2012 MFA Rankings: The Methodology

Seth Abramson
From the September/October 2011 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

National Low-Residency Applicant Pool Size
A realistic estimate of the annual number of low-residency MFA applicants is four hundred. This estimate is based in part on the fact that the five most-applied-to low-residency programs receive an average of 144 total applications during the 2009–2010 admissions cycle; in contrast, the five most-applied-to full-residency programs received an average of 1,137 fiction and poetry only applications during the same admissions cycle. If this comparison is any guide, approximately eight times as many individuals apply to full-residency programs as low-residency programs each year, suggesting a mean low-residency applicant pool, per year, of between 350 and 400. This figure can then be cross-checked using the number of votes for Warren Wilson College in the present low-residency rankings (95), the total number of low-residency votes cast for the rankings (230), and Warren Wilson's publicly-released annual applicant pool size (200). Using these figures one would expect an annual national low-residency applicant pool of 484. Of the three low-residency programs most highly visible nationally, and therefore the most likely to be neutrally tabulated by these rankings, data is also available, in addition to Warren Wilson College, for Bennington College (whose data suggest an estimated 487 annual low-residency applicants).

In view of the above, the four-year, 230-person sample used for this year's low-residency rankings likely represents approximately one-half of an annual applicant cohort for this type of residency program.

Added to the adjusted mean for annual full-residency poetry, fiction, and nonfiction applicants, the estimate for the annual number of low-residency applicants suggests a total annual applicant pool to creative writing MFA programs—across all genres and types of residency, and gauging discrete applicants only—of somewhere between 3,500 and 4,250. As noted above, this estimate is significantly different from the estimate provided to the public by AWP in 2009 (“[there are] more than 13,000 applicants to MFA programs each year”).


Between April 16, 2010, and April 15, 2011, 398 fiction applicants were polled for the fiction-genre rankings, 237 poetry applicants were polled for the poetry-genre rankings, and 62 nonfiction applicants were polled for the nonfiction-genre rankings (the total polling cohort for the nonfiction rankings is 163, however, representing a three-year, three-admissions-cycle cohort). The reason for the disparity between the total number of fiction and poetry applicants in the genre-specific polls (635) and the total number of votes in the overall fiction and poetry poll (640) is that five applicants, or less than 1 percent of the cohort polled in fiction and poetry, did not specify their genre—though it was clear from their application lists that the genre in which they applied could not have been nonfiction (due to the fact that the majority of MFA programs do not offer nonfiction tracks, an applicant specifying that he or she has applied in only genre, but who lists certain programs on his or her application list, can be precluded from consideration as a nonfiction applicant). One consequence of this less-than-1 percent nongenre-reporting population is that it is statistically possible for programs to be tied in the overall rankings even when, by virtue of their rankings in the two major genres, it would seem to be a statistical impossibility.

The cohort sizes used in this polling are roughly consistent with the national distribution of MFA applicants by genre, as revealed by those few programs that both (1) accept applicants in all three genres, and (2) release their internal admissions data for all three genres. The national distribution of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction applicants is approximately six to three to two, respectively.

Due to the still relatively small number of nonfiction programs in the United States and abroad, only programs receiving top twenty placement in the genre have received a special notation in either the print or online editions of the rankings. No Honorable Mentions have been awarded, for the following reasons: (1) the relatively small number of votes for programs ranked beyond twentieth in the genre, all of which appeared on fewer than 10 percent of nonfiction applicants' application lists; (2) a bunching phenomenon in the nonfiction rankings, such that any presumptive Honorable Mention section of the nonfiction rankings (programs ranked between twenty-one and twenty-five) would run the risk of being almost half the size of the rankings proper; and (3) there would be little statistical distinction (only one vote) between the presumptive Honorable Mention programs and the six programs ranked behind them—a much smaller disparity, out of a total polling cohort of 163, than the three-vote difference between the top fifty and Honorable Mention sections in the 640-cohort full-residency rankings.

