Again, I think you are not taking into account that these programs aren't giving you money for nothing. They are using you as workhorses to teach undergrad.
I have no problem with this. I think it is a great idea and I, as someone who wnats to teach, would love to be doing it. But lets not pretend they are giving you this money free. Tom Kealey says being a TA is equivelant to a 30 hour a week job.
So Columbia is charging 60,000 but not making you work while JHU (or whoever) is charing you zero and giving you a bit of money, but making you work 30 hours a week.
A more balanced view here might consider how much Columbia would cost you if you had a 30 hour a week job on the side. How much would that cut off your tuition? Someone who is more sober can do the math. I'm sure that JHU (or whoever) is still going to be giving a better deal, but the deal wont' be THAT astoundingly better.
Well, number one, it depends on what you want to do when you graduate. Many of us would like to teach. If you would like to teach, TK and others seriously recommend attending a program where you can TA. Everyone has to start somewhere, and 10 dollars an hour plus thousands of dollars in tuition waived--just to teach some undergrads--doesn't seem bad to me. Especially because a lot of that work is done on your own time and in your own home.
At least, this will be the situation for me at Oregon. I'm teaching a class that meets one day a week for a couple hours. It will require some individual conferences each semester (15-20 minutes each I'd guess), lesson planning and grading. In return, my tuition is waived and I receive about 1100 dollars per month, plus basic healthcare (!!). Not bad, considering. In NYC this wouldn't be possible to live on; in other places of the country, like Eugene, it should be fine. In all honesty, that's a great deal. I think for UO that amounts to about $30,000 per year to teach one class, and though the second year I'll have to teach freshman composition, the first year I teach CW to a group of six students. I have to take (and pass) a pedagogy class to teach the second year, which is good or bad depending on how you look at it (good because I'd like some guidance, bad because it takes up time).
Some programs treat you like workhorses, yes, where you have to teach two (or even three) classes per semester. But many other programs will only have you teaching one, and in return you get an education and some money for rent and food. If you have some savings to help you, this is an especially comfortable situation to be in. You should have enough time to write.
I personally think that funding and TA offers should be included in hypothetical rankings, particularly for an MFA degree, for two reasons. First, like I said above, you can't do much as a writer but teach or work in publication. If you want your job to revolve around writing--and not, say, teaching kayaking or training horses or something--it's good for your MFA program to offer both TAships (enough for most students) and literary journal work. That issue, I think, is reason enough alone to consider a program more highly than another in hypothetical rankings.
Secondly, even though most jobs for writers include teaching and editing, the job market is scarce as hell these days. An MFA program should not be sending their students out into this harsh writers' world with loads of debt. I don't necessarily agree with TK's statement that programs with funding care more for their students, since some schools are just plain poor all around. Sarah Lawrence is one. Though an expensive private school, they literally have no money to throw around.
But in the case of Columbia I really do think this is accurate. I'm sure that the CW program itself cares very much for its students, but it's clear that the university does not support them as much as it should. Maybe it doesn't take the art school seriously enough. Columbia is a member of the Ivy League, and it should be obvious to them that their MFA program is both popular and hurting at the same time. It's not a smaller, no-name department that doesn't need funding. Obviously, the size of the program matters here, and maybe it would do them good to cut it down; they'd be more selective and be able to help their students more, rather than just leaving them to fend for themselves. I think something one needs to remember before attending Columbia is that not everyone "makes it." Some people make those connections, and those are the names you hear later, but not everyone gets a book award right away (or ever), or a great fellowship. There are too many graduates each year from every school in the country, including Iowa's 20 or so (and all their talent and/or connections). Taking on loads of debt is not a good idea for a writer no matter which way you look at the situation. Even if they've got Fitzgerald and Joyce teaching fiction. It's just not.
Still, $25,000 is your worst case, and you should be going by your own individual situation. This discussion we're having encompasses the broader group of applicants. You really seem to love the program, even for its flaws (which every program has), and you don't seem to mind the idea of said "worst case." Hopefully you'll luck out and end up with even less, which you speculate as very possible.