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2011 Poets & Writers Magazine Ranking of MFA Programs: A Guide to the Methodology

Special Section

September/October 2010

Online Only, posted 9.01.10

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National Full-Residency Applicant Pool Size
The frequency with which each full-residency MFA program appeared on polled fiction and poetry applicants' application lists may be determined by dividing the number of votes for a particular program in both fiction and poetry by the total number of applicants in these two genres polled during the 2009–10 admissions cycle. Because recent applicant-pool hard data is available for 63 full-residency MFA programs, it is possible to use a function of these two data-points to estimate the total number of applications received in fiction and poetry by full-residency MFA programs. While such an extrapolation presumes that the users of The MFA Blog were and are demographically similar to those individuals who did not use The MFA Blog to research programs during the polling period (and that those who cast votes on The MFA Blog were demographically similar to those who were patrons but did not), such unscientific sampling is necessary because (1) demographic data for all full- and low-residency applicants is not known or knowable, and (2) there is no particular reason to suspect dramatic demographic differences between the various sub-groups cited above, as The MFA Blog is a public Web site easily accessible by networked computer. Likewise, because user accounts allow Web site patrons to manage the amount of personal information they release to the public, there is no particular reason for any subset of applicants to feel chilled from casting a vote for whichever programs they favored. While the general tenor of discourse on The MFA Blog is consistent with the polling described abovefor instance, it is a community that generally favors funded over unfunded programsthese attitudes are consistent with that present conventional wisdom expounded upon at length in most recent media accounts of the creative writing MFA. There appears to be nothing remarkable about the demographics of those who patronize a free, public, lightly-moderated Web site like The MFA Blog.

In a document released in 2009, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) estimated that there are "more than 13,000 applicants to [full- and low-residency] MFA programs each year." Data collected for the 2011 Poets & Writers Magazine rankings indicate that this estimate is likely incorrect. While no one knows for certain the total number of applicants annually to full-residency programs in the United States, based on the available data the present median estimate for the annual applicant pool for full-residency programs is 3,116 applicants. The mean estimate is 3,478; subtracting two substantial outliers from the 63 program-based data-points available results in an adjusted mean of 3,276. Similar calculations, using data collected in 2008 and 2009, produced similar results, with program-data-based estimates ranging from 2,500 to 4,000 annual applicants to full-residency MFA programs. These numbers suggest that the 2011 Poets & Writers Magazine rankings polled more than 15% of the annual applicant pool to full-residency MFA programs.

As noted in the introductory article for the print edition of the 2011 rankings, while the rankings are not scientific, they are probative. Whereas scientific rankings (which require demographic data that is, in this case, unavailable both to independent researchers and national trade organizations) traditionally poll, at the state level, well less than a hundredth of one percent of their target population, and national polls typically sample well less than a thousandth of one percent, the sample-size here, in a nod to the necessarily unscientific nature of the polling, is between 1,500 and 15,000 times larger as a percentage of population.

To arrive at national applicant-pool estimates the following equation was used:

(527 / number of fiction and poetry votes received by a program in 2009–10 applicant polling) x (number of fiction and poetry applicants reported by that program during the most recent admissions cycle for which data is available)

Using the equation above, it was determined that 36 of the 63 program-data-based estimates for the annual full-residency applicant pool (57.1%) fell within 1,000 applicants of the adjusted mean of 3,276, and 51 estimates (81.0%) fell within 1,500.

The popularity of programs whose extrapolated national-applicant-pool estimates significantly exceed the adjusted mean may well be under-tabulated (ranked lower than what they would have been had the entire national applicant pool been polled) by the polling done for the 2011 Poets & Writers Magazine rankings; conversely, programs whose extrapolated applicant-pool estimates fall significantly below the adjusted mean may well be over-tabulated (ranked higher than what they would have been had the entire national applicant pool been polled). These under-tabulations and over-tabulations are not random; they reflect the fact that those applicants less likely to have been exposed to the present conventional wisdom regarding MFA applications on sites like the MFA Blog are consequently more likely to apply to short-duration, poorly-funded programs in high cost-of-living urban areas. The current conventional wisdom among the online-researching MFA applicant community is that it is advisable to apply to longer-duration, well-funded programs in lower cost-of-living areas. To the extent the polling conducted at The MFA Blog favors better-funded programs, this bias is a conscious mirror-imaging of the bias of the most well-researched MFA applicants, and not an inadvertent byproduct of the rankings' methodology.

