The MFA as Calling Card

July 5, 2016 § 34 Comments

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Emily Smith

By Emily Smith:

During the Brooklyn Book Festival last September, my employers and I were invited to a gala hosted by the festival. I was making rounds when I met an MFA student studying at NYU, one who bore a shocking resemblance to the infamous @GuyInYourMFA Twitter account. He told me he was working on a novel.

“Like Catcher in the Rye,” he said, “but Holden Caulfield lives in Brooklyn.”

He was likely the type I had to compete with when I was accepted into Emerson’s MFA program this year. Unfortunately, I had to decline because I couldn’t afford to go without funding. There’s a number of think pieces as to why writers continue to invest in a degree that will saturate them in debt, but the answer seems pretty clear: 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.

It’s not that I don’t see the MFA as an invaluable time to learn and write virtually uninterrupted. I applied. I understand its worth, want to be a part of it, and am afraid my career will burn up and out without one. But, I’m also afraid of drowning, my pockets filled with student loan statements heavy as stones.

The cost of applying to MFA programs is in itself a deterrent for underprivileged writers like the writer of color and the queer writer. According to AWP’s most recent report on the academic job market, there were 20,000 applicants in 2015 with program acceptance rates varying from 2 to 6 percent. To increase my chances of acceptance, I’d feel comfortable applying to at least 10 schools, which racks up my application fee bill to about $1,000.

Should I take out a loan just to apply to graduate school? It’s difficult to imagine any Millennial with that kind of nest egg, between student loan payments and the astronomical rent in cities we must move to in order to find jobs. According to the Detroit Free Press, young consumers (especially African-American and Hispanic consumers) are subjected to greater financial risk than the rest of the American population. That means I can either grope blindly without an MFA, or stomach the debt and gain admission into a world that sometimes feels as exclusive as Mrs. Astor’s “The 400.”

Of course, some schools waive application fees for students under unusual financial hardship. Although I’d argue that all Millennials suffer financial hardship (see student loan debt crisis), schools only consider waiving fees on a case-by-case basis, and the criteria for waiving fees are never listed on school websites; the decision to waive is more or less a subjective one, which NYU made a point of in December. When low-income artist of color and Brown university student Joshua Jackson applied to NYU’s graduate program, the school informed him that if he couldn’t pay the application fee, then he probably couldn’t afford the cost of tuition, either. The fee was finally waived after Jackson publicized the decision on Twitter.

It’s unclear what exactly the application fees fund, since it’s hard to imagine Harvard’s Society of Fellows purchasing their $1,000 bottles of wine or Ohio State University funding their president’s $5 million salary with this money.

What the MFA can unarguably provide is community. Writers want friends, too; we’re tired of reaching into the dark and grasping nothing but air. We are tired of pretending that art is made in isolation.

The writer of color, the queer writer, and the woman writer are less likely to receive the same connections as their white male counterparts considering their often underprivileged economic backgrounds. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, some 7,000 master’s degrees in the English field were conferred to white recipients in 2014; in contrast that might give one whiplash, only 530 were conferred to black writers. LGBT students, too, tend to have lower levels of education and lower levels of family income. Unfortunately, family income is directly tied to a student’s ability to receive financial aid through FAFSA, but the system of calculation assumes that students have two parents with two incomes who support them financially. Imagine a queer writer estranged from her family because they don’t approve of her sexuality, or a writer of color with one parent in jail (this is true for 1 out of eighteen children of color) who must still report parental income. Public assistance programs like FAFSA were not designed with these realities in mind.

The reality is that the MFA, and the master’s degree in general, is becoming the standard for qualification and expertise for professional jobs. With the surge of degrees (63 percent since 2000), those who are financially unable to obtain one will likely be left behind in the widening class divide.

I felt the pull of my own insignificance at the gala last fall.

My boss had introduced me to a well-respected white male professor in his 50s who she wanted to hire. As most people do during these kinds of parties, the professor squinted his eyes, distorting my features in an attempt to gauge recognition. Was I a writer of note? He knew one way to find out.

“What are you working on right now?” he asked.

“Finishing my BFA in Creative Writing,” I said.

The professor laughed (a dismissive hiccup, really), spun around, then grabbed another craft beer at the open bar. Later, I watched him nod seriously with that MFA student, the two clinking beer bottles in solidarity.

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Emily Smith is currently a Contributing Blogger for Ploughshares and holds a B.F.A. in Creative Writing from New Hampshire Institute of Art. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Bustle, Luna LunaPloughshares and more.

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