2012 MFA Rankings: The Methodology

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

Fellowship Placement
Programs' postgraduate fellowship placement records were assessed by determining how many individual "placement events" a given program's current students or (much more commonly) graduates achieved during the decade from 2001 to 2011. Only a limited number of fellowships and residencies are available to MFA graduates while in-program or immediately postgraduation, and fewer still are specifically targeted at current MFA students and/or recent MFA graduates. Most of these make publicly available the names and biographical data of their fellows and residents. The focus for this year's fellowship placement rankings was on sixteen of the fellowships and residencies in this group—generally speaking, the nation's sixteen most prestigious mid-MFA/post-MFA fellowships and residencies.

The fellowships and residencies surveyed for this measure were the following: The Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California; the Wisconsin Creative Writing Institute Fellowship at the University of Wisconsin in Madison; the Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University in New Jersey; the Fine Arts Work Center Fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts; the Emory University Creative Writing Fellowship in Atlanta; the Stadler Fellowship at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania; the Axton Fellowship at University of Louisville in Kentucky; the Olive B. O'Connor Fellowship at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York; the Bennett Fellowship/Writer-in-Residence at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire; the James Merrill Writer-in-Residence at the James Merrill House in Stonington, Connecticut; the Amy Clampitt Residency Award at the Amy Clampitt House in Lenox, Massachusetts; the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Fellowships (“Waiterships”) at Middlebury College in Vermont; the Gettysburg Emerging Writer Lectureship at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania; the Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowships granted by the Poetry Foundation in Chicago; the Sewanee Writers’ Conference Fellowships at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee (including Borchardt, Dakin, Elkin, Justice, McCorkle, Nemerov, Ralston, Sewanee, Taylor, Van Duyn, Wall, and Williams Scholars/Fellows); and the Steinbeck Fellowship for Fiction-Writers at the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University in California.

These sixteen fellowships and residencies played host to 625 placement events between 2001 and 2011. As the placement rankings acknowledge placement events rather than placed fellows or residents, it is possible for a single fellow or resident to be the subject of more than one placement event.

As simply ranking programs by the number of their students or graduates subject to placement events between 2001 and 2011 would unfairly favor larger programs (which naturally have more graduates on the fellowship market annually), programs have instead been ranked on the basis of a placement score, calculated as follows: A program's total number of placement events between 2001 and 2011 was divided by the size of the program's annual incoming cohort. The resulting top fifty size-adjusted scores ranged from 2.80 to 0.13. In several instances, programs identical both in size and in their number of placement events received scores resulting in rankings "ties"; where possible, ties were broken by privileging the program with the higher number of total placement events. Programs founded during the assessment period had their scores pro-rated on the basis of how many years (out of the last ten) they had had graduated students on the postgraduate fellowship market.

Because fellowships and residencies draw no distinction between full- and low-residency programs, this is the only measure in which full- and low-residency programs were ranked in a single measure. This said, the low-residency programs were subsequently granted their own numerical ranking, in recognition of the fact that these programs are hampered by the decreased likelihood that their graduates will seek fellowships or residencies in the first instance (as by definition low-residency students already have full- or part-time employment).

These fellowship placement rankings should be used with caution. As selection for a fellowship or residency is often the result of one or more individuals being the "consensus pick(s)" of a panel of judges—and as consensus in art has not always, historically, favored innovation—it is possible for fellows and residents to in some instances be amongst the most talented, but not necessarily the most innovative, of their graduating year's national cohort. This is by no means to impugn, or remark upon, the writing of any particular fellow or resident, or on the selections of any particular fellowship or residency. Instead, the emphasis in this caveat is on causation: Applicants should not presume either that a program with a high placement ranking can ensure them a fellowship or residency, nor that a program with a high placement ranking necessarily hosts the strongest student cohort if innovation, rather than technical mastery, is the particular interest of the applicant. On these points the rankings make no specific claim other than to note these important distinctions.

