 50% stipend for tuition.
For my last year of grad school, I won’t have to pay tuition at all. I will be working my ass off, but I thoroughly enjoy working for Brevity, and I won’t need any additional loans. I haven’t graduated yet, but my writing has already improved, I love my MFA community, and many doors have opened up for me. It’s all been worth it.
I have had many privileges that led me to low student debt. I am an able-bodied Latina who has a secure job, lives in a two-income home, no children, and I have time on my side to save money. It’s important to acknowledge there are structural economic factors that prevent many people from saving through side gigs like I do. People can’t pull themselves up by the bootstraps if they can’t afford boots. In certain cases, saving money is just not feasible and loans are the only option.
Are you considering an MFA but worry about the debt? Here are my tips for tentative grad students:
- Look up grad schools with fully-funded programs, partially-funded programs, and graduate student positions. Unless you can pay for grad school out of pocket, there should be no reason why you’re attending a school that doesn’t provide these sorts of opportunities to their students.
- Plan ahead. Years ahead.
- Figure in the loan principal and interest whether or not you will get that teaching and/or tenure track job.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for money. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you deserve. The worst people can say is no. But always, always ask.
- Apply for grants and scholarships. You’ll have a better shot at local ones than national ones.
- Google the teachers and the directors of the grad programs you’re interested in. They will be your community, and you have to determine whether you’re ready to pay to be in that community. Once you are seriously considering a program, e-mail the director or administrator and ask if you can be in touch with some current students.
- Low-residency or full-residency. Determine the pros and cons and what would be best for you.
- Go to a local library writing workshop or join a writers’ group before shelling out thousands of dollars for an MFA. Maybe you’ll realize that’s all you needed.
- Don’t compare your financial situation with the person next to you in workshop. No one else but you knows what you can afford, save and pay back in loans.
- Please don’t get into $100,000 debt for an MFA. No matter what the name of the school is.
Victoria Buitron is a writer and translator based in Connecticut. She is currently an MFA candidate at Fairfield University’s low-residency program. Find her at atravelingtranslator.com and on Twitter at @kikitraveler30.
My husband and I put our two sons through college before I entered graduate school myself. (They had debt, but the debt of a modest car, which I consider fair. People can pay off a car in 4-6 years, I reason, and they should be able to pay of such a debt).
My MFA was something I wanted to do for myself, something I had promised myself since my undergrad days as a studio visual artist. Writing as a focus came late. I wasn’t looking for a new job or other career advancement. I wanted to be a better writer.
I have no regrets about my MFA (I paid as I went—cheaper than sons in college!) but the greatest educational writing experience of my life remains attending several years at The Flight of the Mind in the 90s. That’s what taught me about myself as a writer.
[…] * Should You Go into Debt for an MFA? The crucial contribution is Kelly Link’s nightmare thread about the debt load some people have coming out of more predatory programs. […]
I just graduated from Fairfield University with my second MFA. I will be going back for my third this winter. All with student loans. I also have a published book thanks to Adelaide Press and my MFA.
I don’t regret any of the money I will pay.
If you want it then do it. Life only happens once.
Victoria’s essay is full of excellent advice. I went into debt for a low residency MFA program, then had that debt deferred while I earned my Ph.D. I had assistantships (Thank you Florida State!) so the Ph.D. was “free.” I paid off my debt over the next six years having got a solid teaching job. My advice is to do the degree for itself, not as a key to some magic kingdom of employment or publication. And consider your personal circumstances carefully. No degree is worth the servitude of unending debt.
Great advice here. I would like to apply for a MFA and wonder if mid 60s is too old?
You would probably find yourself older than most students in a conventional MFA, but many low-residency MFAs have a few students in their sixties.
Dinty is right. I was 55 when I earned my MFA in Pacific University’s low residency program, but I was far from the oldest in the program.
[…] except it’s only about grad school and it’s not anonymous.”—Victoria Buitron introduces “Should You Go Into Debt for Your MFA,” her recent post for the Brevity […]