Of the 17 programs listed below with the highest upward deviation from the adjusted meanthe programs most likely to have been under-tabulated by this ranking in comparison to known applicant-pool figuresnot one is fully-funded. Not one is half fully-funded. Not one is three years in duration; one, in fact, is only a single year in duration. Thirteen of the seventeen (76.5%) are located in one of six high-cost-of-living locales: Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. The remaining four have other, distinct reasons for possible under-tabulation, including, variously, noncompliance with the CGSR Resolution, a significant consideration amongst MFA applicants in The MFA Blog community; significantly higher placement in the mid-1990s rankings of creative writing programs no longer used by patrons of The MFA Blog; and an appeal and notoriety based in part on factors other than the quality of the university's MFA program. For instance, a program with an extremely popular creative writing doctorate program might receive disproportionately more word-of-mouth among those who do not research programs via an MFA-focused community online.

Of the 17 programs with the largest downward deviation from the adjusted meanthe programs most likely to have been over-tabulated by this ranking in comparison to known applicant-pool figuresthirteen (76.5%) are fully funded. Of the remaining four programs, one was advertised as fully funded at the time the polling for these rankings was conducted, one fully funds all admittees as to tuition but does not offer assistantships to all accepted students, and one ranks among the better-funded larger programs in the United Statesthe conventional wisdom among online-researching applicants being that it is advisable to apply to at least one slightly larger, lower-selectivity program. Of these 17 programs, more than half are three years in duration, with one program (the most presumptively over-tabulated program) being four years in length. Other than Tucson, Arizona (pop. 542,000), the largest host locale amongst these 18 programs is Greensboro, North Carolina (pop. 258,000).

Below are national applicant-pool estimates, derived from the polling data, for the 63 programs with available annual admissions statistics, ranked from the lowest estimates for the national full-residency applicant pool in fiction and poetry (programs more likely to be over-tabulated) to the highest (programs more likely to be under-tabulated). To reiterate, the number in parentheses represents an estimate of the total full-residency MFA applicant pool for 2009–10 based on the percentage of the 527 polled who voted for that school and the actual number of applications that school reportedly received.

University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa (1,347)

University of Notre Dame in Indiana (1,561) *

Virginia Polytechnic Institute [Virginia Tech] in Blacksburg (1,735)

University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign (1,824)

University of Arizona in Tucson (1,829) *

Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana (1,957)

University of Maryland in College Park (1,991)

University of North Carolina in Greensboro (2,012)

University of Wyoming in Laramie (2,029) *

University of Florida in Gainesville (2,076)

University of Mississippi in Oxford (2,147)

Syracuse University in New York (2,178)

Bowling Green State University in Ohio (2,245)

Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge (2,272)

Indiana University in Bloomington (2,314)

Ohio State University in Columbus (2,436) *

Southern Illinois University in Carbondale (2,441)

University of California in Irvine (2,489)

Arizona State University in Tempe (2,531)

Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore (2,577)

University of Wisconsin in Madison (2,636)

Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia (2,729)

University of Arkansas in Fayetteville (2,792)

Portland State University in Oregon (2,812)

University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho (2,863)

University of Minnesota in Minneapolis (2,907)

George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia (2,920) *

University of Montana in Missoula (2,929) *

University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (2,976)

University of Houston in Texas (3,024)

North Carolina State University in Raleigh (3,088)

New York University in New York City (3,116) [median]

University of Iowa in Iowa City (3,138)

Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey (3,281)

University of Texas in Austin (3,294)

University of Virginia in Charlottesville (3,398)

Vanderbilt University in Nashville (3,404)

Texas State University in San Marcos (3,426)

Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island (3,477)

Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri (3,529)

University of Nevada in Las Vegas (3,556)