Job Placement
Between 2008 and 2011, the most popular online discussion board for creative writing job-seekers pursuing full-time employment at the university level, The Academic Jobs Wiki, listed 207 full-time positions available for poets and fiction writers. Data on the individuals ultimately hired for these openings was available for 145 of these 207 listings (70 percent). Searches conducted over consecutive years due to budget freezes were only counted as a single listing. Based on research into the educational credentials of the individuals ultimately hired for these positions, a ranking was created to indicate which graduate creative writing programs’ alumni enjoyed the most success on the academic job market over these three hiring cycles. The following figures may be of academic interest to those tracking employment opportunities for creative writers in higher education:

2008–2009 Hiring Season: Sixty-eight positions available (hire information available for 62 percent); male/female split for those positions with available data for final fires was 57 percent female, 43 percent male.

2009–2010 Hiring Season: Eighty-four positions available, ten of which were holdovers from the previous year (i.e., cancelled or frozen searches from the previous year); hire information available for 52 percent; male/female split for those positions with available data for final hires was 57 percent female, 43 percent male.

2010–2011 Hiring Season: Seventy-five positions available, eight of which were holdovers from the previous year (i.e., cancelled or frozen searches from the previous year); hire information available for 79 percent; male/female split for those positions with available data for final hires was 51 percent male, 49 percent female.

Given that the nation’s two hundred full- and low-residency MFA programs, and thirty-two doctoral programs in creative writing, graduate more than two thousand poets and two thousand fiction writers every year, along with between five hundred and a thousand nonfiction writers (some of whom have qualifications and prior publications in fiction and/or poetry), the data above suggests that each year full-time teaching positions at the university level are available for, on average, well less than 1 percent of graduate creative writing program alumni. Even if graduates were only required to compete for employment against those in their own annual cohort, and even assuming only between 10 and 20 percent of nonfiction program graduates can or do compete for positions advertised for poetry and/or fiction, this figure would be less than 2 percent. Realistically, however, each year’s graduate creative writing program alumni are competing against an ever-increasing stock of unemployed, underemployed, and employed-but-still-job-hunting alumni from previous years.

While polling suggests that only about half of the nation’s creative writing program graduates wish to teach, even this statistic cannot bring an individual degree-holding poet or writer’s employment chances (all things being equal) higher than, at best, 4 percent. Consequently, those graduate creative writing programs with the best track records in terms of job placement—the top ten programs in this measure achieved full-time job-placement rates, during the period assessed, of between 8 and 20 percent—are offering to students significant value-added as they pursue postgraduate employment. Whether higher job placement rates at certain schools are due to stronger alumni networks, better career placement services, better teaching, or simply better students is unclear, though there appears to be a high correlation between a program’s standing in this measure and its standing in other indicia of average cohort quality.

Student-Faculty Ratio
Using data on individual programs’ total student-body sizes, along with recitations of full-time core faculty in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from the Poets & Writers online MFA database, student-faculty ratios were calculated for the 122 full-residency MFA programs (81 percent of all such programs) with both sets of data available. Tiebreakers in student-faculty ratio were awarded (where necessary and where possible) to the program with the higher number of total core faculty members. Note that this ranking, unlike others in the 2012 Poets & Writers Magazine MFA rankings, takes into account any and all fiction, poetry, and nonfiction faculty and students at individual programs, not merely faculty and students in the former two genres. Along with the top fifty programs in this measure, ten Honorable Mention distinctions were awarded, owing to the large number of programs eligible for (and assessed for) this measure.

Student-faculty ratio is treated, here, as a presumptively rankable program quality. Just as a large percentage of applicants report that they prefer, all things being equal, a more selective program, or a better-funded program, or a program that performs better at placing its graduates in fellowships and full-time jobs post-graduation, generally speaking creative writing graduate students prefer a better student-faculty ratio to a worse one—the better to have immediate and meaningful access to those charged with instructing, mentoring, and advising them. The fifty-nine non-top fifty, non-Honorable Mention full-residency MFA programs (as to this measure) are ranked as follows (with ratio in parentheses after each school):

Non-Top 50/Non-Honorable Mention Programs in Student-Faculty Ratio, with Rank and Ratio

