Astute observers may notice some slight disparities between the funding rankings here and those that appeared in the November/December 2008 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. As the task of gathering data on MFA programs is an ongoing one, and as many programs have responded to their prior ranking by making additional data available online, some movement in the rankings has occurred. There have also been changes to the methodology used for the funding rankings.
The funding ranking that appears here is similarly responsive to applicants' stated values: In short, the programs are ranked by both the annual and overall tuition- and health care-exclusive dollar value of their funding packages, as modified by the cost of living in the program locale (compared against a single, national-average locale, randomly selected as Providence, Rhode Island) and the duration of the program. Only monies that are guaranteed programwide are considered in calculating a program's financial aid package. This is consistent with a growing trend among applicants to generally favor longer rather than shorter programs, and full-funding schemes rather than tiered aid systems. (Full funding is defined here as providing the equivalent of a full-tuition waiver and a cost-of-living-adjusted minimum stipend of $8,500 to every student.)
While application strategies will differ greatly from applicant to applicant, and fundamentally are dependent upon individual values—and a careful weighting of those values—it is critical for applicants to have some sense of their chances of admission at a program before adding it to their application list. The selectivity ranking provided here uses available acceptance-rate data, though only programs with more than a hundred annual applicants in fiction and poetry combined are included. (Nonfiction applicants are not included in this data set or in the overall applicant poll.) As most programs receive one nonfiction application for every four poetry applications and six fiction applications, and more than half of all full-residency MFA programs nationally do not offer the nonfiction genre, the absence of nonfiction data from the overall ranking and the selectivity ranking has minimal effect on the final rankings—and what effect it does have is necessary to keep the playing field level for all the programs ranked.
The furor surrounding educational rankings in major areas of graduate study—law, medicine, engineering, business, and doctoral programs in the social sciences, sciences, and humanities—never really dies down, but there is a tacit presumption that carefully collated educational data, organized and ranked on an annual basis, can, in time, produce a substantially better-informed applicant pool. While no ranking can or should ever absolve applicants and MFA faculty members and administrators from the responsibility of making their own independent judgments, any ranking system that reflects the values of its most important consumers offers at least a chance of becoming, in time, a virtuous circle. To the extent aspiring young writers are seeking well-funded communities of artists where they will receive the precious commodity of time, these rankings reflect those values, and, as a result, programs responsive to such applicant needs are the most likely to find favor in the rankings. In turn, these programs will receive more applications in the coming months and years. As the most-applied-to programs also enjoy the luxury of being the most selective—and therefore the most attractive to young writers seeking the inspiration of a community of talented peers—these rankings offer the promise of nudging programs toward doing more for their students and encouraging all students to be more deliberate about how they make a critical life decision.
*For the full article and additional data for each program, including size, duration, cost of living, teaching load, and curriculum focus, see the November/December 2009 issue.
Seth Abramson is the author of The Suburban Ecstasies (Ghost Road Press, 2009) and a contributing author to The Creative Writing MFA Handbook (Continuum, 2008). His poems have recently appeared in Best New Poets 2008, Poetry, the American Poetry Review, New American Writing, Crazyhorse, Subtropics, and elsewhere. In 2008 he was awarded the J. Howard and Barbara M. J. Wood Prize by Poetry. A graduate of Harvard Law School and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, he is currently a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.