Should You Go into Debt for an MFA?

August 5, 2019 § 9 Comments

victoria bBy 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.
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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.

 

The MFA is Not a Calling Card: The Low-Residency View

July 11, 2016 § 10 Comments

A guest post from Kevin Haworth:

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Kevin Haworth

Like other Brevity blog readers, I have been following the thread of conversation this week started by Emily Smith and continued by Dinty W. Moore. As the director of a low-residency MFA program, I have my own investment in this conversation, and a desire to see my students’ experiences represented. And while each of these writers makes salient points about the challenges of an MFA education, both essays fail to speak to the hundreds of low-residency students currently working toward their MFAs with high hopes and great dedication.

Emily Smith contends that “the MFA is a literary calling card, a title not unlike Vanderbilt or Kennedy that can often buy entry into the otherwise classist structure of the literary world.” For low-residency students, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Low-residency students have long had to grapple with the lower cachet that comes with their MFA—something many successful low-residency programs are working against—compared to the star programs of the MFA world. Certainly few low-residency students have ever brandished their MFA and, by virtue of the degree itself, received immediate admittance to wealthy publishing deals or endowed chairs from the gatekeepers that Smith imagines.

And yet each year students pursue low-residency MFA degrees, with the full knowledge that their MFA is not, by itself, a calling card. One reason is that, in some ways, low-residency programs are more responsive to the kinds of populations that need greater representation in the MFA world. Smith talks about the financial burden of application fees; some low-res programs (my program is one example) require no application fees whatsoever. And the fundamental model of a low-residency program is much friendlier to non-traditional students or others who are facing challenges that might make traditional schooling impossible. For older students with lives they can’t uproot, people with full-time jobs they can’t afford to leave, people with medical issues that need regular attention, just to cite a few examples, low-residency programs are the way into an otherwise closed MFA world. Smith suggests, rightly, that many MFA programs represent a level of privilege that not everyone can access. But this is why low-residency programs were created—to provide access for those who, for many different reasons, are not in a position to join a full-time program. By not acknowledging the existence of low-residency programs—for her, MFA seems to mean only full-residency programs—she is erasing many of the same students she is trying to champion.

Rather than a calling card, low-residency students are looking for opportunity. Moore is right in that the days—if they ever existed—in which an MFA was the golden ticket to tenure-track employment and a nice book deal are over. But low-residency students have always known that. Low-residency students who seek those things have always known that their writing and other professional experiences, not their degree alone, will get them there. In recent years, alumni of my program have published, just as examples, a book of poems with an independent, esteemed poetry press; a memoir with a university press; and a series of historical novels with the genre imprint of a large publisher. In this, they are like the overwhelming majority of writers, MFA or not, who publish their books outside the extremely limited world of New York book deals.

I don’t want to paint an overly rosy picture of the MFA world, low-residency or otherwise. Money is an issue regardless of program. Fundamentally, I agree with Moore that going into deep debt for an MFA program is a problematic equation, simply because it is unlikely that the degree alone—or even the book that might result from it—will earn back that debt. And Moore is right, as he notes at the bottom of his essay, that the low-residency program can represent a very different set of financial concerns. Still, even working full-time jobs, some of my students have to go into debt in pursuit of their degrees. They do so with full knowledge and with an understanding (unlike some full-residency students, I would argue) that writing or teaching is unlikely to fully support them post-degree. But the situation is still problematic. MFA programs should not be contributors to the national crisis around student debt.

There is, however, one area where Dinty and I may disagree. (Full disclosure: he and I edited a book together, but that won’t stop me from arguing with him here.) I don’t think full funding, regardless of program, is the holy grail of making an MFA worth it. That’s because full funding often comes with heavy strings attached. There are a few MFA programs that offer full funding in the form of fellowships, with no work obligations. Those are marvelous and rare. But for the vast majority of MFA programs, “full funding” means “full teaching”—a teaching load equivalent to most tenure-track faculty, at basement wages. And while tuition may be waived, there are typically still student fees, health insurance costs and other semi-hidden expenses. Thus, at many programs, fully funded students still need to go into debt, because the stipends are just too low to make ends meet. (More disclosure: I was fully funded at an excellent MFA program, for which I am grateful. But I had to work as a freelance writer for the entire three years, in addition to my teaching load, to avoid debt.) And if you take ill, or have to drop out of full-time schooling because of any life emergency, you will likely lose your tuition waiver, your job, and your health insurance all at once. Again, I’m not trying to bash fully-funded teaching assistantships—I benefited from one, as have many writers—but Emily Smith seems to suggest that if she had been fully funded to attend Emerson’s program, all her financial questions would have been answered. I don’t think that’s so.

The MFA is not, and never has been, a calling card. And no one funding model is the answer to the deep and persistent questions around money that dog MFA programs. Access, affordability, and post-MFA opportunity are all areas on which programs need to focus more. I believe that most MFA programs, full-res and low-res both, do a great job teaching creative writing to the students who make it into our classrooms. The cliché of MFA programs is that “it’s all about the writing.” But as directors, we need to attend to more than student writing. We need to understand our students’ worries about money and career, and recognize that each individual student’s financial situation, and their professional goals, are as unique as their writing voice.

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Kevin Haworth is a 2016 NEA Fellow in Nonfiction and the director of the Carlow international low-residency MFA program. His most recent book is Famous Drownings in Literary History: Essays on 21st Century Jewishness.

 

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