Programs without a nonfiction program are designated, in the top fifty rankings, with n/a (not applicable)

Special Note on International Programs

The Poets & Writers Magazine MFA rankings have always considered, and will continue to consider, international MFA programs. However, international programs are unlikely to fare well in the overall rankings for several reasons: (1) nearly all non-U.S./non-Canadian graduate creative writing programs are (by U.S. accreditation standards) nonterminal (that is, they are M.Phil, M.St., or MA degrees, as opposed to the terminal MFA degrees considered by the Poets & Writers rankings); (2) non-U.S./non-Canadian applicants are less likely to frequent a U.S./Canadian-focused MFA website like The Creative Writing MFA Blog, and therefore non-U.S./non-Canadian programs are less likely to appear on the application lists of those polled for these rankings (and Canadian applicants applying to Canadian programs may be less likely to patronize The Creative Writing MFA Blog than American applicants applying to American programs); (3) unlike U.S. and Canadian MFA programs, overseas programs are rarely fully funded for nondomestic students (U.S./Canadian MFA programs less frequently distinguish between domestic and international applicants with respect to funding eligibility), and therefore are less likely to be popular amongst the U.S. and Canadian applicants that frequent The Creative Writing MFA Blog; and (4) due to the exceedingly small number of non-U.S. terminal-degree MFA programs now in operation (94 percent of all creative writing MFA programs now extant are located in the United States, and more than half of those in operation outside the United States were founded within the last forty-eight months), programs in Canada and elsewhere simply have fewer entrants into the international MFA system with which to achieve a top fifty standing in a polling-based overall ranking (as compared to in any of the hard-data categories in this assessment: for instance, funding, selectivity, and postgraduate fellowship or job placement).

Special Note on MA, MPW, M.Phil, and M.St. Programs

Over the past five years, the present MFA rankings project has catalogued several thousand MFA applicants' application lists. One abiding trend is that only a small number of nonterminal master's degree programs in creative writing can frequently be found on application lists otherwise comprised entirely of terminal-degree MFA programs. As only four MA programs presently answer to this description, these four MA programs have been included in the full-residency rankings for terminal-degree creative writing programs. Applicant mores seem to indicate that these programs are now considered on par with MFA programs in overall quality—if not in the critical feature of terminality. Many of those who attend MA programs in creative writing subsequently apply to terminal-degree MFA programs upon graduation.

Two additional programs are included in these rankings despite being MPW (Master's of Professional Writing) programs. The two reasons for these inclusions are (1) the MPW is arguably a terminal degree, though there is little evidence yet on the question of whether or not it enjoys the same regard in the field of creative writing (as to terminality) as the MFA, and (2) as with the four MA programs referenced above, MPW programs on occasion appear on the application lists of applicants who are otherwise applying only to MFA programs. Two other types of nonterminal creative writing master’s degrees, the M.Phil and the Master of Studies (M.St.), are unknown in the United States, are but offered at several universities in the United Kingdom.

Since polling of MFA applicants began on December 15, 2006, the present MFA rankings project (which, as noted throughout this article, focuses its attention almost exclusively on applicants whose application lists are dominated by terminal MFA programs in creative writing) has registered the following polling results for nonterminal master’s degree programs (results through July 25, 2011):

Top Twenty Non-MFA Creative Writing Master’s (MA, MPW, M.Phil, or M.St.) Degrees, 20062011
1. University of California in Davis (63)
2. University of Southern California in Los Angeles (10)
3. Western Washington University in Bellingham (9)
4t. Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti (4)
4t. Miami University in Oxford, Ohio (4)                
4t. University of Tennessee in Knoxville (4)
7t. Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas (2)
7t. Ohio University in Athens (2)
7t. University of East Anglia in Norwich, England (2)
7t. University of Louisville in Kentucky (2)
11t. California State University in Sonoma (1)
11t. College of Charleston in South Carolina (1)
11t. Concordia University in Montreal, Canada (1)
11t. Goldsmiths, University of London in England (1)
11t. Oxford University in England (1)
11t. Royal Holloway, University of London in England (1)
11t. University of Exeter in England (1)
11t. University of Kent in Canterbury, England (1)
11t. University of Southampton in England (1)
11t. University of Sussex in Brighton and Hove, England (1)

[N = 85].

