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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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Program Duration
A program's duration is measured by the average length of its curriculum in years. Some programs allow students to petition to extend their stay; because such petitions are granted on a case-by-case basis, and because the granting of such petitions often results in only an additional unfunded year of study, individual programs' program-extension policies have not been considered in calculating program duration. Internationally, only two full-residency MFA programs are known to be one year in duration, and only two programs are four years in duration. The remaining 144 full-residency programs are either two or three years in duration, with programs ranked in the top 50 significantly more likely to be three years than are programs not ranked in the top 50. Very few programs that fund less than 33% of their incoming students are more than two years in duration. In fact, only five non-fully-funded top 50 programs are three years in duration, and all of these are either ranked in the top 50 for funding or else were awarded an Honorable Mention in the category (two of the five fully fund more than 75% of their admittees). Fully funded programs are slightly more likely to be three years in duration as opposed to two; 52.9% of the 34 fully-funded programs are three years in duration, and an additional three (8.8%) are known to offer substantial numbers of graduates third-year funding in some form or another. Low-residency programs are almost universally two years in duration, and yet these programs cannot be measured by their duration because, unlike full-residency programs, they are generally highly flexible with respect to the duration of their students' courses of study.

Assessments of program duration do not consider the availability of postgraduate fellowships, or automatic postgraduate placements, at individual programs. Because such opportunities are not guaranteed as to any individual student, they cannot be formally acknowledged in the rankings except, as applicable, with respect to a program's funding (see "Funding" section, above). This said, at least one program, Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, so consistently offers a third-year lectureship to all of its admitted students that it may nominally be considered a three-year program.

Program Size
In the rankings, the size of a program's annual incoming cohort is expressed using the usual acronyms for magnitude: XS (Extra-Small, an average of one to four students admitted per year in each of the two major genres, fiction and poetry); S (Small, five to nine students); M (Medium, ten to fifteen students); L (Large, sixteen to twenty-four students); and XL (Extra-Large, twenty-five or more students per major genre per year). Because many programs do not include their matriculating class size on their Web sites, in some instances this data has been extrapolated from other available information. One program, the University of Wisconsin in Madison, was by necessity granted a special dispensation in several categories, as it is the only MFA program in the United States or abroad to admit fiction and poetry students in alternating years. This required two methodological accommodations: (1) using sampling and extrapolation for the overall and genre rankings by determining the average genre bias of the program's applicant pool across a four-year period, and then using this year's single-genre vote totals to create a reasonable extrapolation for the off-year genre; and (2) averaging the class-size figures for the program. Because the program accepts six poets and six fiction writers every two years, the program is treated as having an average annual matriculating class size of six.

Full Funding
Full funding is defined as the equivalent of a full tuition waiver and a minimum $8,000/academic year stipend. Where the tuition waiver offered is less than 100%, the program's stipend value is reduced by the amount an admitted student is asked to pay in tuition annually. All stipend values are adjusted for cost of living. Cost of living assessments were made using the Web site Sperling's Best Places (http://www.bestplaces.net/COL/default.aspx). Healthcare costs, administrative fees, and student relocation costs were not estimated or considered, nor was the cost of tuitionas students receiving "full funding," by the definition of the term used in the rankings, do not pay tuition.

In setting the stipend value for "full funding" at a cost-of-living-adjusted $8,000/academic year, the rankings make no assertion as to whether this should be considered a living wage. A single individual earning this amount per annum is eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit when filing federal taxes; however, because the "$8,000/academic year" standard translates to $8,000/nine months, this rate of income accrual in fact extrapolates to an annual income of $10,667. This is still below $13,440the amount, in 2009 dollars, at which a single individual is phased out completely from the Earned Income Tax Credit.

The rankings acknowledge that MFA students receiving the minimum full-funding stipend may still find themselves borrowing a de minimis amount (defined as less than $3,000/academic year) to help defray the costs of program attendance. For the purposes of this article, the de minimis borrowing level has been set at that rate of borrowing that both puts an applicant out of range of pro-rated EITC coverage and yet results in less than $10,000 in total federal debt during a three-year MFA program. Of the nation's 34 fully-funded full-residency programs, only two are known to offer cost-of-living-adjusted stipends of less than $10,000/academic year. Both of these programs offer stipends above $9,000/academic year, however.

Cost of Living
The cost of living in the various programs' listed host locations was determined using Sperling's Best Places (http://www.bestplaces.net/COL/default.aspx). All cost-of-living data were then compared to a randomly-selected national-average-range constant, in this case Providence, Rhode Island.