California College of the Arts in San Francisco, California (3,570)

University of Massachusetts in Amherst (3,667)

Pennsylvania State University in University Park (3,606)

Cornell University in Ithaca, New York (3,699)

University of Oregon in Eugene (3,800)

University of North Carolina in Wilmington (3,904)

CalArts in Valencia, California (3,919)

American University in Washington, D.C. (4,287)

Hunter College in New York City (4,304) *

Boston University in Massachusetts (4,367)

Columbia University in New York City (4,385) *

Brooklyn College in New York (4,417)

University of Washington in Seattle (4,546)

University of San Francisco in California (5,217) *

School of the Art Institute of Chicago in Illinois (5,950)

Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York (5,961)

The New School in New York City (5,969) *

Florida State University in Tallahassee (6,337)

Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts (6,610)

San Francisco State University in California (7,572)

Saint Mary's College of California in Moraga (8,400)

Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey (10,894)

* = Publicly-released applicant-pool data included three genres. A two-genre estimateusing the national-average 6:3:2 distribution of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction applicationshas been used to generate this extrapolated figure.

The variation in the figures above reflects the differing practices of applicants who conduct substantial research into programs via online MFA-applicant communities and those who do not. The list reflects that, for example, Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey, is probably more popular among the total national applicant pool than it is among the 527 users polled on The MFA Blog. That the Iowa Writers' Workshop, whose reputation and name-recognition in the field of graduate creative writing is the most likely of any program to be equivalent across all applicant groups, is only a mere 22 applicants off the median estimate of 3,116 suggests that the Writers' Workshop was the most "neutrally-tabulated" program in these rankingsas no obvious reason exists for individual groups of applicants to be more or less familiar with the much-lauded 75 year-old program.

Several other credibly-funded programs with long-standing national reputations both in print, online, and through word-of-mouth are likewise exceedingly close to the median estimate of the national applicant pool cited above, including New York University in New York City (0% off the median), University of Houston in Texas (2.95%), University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (4.49%), University of Texas in Austin (5.71%), University of Montana in Missoula (6.00%), and University of Virginia in Charlottesville (9.05%).

As the annual applicant-pool estimates provided above relate only to fiction and poetry applications, the traditional 6:3:2 genre ratio (see "Genre Rankings: Cohort," below) can be used to estimate the median and mean number of nonfiction applicants per annum: 567 (median), 632 (mean), and 596 (adjusted mean). These figures are derived directly from the median, mean, and adjusted mean calculations for full-residency fiction and poetry programs (see above). These estimates cross-check, broadly speaking, with estimates extrapolated from programs with known nonfiction admissions data: University of Iowa (whose admissions figures produce an estimate of 248 annual applications in nonfiction nationwide); University of Wyoming in Laramie (253); Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York (561); and Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey (842). Further confirmation is provided by programs whose three-genre applicant pools are known but for which a breakdown by genre is unavailable. The nonfiction applicant pool for these programs can be estimated using the 6:3:2 ratio. The result is a series of estimates from the following programs: University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania (whose admissions figures produce an estimate of 101 annual applications in nonfiction nationwide); University of Arizona in Tucson (119); Eastern Washington University in Cheney (154); University of Notre Dame in Indiana (196); George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia (259); University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa (345); Ohio State University in Columbus (463); University of San Francisco in California (556); Hunter College [CUNY] in New York City (575); and Columbia University in New York City (688).

While these estimates cannot fix with certainty the annual nonfiction applicant pool, that every estimate above is between 100 and 900, with a clear majority falling between 200 and 600, suggests that the correct figure is well under a thousand. Further, the outlying estimates here (101 and 119) are from programs ranked much higher in nonfiction than in any other genre; the above-referenced 6:3:2 genre ratio may therefore underestimate these programs' actual number of nonfiction applicants, thereby artificially decreasing their national applicant pool projections.

Added to the adjusted mean data for fiction and poetry, these nonfiction figures suggest an annual three-genre applicant pool, across all full-residency programs in the United States, of 3,872. A more cautious approach would be to propose a range: The annual three-genre full-residency applicant pool is likely between 3,500 and 4,000.