The low “N,” which corresponds to the size of the polling cohort, of this ranking, coupled with the extremely long duration of the polling period and the general unlikelihood of finding committed MA applicants in an online community designed for MFA applicants, means that these results should be read and disseminated with extreme caution; the statistical confidence for this listing is still relatively low, though a renewed effort to capture and catalog the application preferences of nonterminal creative writing master’s candidates is presently under way. Still, no substantive conclusions ought be drawn about trends in nonterminal creative writing master’s degree applications on the basis of this polling.

Dates of Establishment

Reciting the dates of establishment for the nation’s top full-residency MFA programs offers a critical historical context for the rankings themselves, the institutions assessed by the rankings, and the very degree that is the focus of both the rankings and the institutions whose attributes the rankings catalogue. This column of data does not apply to nonterminal, academic master’s programs in creative writing (with or without the option of a creative thesis), which are different in form and function from their terminal-degree, art-school MFA peers.

Previous ranking methodologies have leaned heavily on the somewhat tendentious factor of program visibility. When programs are assessed by individuals already within the system, the natural result is that older programs—whatever their selectivity, financial resources, faculty resources, curriculum, pedagogy, or student outcomes—move to the top of the pack due to their profile advantage. Yet applicants report only limited interest in programs’ historical pedigrees, as pedigree itself is often considered a suspect quantity in the national literary arts community. By publishing, for the first time, the dates of establishment of the nation’s top seventy-five full-residency MFA programs, these rankings permit applicants and other consumers of these data to both disassociate historical pedigree from the distinct question of program quality, while also better understanding the historical context in which the creative writing MFA has achieved such cultural prominence.

Creative writing as an academic discipline originated in the late nineteenth century, yet by January of 1964 there was still only one MFA-conferring graduate creative writing program in the world. In fact, though the first MFAs in any field were granted in the 1920s, and the MFA-conferring Iowa Writers’ Workshop was founded in 1936, the MFA as a degree would have no abiding place in the national literary arts community until the 1980s. The 1940s, 1950s, and much of the 1960s were marked by attempts to find alternative models to the one provided by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop: first, in the degree-granting, relatively nonselective, grade-free creative writing program at Black Mountain College, which was founded in the 1930s but had its heyday in the late 1940s and early to mid-1950s; second, in the undergraduate-only creative writing program at Stanford University (founded in 1947 by Wallace Stegner) and other undergraduate programs modeled closely upon this one; and third, in nonterminal MA programs in creative writing founded at a number of institutions, including Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore (1946), University of Denver in Colorado (1947), Cornell University in Ithaca, New York (1948), Indiana University in Bloomington (1948), University of Florida in Gainesville (1948), and Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia (1960). Some of these latter programs required academic theses of their students rather than creative ones.

Ultimately, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop MFA model became ascendant—after certain of its elements had been experimented with by the types of degree programs listed above—because of a grass-roots campaign by working creative writers (among both faculties and student bodies at various institutions) to gain greater administrative, pedagogical, and creative autonomy from the Academy to which they had previously been attached. Most of the early MFA programs appear to have been founded only after years—in some cases several decades—of struggle between creative writers and university bureaucrats, with the two primary bases for the latter’s objection to the MFA being that it cost much more than the MA to administer (due to the need for greater faculty resources, and the necessity of awarding tuition remission-eligible assistantships to many terminal-degree candidates) and permitted universities less immediate oversight over their resident literary artists. Far from a “cash cow” warmly embraced by U.S. universities, the creative writing MFA was for decades rejected by America’s universities as too exotic, too expensive, and too distant from the traditional academic functions of an American English department.