Notations used for cost of living are as follows: Very Low (16% or more below Providence, Rhode Island, the national-average-range constant); Low (between 6% and 15% below); Average (between 5% below and 5% above); High (between 6% and 15% above); and Very High (16% or more above). While some students may choose to live outside the boundaries of their program's host location, commuting to an MFA program rather than living near campus includes hidden costs of its own, indeed costs of both a pecuniary and non-pecuniary nature. For this reason, only a program's host location was assessed for this measure. Cost-of-living adjustments were also used to determine the package value at individual programs for the total funding, annual funding, and full funding categories (see above).

Teaching Load
While individual applicants' interest in teaching composition, rhetoric, literature, or creative writing to undergraduates will vary, generally speaking the most popular teaching load is a "1/1" (one course to be taught in the fall semester, one in the spring semester). The teaching loads of individual programs have not been ranked per se, yet this 1/1 standard has been used to determine whether a given program's teaching load is "light," "average," or "heavy." That is, because the 1/1 load is the most popular amongst applicantsthough it is not the most common teaching load at MFA programsaverage annual teaching loads of 0/0, 0/1, 1/0, and 1/1 have been denominated "light" by the rankings. An average annual teaching load of 2/1 or 1/2 (the most common teaching load) is termed "average," while an average annual teaching load of 2/2 is considered "heavy."

The term "average" is used here in two different senses: First, to denote a category of teaching load; second, to indicate that all programs are assessed by their "average" teaching load. Because many programs offer different teaching-load packages to different students, and/or increase or decrease teaching load over the duration of the program, the average (mean) number of courses taught per year per student in each program is used. In some instances, a plus-sign (+) is used to indicate that students may request and/or get assignedonce admitted to a programa larger and therefore better-compensated teaching load. Such additional teaching sections are not guaranteed, however.

Some programs fund a small enough percentage of admittees through teaching assistantships that to assign such programs an "average teaching load" would be to wrongly imply that admitted students are likely to receive an assistantship. For this reason, programs that offer assistantships to less than one-third of their incoming cohort received an asterisk in the "teaching load" column. Programs eligible for a "teaching load" designation, but which do not publicly disclose the teaching load they assign their teaching assistants, are indicated with a "Not Available" ("N/A") notation.

CGSR Compliance
This category is discussed in detail in the rankings' introductory article ("The MFA Revolution: Ranking the Nation's Best Programs," Poets & Writers Magazine, September/October 2010). At present, only one CGSR signatorya program not ranked in the top 50is believed to be non-compliant with the contract it and more than a hundred other universities signed and published for prospective applicants.

Technically, nonsignatories to the CGSR are not obligated to be compliant with it. They are termed here "non-compliant" in order to alert prospective applicants to the fact that these programs are not bound by (and in nearly all instances are known not to follow) CGSR guidelines. Any signatory to the CGSR conclusively found to be in violation of that contract will likewise be listed as "non-compliant," whether or not the program continues to be a CGSR signatory. Compliance inquiries are conducted via e-mail exchanges with program administrators, and are initiated on the basis of applicant self-reporting.

The trend category assesses a program's movement in the rankings since those rankings published during the 2009–10 admissions cycle ("The Top 50 MFA Programs," Poets & Writers, November/December 2009). Programs that moved five spots or less in the rankings between 2009 and 2010 are denoted with a horizontal arrow. Programs that lost more than five spots are indicated by a downward arrow, and programs that gained more than five spots are indicated by an upward arrow.

Studio/Academic Orientation
A program is considered "studio-oriented" if more than two-thirds of its credit requirements can be met through workshops, thesis hours, internships, or independent study, and "academics-oriented" if not. Academics-oriented programs in which students take only two courses per semester, one of which is a workshop, are indicated with an "A" and an asterisk (A*).


Genre Availability

"Genre Availability" measures the number of genres in which a given low-residency program offers either a formal track or an informal "concentration" or "focus." As many programs occasionally offer courses in genres for which they do not offer a track or concentration, it can be difficult to assess which genres are sufficiently supported at a given program that the program is likely to receive creative portfolios in that genre. The aim of the "Genre Availability" category is to include only those genres in which a program is likely to attract an appreciable number of applicantsas opposed to a genre offered only as an occasional brief-residency course lacking substantial non-residency, academic-year faculty support.

"Residency" measures the number of days per year a low-residency student in the program is required to be on campus. While at present there is no conventional wisdom as to the value of a long residency versus a shorter one, low-residency programs' residencies are typically the only opportunity for students to interact in person with their professors and to meet their classmates; consequently, many applicants to low-residency programs may prefer longer residencies.

Seth Abramson is the author of Northerners (New Issues Press, 2011), winner of the 2010 Green Rose Prize, and The Suburban Ecstasies (Ghost Road Press, 2009). A contributing author to The Creative Writing MFA Handbook (Continuum, 2008) and a 2008 recipient of the J. Howard and Barbara M. J. Wood Prize from Poetry, his work has recently appeared in Best New Poets 2008, Conjunctions, and elsewhere. Currently a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, he is a graduate of Harvard Law School and the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

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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