Reader Comments

  • JToman says...

    look at this

  • Seth Abramson says...

    Hi CWD,

    Unfortunately no ranking of CW Ph.D. programs has been possible thus far due to a lack of data, but I'm hoping that will change soon. Suffice to say that you can expect the programs at University of Southern California, University of Houston, Florida State University, University of Denver, and University of Illinois at Chicago to be in the top 10, and likely also (though with less definite assurance) University of Georgia, University of Missouri, and University of Utah. CW Ph.D. programs are slightly more likely to accept applicants with MFA degrees, I feel, so in that sense an MFA may be preferable to an M.A., but generally you're absolutely right--both are terminal degrees, and one doesn't need more than one terminal degree technically (though with today's CW job market it really couldn't hurt), so one could certainly get an M.A. if one wanted to go on and get a CW Ph.D (or as more and more folks are doing, get a terminal CW MFA and then a terminal non-CW English Lit Ph.D.). The question I'd ask, though, is this: Why get an M.A. over an MFA? Why not get the terminal degree instead, in the event something unexpected happens (for instance one hits one's own personal comfort "limit" as to student loan debt, one suddenly can't move from one's current location for personal/family reasons, etcetera)--that way, one would already have a terminal degree, whereas if all you're holding is an M.A. when additional schooling becomes impossible you now have zero terminal degrees. Also, graduate school admissions in CW work almost entirely off one's portfolio, and the MFA gives one more time, generally, to work on one's thesis (and thus, by extension, one's CW Ph.D. portfolio) than an M.A. does. So one's chances of ending up in a top CW Ph.D. are better, for that reason also, following an MFA. I think the reason many MFA grads get a CW Ph.D. is not because of some added practical value--there's no proof yet it really affects one's job prospects, and there are no signs the CW Ph.D. is becoming the new CW terminal degree as some say (there's been almost no growth in the number of such programs in the past decade, whereas there have been maybe 40 new MFA programs over that time)--but because it gives one more teaching experience, more time to write and publish, more time in a supportive community of fellow artists, and so on. And yes, in a "tie-breaker" employment-related situation it might break a tie between two job candidates. Hope this helps, and best of luck to your son! --S.

  • CW Dad says...

    Seth - My son is a College Junior with a post graduate goal of getting his PhD in Creative Writing. I have to admit I am somewhat confused about the benefits of an MFA along with a PhD. From what I've seen, both of these are thought of as terminal degrees. So my question is - is it advantageous to get the MFA over the MA if the intention is to get your PhD? Also, there are only about 35 colleges in the U.S. that offer a PhD with a Creative Dissertation. Are there any rankings of these schools?

  • CarvingCarver says...

    I am an undergrad, a really low undergrad (sophomore) and I want to get an MFA. Your rankings have helped me make a decision about where to apply and to know that I need an MA in something else. I am thinking of being an editor if I can't make it writing, because lets face it, few can. For an unbiased classical argument, I need as many facts as I can and your article helps. How much influence do you have on the rankings? This is a real help and as someone who lives below poverty level currently, I appreciate your rankings. Perhaps the naysayers have money that they can throw around but I struggle and your rankings have helped me decide. I also look for faculty and community. Those are my top criteria. But for anyone to say that they may dismiss P&W because of these rankings is missing the entire point of P&W. It is a side endeavor. And they should know poor folks like myself rely on such thoroughness.

  • sethabramson says...

    See here:

    http://www.pw.org/content/2011_mfa_rankings_the_top_ten_lowresidency_pro...

    At that link, there's also a link to a listing of the additional 36 low-res programs in the U.S. and abroad. And if you read the methodology article (see sidebar) it covers low-res programs as well (there's a separate section). Plus these programs are mentioned in my articles in the print edition of the magazine. Hope you find them helpful! Best,

    Seth

  • rgarciasr says...

    There is no doubt that you do great work with Full Residency MFA Programs. What about Low Residency? Don't they deserve some attention as well?

  • bretquinn says...

    Seth, I first found your rankings last year, and couldn't wait for this year's. They are an integral component of my MFA quest. Thank you so much for the time and effort put into the database. Having so much useful information gathered in one place is an inestimable help.