At the beginning of the 1980s there were still fewer than two dozen creative writing MFA programs in the world. It was not until the turn of the century that the rate of MFA-program creation significantly increased, as indicated by the table below, which catalogues MFA programs’ dates of establishment by decade (as of the writing of this article, well over 80 percent of all MFA programs worldwide had had their dates of establishment tabulated):

MFA Programs Founded, by Decade
1920s: 0
1930s: 1
1940s: 0
1950s: 0
1960s: 11
1970s: 9
1980s: 23
1990s: 29
2000s: 78
2010s: 15 *

* = In the first eighteen months of the decade. At this pace, the 2010s could see the creation of approximately a hundred new MFA programs.

Of the thirty-six programs whose dates of establishment are not considered by this table, preliminary research suggests that approximately twenty-five were founded in the 2000s, six in the 1990s, and five in the 1980s. The conclusion to be drawn from the above data is that the “MFA boom” occurred sometime in the mid-1990s and has not yet abated. Of all the full- and low-residency MFA programs now in existence worldwide, over 75 percent were founded between the early 1990s and the present day.

Nothing in these rankings' funding assessments is intended to impugn the motives or character of professors, administrators, or staff at any of the nation's graduate creative writing programs. The presumption of these rankings is that all of these groups have and do militate, with varying degrees of success, for more funding for their students—and that, given the choice, every program would choose to be fully funded. Still, there is no question that some programs require virtually no financial outlay by admitted students, and others are institutionally structured to induce students to take out substantial student loans. The rankings take this into account, as funding is an important factor among the current MFA applicant pool when deciding where to apply.

Program funding packages were calculated on the basis of annual cost-of-living-adjusted stipend values for programs with full tuition waivers, and on the basis of annual cost-of-living-adjusted stipend values less annual tuition for programs offering only partial tuition waivers. Programs were further divided into categories on the basis of the percentage of each incoming class offered full funding. "Full funding" is defined as the equivalent of a full tuition waiver and an annual stipend of at least $8,000/academic year. No program offering full funding to less than 100 percent of its incoming class is ranked ahead of any program fully funded for all students. Likewise, no nonfully funded program is ranked ahead of any program in a higher "coverage" bracket. The six coverage brackets acknowledged by the rankings are as follows: "All” (100 percent fully funded); “Nearly All” (90 to 99 percent fully funded); “Most” (60 to 89 percent); “Some” (30 to 59 percent); “Few” (16 to 29 percent); and “Very Few” (0 to 15 percent). All of these percentages refer to the percentage of each annual incoming class that receives a full funding package.

It’s interesting to note that no program fully funding less than 40 percent of its admitted students received a top fifty ranking in the funding category in the 2012 Poets & Writers Magazine MFA rankings. Programs whose coverage bracket is sufficiently high to receive a national ranking, and whose stipend is sufficiently high to meet the definition of full funding, but whose specific annual stipends were unknown at the time the rankings were compiled, were ranked last within their respective coverage brackets. Top fifty programs awarded an Honorable Mention in funding are indicated with a star in the print edition of the rankings. In the online-only third and fourth tiers of the overall rankings, the designation "HM" is used instead.

Programs that fully fund 33 percent or more of their admitted students were considered eligible for package averaging. If and when programs meeting this criterion were revealed to offer funding packages of differing value to different students, the total stipend value of all full-funding packages was divided by the number of such packages to determine average annual stipend value. Because some programs do not advertise special funding offerings available only to select students, not every program benefited from this feature of the rankings. Consistent with the structure and conceit of these rankings, programs exhibiting maximum transparency with respect to their promotional materials were most likely to receive a comprehensive assessment of their total funding package.

The funding rankings take into account duration of funding, as programs were ranked for this measure by multiplying average annual package value by the duration of each program in years. The varying amount of tuition charged at individual programs was disregarded, as students receiving full funding do not, by definition, pay tuition.

