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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.

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