  • sputnik says...

    According to the magazine, somewhere on the website there's a complete listing of all MFA programs, domestic and international. Can't find it. What's the URL? Thx.

  • sethabramson says...

    Seelo,
    Sorry you feel that way. Be well,
    S.

  • seelo says...

    The nonsense continues...And I really admired P&W at one time.

  • sethabramson says...

    Stovedore,
    I'm sorry you feel that way, and sorry also for my long-windedness. This is a complicated issue, and I'll admit that I balk when folks approach it only superficially. Any good faith discussion of the subject would need to be more exhaustive than the sort of pith that finds favor in our drive-by online exchanges -- all too many of which, like your own note, are peppered with irrelevant personal attacks. (These don't help a single applicant.) If you're curious about my poetry I hope you'll check it out, it's readily available -- and I can assure you, from personal experience, that there's more than enough time and space in the world for both writing poetry and providing a public service for young, under-resourced applicants to MFA programs. Cheers,
    S.

  • stovedore says...

    It's unfortunate that P&W would continue to back flawed methodology and a writer whose logorrhea is well-documented (just check out Abramson's responses to pithy statements in this comment section). The first word in the title of the magazine is "Poets" (which Abramson professes to be!) but this ranking and the sheer amount of insecure writing done to back up the ranking (funding...funding...funding...) is so far removed from anything poetic, or even useful to a writer or human being. Yes, this article, this ranking, this comment thread will get the clicks and eyeballs that P&W wants (and probably needs), but it is worth it?

  • sethabramson says...

    Samuel,
    If you believe that the best writers always make the best teachers; that the aesthetics of a writer determine his or her in-class pedagogy; that an artist of one aesthetic inclination is temperamentally incapable of working productively with an aspiring artist of an entirely different bent; that applicants can conclusively determine, through sheer force of will, which poets and writers (all of whom are individuals they've never met) will be most helpful to their future development as artists... in that case, yes, David's argument might have some purchase. But we'd have to assume that you also cared little about accruing crippling student debt or attending a program with a strong cohort of artists, weren't at all interested in how large, how long, how student-teaching-intensive, how studio-intensive, and how focused on faculty teaching (cf. student-to-faculty ratio) your prospective program would be, and had time to research 200+ programs in grave detail rather than relying on massive online communities where others charitably contribute, for free, such intelligence. Granted, I don't know of any MFA applicant who fits this description--and I've had contact with literally thousands since 2006--but if I do come across any I will pass along the link. The point is, the rankings are the product of a community, and implicitly promote that community; David's comments mention some undoubtedly important considerations in choosing an MFA--and I endorse such considerations wholeheartedly--but nowhere can one find better discussions of such considerations than the polling locus used by the P&W rankings. It's not a coincidence. In any case, hopefully at some point in the future there'll be a possibility of discussing this more responsibly and decently (cf. "this guy"); David knows, I think, that the views he's attributed to me are not mine, and that I've said, from the start, and quite publicly, and repeatedly, that it would be foolish for any person to make an application or matriculation decision purely or largely on the basis of rankings. The difference between me and David is that I think artists are fiercely independent-minded enough to actually do this; meanwhile, David's concern on this score has somehow morphed into A) a categoric opposition to rankings (don't misunderstand his comments; at the time AWP vehemently opposed the very methodologies David's now implicitly endorsing, i.e. those of USNWR and The Atlantic), and B) a brand of advice -- as mystical as it is misleading -- which endows MFA applicants with powers of perception and prediction not even the best artists among us could possibly lay claim to. Be well, Seth

  • sethabramson says...