Applicants should be aware that many programs deduct administrative fees—almost always less than $1,000, and usually less than $500—from their annual stipends. These fees were not considered by the funding rankings. Moreover, some programs offer health insurance to all admitted students and some do not. Programs that offer health insurance to all admitted students include, but are not limited to, the following (programs are listed in order of funding rank): University of Texas in Austin [Michener Center]; Cornell University in Ithaca, New York; University of Michigan in Ann Arbor; Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge; Ohio State University in Columbus; University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa; Virginia Polytechnic Institute (Virginia Tech) in Blacksburg; Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri; Arizona State University in Tempe; Iowa State University in Ames; Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana; University of Minnesota in Minneapolis; McNeese State University in Lakes Charles, Louisiana; Pennsylvania State University in University Park; University of Iowa in Iowa City; University of Wyoming in Laramie; Vanderbilt University in Nashville; University of Wisconsin in Madison; University of Texas in Austin [English Department]; University of Virginia in Charlottesville; University of California in Irvine; University of Oregon in Eugene; University of Central Florida in Orlando; University of New Mexico in Albuquerque; Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey; and Oklahoma State University in Stillwater.

As fewer than five full- or low-residency programs nationally publicly release yield data—the percentage of those offered admission to a program who accept their offers and matriculate—the acceptance rate figures used for the national selectivity ranking are necessarily yield-exclusive. Most have been calculated using the simplest and most straightforward method: Taking the size of a program's annual matriculating cohort in all genres and dividing it by the program's total number of annual applications across all genres. Forty of the top fifty programs in selectivity (74 percent, as there are fifty-four programs in the top fifty listing for selectivity) had available admissions data from the 2010–2011 admissions cycle, ten of the top fifty programs in this category (19 percent) most recently released admissions data during the 2009–2010 admissions cycle, and four programs (7 percent) most recently released admissions data during the 2008–2009 admissions cycle or earlier.

The relative paucity of data available for the selectivity rankings—acceptance rates are available for only 112 of the nation’s 200 MFA programs (56 percent)—is attributable to programs' continued reticence in releasing the sort of internal admissions and funding data regularly released by colleges, universities, and most professional degree programs. Hundreds of interviews with MFA applicants between 2006 and 2011 suggest that a program's acceptance rate is one of the top five pieces of information applicants request when researching a graduate creative writing program. Fortunately, all of the top fifty MFA programs have made their annual acceptance rates public either directly or indirectly, along with nineteen of the twenty-five Honorable Mention programs (76 percent).

In order to avoid artificially privileging small programs with an unknown but likely modest annual yield—programs with small applicant pools but also small incoming cohorts, and consequently, in some instances, extremely low yield-exclusive acceptance rates—only programs receiving more than eighty applications annually were eligible for the top fifty in selectivity. Of the fifty-seven full-residency programs with unknown admissions data, the overall polling done for these rankings suggests that no more than ten would even be eligible for inclusion in the top fifty for selectivity on the basis of their applicant-pool size. Whether these programs' annual incoming cohorts are also sufficiently small—and thus the programs, statistically, sufficiently selective—to make any of these programs entrants into the top fifty for selectivity is unknown. The likelihood is that three or fewer programs that would otherwise appear in the top fifty for selectivity are ineligible for that ranking solely because they have thus far declined to publicly release their admissions data.

Of programs with fewer than eighty applications whose admissions data are known, the ten most selective programs are as follows: Florida International University in Miami, #1; University of Kansas in Lawrence, #2; Northern Michigan University in Marquette, #3; Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, #4; West Virginia University in Morgantown, #5; University of Missouri in Saint Louis, #6; Temple University in Philadelphia, #7; Savannah College of Art & Design in Georgia, #8; Otis College of Art & Design in Los Angeles, #9; and University of Central Florida in Orlando, #10. These program rankings are provisional; admissions data for low-volume MFA programs cannot be considered as probative as data for programs with larger applicant pools.

The small number of low-residency programs with publicly-accessible acceptance rates makes crafting a selectivity ranking for such programs difficult. Of the eighteen programs (37 percent of all low-residency programs) with available data, two-thirds have available admissions data only from the 2007–2008 admissions cycle or earlier. Fortunately, the programs ranked first, second, and third in this measure (and in the other hard-data and polling measures) have all released data from one of their past three admissions cycles. The applicant-pool-size cutoff for inclusion in the low-residency selectivity rankings is set at forty annual applicants.