64. The New School in New York City (5.14)
65t. Adelphi University in New York City (5.14)
65t. California Institute of the Arts in Valencia (5.14)
67. Florida State University in Tallahassee (5.46)
68. Texas State University in San Marcos (5.50)
69. University of California in Irvine (5.50)
70t. Saint Mary’s College of California in Moraga (5.63)
70t. University of Colorado in Boulder (5.63)
70t. University of New Hampshire in Durham (5.63)
73t. University of Arkansas in Fayetteville (5.71)
73t. University of Maryland in College Park (5.71)
75. Georgia State University in Atlanta (5.83)
76. University of Houston in Texas (6.00)
77. University of Massachusetts in Boston (6.00)
78t. Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven (6.00)
78t. University of Guelph-Humber in Toronto, Canada (6.00)
80. University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg (6.00)
81. Northwestern University in Chicago (6.36)
82. Ohio State University in Columbus (6.43)
83. Portland State University in Oregon (6.50)
84. Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York (6.52)
85. California College of the Arts in Oakland (6.67)
86. University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa (6.88)
87t. Queens College, CUNY (7.00)
87t. University of South Florida in Tampa (7.00)
89. Florida International University in Miami (7.14)
90t. University of Baltimore in Maryland (7.20)
90t. University of Nevada at Las Vegas (7.20)
92. University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada (7.50)
93. Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton (7.50)
94. Chatham University in Pittsburgh (8.00)
95t. Roosevelt University in Chicago (8.00)
95t. University of Memphis in Tennessee (8.00)
97. Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo (8.33)
98. Oklahoma State University in Stillwater (8.33)
99. Columbia College in Chicago (8.38)
100t. American University in Washington, D.C. (8.57)
100t. Eastern Washington University in Cheney (8.57)
100t. San Diego State University in California (8.57)
100t. University of Massachusetts in Amherst (8.57)
100t. University of Utah in Salt Lake City (8.57)
105. George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia (9.09)
106. Chapman University in Orange, California (9.17)
107. University of Missouri at Saint Louis (9.33)
108. Northeast Ohio MFA (Consortium) (10.00)
109. California State University in Fresno (10.00)
110. Minnesota State University in Mankato (10.00)
111. Lindenwood University in Saint Charles, Missouri (10.00)
112. McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana (10.00)
113. Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts (10.42)
114. University of Iowa in Iowa City (10.78)
115. New York University in New York City (12.50)
116. San Jose State University in California (12.50)
117. City College of New York, CUNY (13.33)
118. University of San Francisco in California (14.00)
119. Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota (17.14)
120. San Francisco State University in California (18.90)
121. Mills College in Oakland, California (23.75)
122. Columbia University in New York City (28.33)                 

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, non-tuition-remitted year of study, individual programs' program-extension policies have not been considered in calculating program duration. Nationally, only one full-residency MFA program is known to be one year in duration, and only two programs are four years in duration. The remaining 148 full-residency programs are either two or three years in duration, with programs ranked in the top fifty significantly more likely to be three years than are programs not ranked in the top fifty. Few programs that fund less than 33 percent of their incoming students are more than two years in duration. In fact, only six non-fully-funded top fifty programs are three years in duration, and all of these are either ranked in the top fifty for funding or else were awarded an Honorable Mention in the category. Fully funded programs are slightly more likely to be three years in duration as opposed to two; 59 percent of the thirty-four fully-funded programs in the top fifty are three years in duration or longer, and an additional three (9 percent) are known to offer substantial numbers of graduates third-year funding in some form or another. Low-residency programs are almost exclusively 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, unless these opportunities are guaranteed to all rising third-years in good standing in the program. As applicable, nonguaranteed postgraduate funding opportunities are formally acknowledged in program funding calculations (see “The Full-Residency Rankings Chart: Additional Program Measures: Funding") provided the average number of opportunities available each year is known. All this said, at least one program, Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, so consistently offers a third-year lectureship to all or nearly all of its graduating students that it may nominally be considered a three-year program (some students even receive a fourth-year lectureship as well).