    Hi Samuel,
    You're absolutely right in thinking that the values of the (total) annual national applicant pool are not those of the nation's largest (or, really, any) online community of MFA applicants; the article above (pp. 1-2) emphasizes this point several times and in several different ways. The goal of the polling, which is only one portion of the ranking system as you know, is to measure only the attitudes of those who pool their resources and knowledge when applying to MFA programs by participating in a community of fellow applicants -- those less likely to do so are also less likely to enjoy positive outcomes with respect to the first of the primary goals of the rankings (pg. 1, above: "Specifically, the goals of these rankings and their methodology are the following: Less overall student debt among MFA graduates, more transparency in the promotional materials and public disclosures of existing MFA programs, and greater access, for applicants, to the wealth of conventional wisdom in the MFA applicant community about which programs and which program features are most conducive to a memorable and valuable MFA experience"). You're also absolutely right to say that polling can never offer a complete picture of program quality--that's why the article above says (pg. 1) that the matriculation decision "will finally be made, and must be made, using the rankings as only a secondary resource," why it does not attempt to measure "faculty and community" (two unmeasurables both you and the article agree are not quantifiable) directly but uses applicants' application decisions as an indirect reflection of word-of-mouth about both, and why a good portion of the rankings are assessments of publicly-announced, hard-data program features like funding, selectivity, and postgraduate placement. The first measure is aimed at helping applicants avoid unnecessary, crippling debt, which was rampant among applicants before programs' funding information received national release via a single ranking methodology, and the second two hard-data measures aim at helping applicants gauge prospective cohort quality (an imperfect science, one reason the rankings are often cited as "unscientific" in the article above; still, "cohort quality" being one vital element of "community," this does strike at the heart of what you've termed the key to the MFA application/matriculation decision). I know you went to Columbia, as I'm familiar with and enjoy your work, and I think the key for you, as for anyone, is to simply ask whether you enjoyed your experience there and found it, on balance, worthwhile--if so, and I've no reason to think or guess otherwise, the rankings are admittedly of no relevance, as they're not aimed at/toward current students or graduates but only future applicants whose MFA years may still lie ahead. The hope is that future applicants to Columbia (or anywhere else) will be able to use the rankings to get hard data on funding, selectivity, and postgraduate placement, even if they decide the polling portion of the rankings is not helpful to them--though as the article above details (pg. 1) the correlation between what the hard data tells us about program features that affect real lives, and what applicants are saying about where they want to apply, is intimately linked. This suggests that applicants are now able and inclined to use information to make application and matriculation decisions, rather than rumor and guesswork. I can't imagine willingly going back to a time when such an important decision was made without the benefit of even the "secondary resource" of information. If you (I mean the generic "you" here) didn't decide where to attend college without the benefit of information, why apply to an MFA that way, especially when it's an unmarketable degree that it's financially dangerous to go into debt for, unlike the B.A.? The response to the rankings among applicants has been overwhelming--more than 98% positive. Those who are not applicants may tend to misunderstand the rankings because, at base, the rankings are not geared toward meeting the needs or interests of those who are not applicants (i.e., whose futures in no way depend on or involve an MFA-related decision). It is much easier to dismiss all the research and information contained in the rankings when one does not need that research or information; those who do need it are saying, en masse, that it is enormously profitable for them to have it, and that's why it keeps getting national release. Again, read pg. 1 above if you have any additional questions about the underlying principles behind, and/or the aim of, the rankings. It's spelled out fairly explicitly there. In any case, I'm glad you wrote in, because these are important questions and concerns. And (side note) congratulations on your recent book! Best wishes, Seth

  • morescotch says...

    Dear Poets & Writers,

    I can't believe Poets & Writers is going to keep publishing these ridiculous rankings. First of all, doesn't it occur to anyone that the values of a group of people who frequent an MFA blog might not be the same values of the general MFA community? There’s no way to tell how good a program is going to be by staring at a hundred program websites and comparing their funding packages, which is what a group of people answering polls on a blog are doing. You shouldn’t apply to an MFA program in order to become a person funded by an MFA program; you should apply to an MFA program to become a better writer. And this emphasis on “time to write” is flawed. I’m from Hartford, CT. You want time to write, move to Hartford. You can rent a one bedroom for $250 dollars a month, and write all the time. Good teachers. A good community. These are what a person should look for in a MFA program, and Seth Abramson is never going to point you toward that. Please stop legitimizing his preposterous internet fetish. Let’s go back to when we admitted that this was something you couldn’t rank.

    Samuel Amadon

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