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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

Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4 | Page 5

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.

Trend
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*).

THE LOW-RESIDENCY RANKING CHART: ADDITIONAL PROGRAM MEASURES


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
"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.

  • 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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