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 total of two to nine students, per matriculating class, in the two major genres, fiction and poetry, combined); S (Small, ten to nineteen students); M (Medium, twenty to thirty-one students); L (Large, thirty-two to forty-nine students); and XL (Extra-Large, fifty or more students per year). Because many programs do not include their matriculating class size on their websites, 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 statistical extrapolation for the overall and genre rankings (the program’s previous-year percentage of all votes cast in the “off-year” genre—that is, the percentage of all fiction votes cast for the 2009–2010 application cycle that the University of Wisconsin’s fiction program received—is multiplied by the number of voters in that genre in the current year; this is then added to the actual number of votes the program received in the “on-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 percent, 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 website Sperling's Best Places (www.bestplaces.net/COL/default.aspx). Healthcare costs, administrative fees, and student relocation costs were not estimated or considered, nor was the cost of tuition—as 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 $13,440—the 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 thrity-nine fully-funded full-residency programs, only two are known to offer cost-of-living-adjusted stipends of less than $10,000/academic year.

Cost of Living
The cost of living in the various programs' listed host locations was determined using Sperling's Best Places (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 Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Notations used for cost of living are as follows: Very Low (16 percent or more below Ann Arbor, Michigan, the national-average-range constant for the 2012 rankings); Low (between 6 and 15 percent below); Average (between 5 percent below and 5 percent above); High (between 6 and 15 percent above); and Very High (16 percent 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 nonpecuniary 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 Funding and Full Funding categories (see “Funding” and “Full Funding”).

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 applicants—though it is not the most common teaching load at MFA programs—average 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." Note that the term “load” is not used here pejoratively; some applicants will wish to teach more rather than less, even as other applicants prefer to do no teaching whatsoever. At present the rankings take no position whatsoever on the academic or professional value of teaching a large or small number of undergraduate sections per academic year.

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, students may request and/or get assigned—once admitted to a program—a larger and therefore better-compensated teaching load. Such additional teaching sections are by no means guaranteed, however, and therefore are not noted in or considered by the rankings chart.

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
The Council of Graduate Schools Resolution, also known as the “April 15th Resolution,” states that graduate programs that are signatories to the Resolution shall keep funded offers of admission open through April 15 of each application cycle. Colleges and universities that adhere to the Resolution represent that all of their constituent programs and departments adhere to the terms of the Resolution, which include mailing a copy of the Resolution with all acceptances. Under the terms of the Resolution programs may neither rescind nor threaten to rescind offers of admission to which any funding whatsoever is attached prior to April 15, nor may they explicitly or implicitly indicate to such accepted candidates, in writing or in person or via telephone, that there is any deadline for their matriculation decision other than April 15. Historically, MFA applicants have reported widespread noncompliance with the Resolution, which is problematic for applicants because CGSR-violative programs often require final matriculation decisions from applicants well before they have heard admissions responses from the other programs to which they applied. Applicants increasingly see such acceptances as excessively restrictive of their options and opportunities.

At present, only three CGSR signatories are believed to be noncompliant with the contract they and more than a hundred other universities signed and published for prospective applicants. This said, the CGSR Compliance category does not distinguish between programs known to have already violated the Resolution and those nonsignatories that simply could do so without running afoul of their host universities’ administrative policies. Therefore, while applicants should exercise due diligence and caution in applying to programs that are not CGSR compliant, they should also not presume violations will occur. The best policy is to contact nonsignatory programs directly and inquire regarding their CGSR-related policies; needless to say, some programs will welcome such queries more than others, as of late the question of the CGSR’s viability for creative writing MFA programs has been hotly contested by certain nonsignatory programs.

Any signatory to the CGSR found to be in violation of that contract will be listed as noncompliant, whether or not the program’s host college or university continues to be a CGSR signatory. Compliance inquiries are initiated on the basis of applicant self-reporting; since 2006, fully 100 percent of applicant complaints regarding programs’ CGSR-related policies have been found, following an investigation, to be meritorious. Indeed, in all but one instance the offending program ultimately confessed to the violation.