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2012 MFA Rankings: The Top Fifty

 Frequently Asked Questions About the Rankings
Additional Rankings of Full-Residencies

Note: The following table appeared in the September/October 2011 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Our most recent coverage of MFA programs is available in the September/October 2012 issue, on newsstands now.

A combination of hard data from programs that release funding and admissions figures to the public and a vital survey of what the individuals comprising the next generation of U.S. poets and writers have to say about their own priorities in choosing a postgraduate program, here are the 2012 rankings of the nation's top fifty MFA programs.

Notes: The top-fifty and honorable-mentions rankings correspond to the most frequently applied-to programs for the 2010–2011 application cycle, as reported by 640 MFA applicants surveyed from April 16, 2010, to April 15, 2011. [star] (honorable mention); — (unranked); Nonfiction Rank: n/a (not applicable) indicates nonfiction track is not offered; Total-Funding Rank takes into account program duration; Selectivity Rank: n.d. (no data available); Size refers to total number of students per matriculating class: XS (2–9), S (10–19), M (20–31), L (32–49), XL (50+); Full Funding refers to the percentage of a matriculating class that receives full funding: Very Few (0–15), Few (16–29), Some (30–59), Most (60–89), Nearly All (90–99), All (100); Cost of Living is compared with Ann Arbor, Michigan; Teaching Load: n/a (not applicable) indicates too few teaching appointments to warrant inclusion in this category, n.d. (no data available) indicates teaching load is unknown, Light (an average of two courses or fewer to teach per academic year), Average (an average of three courses to teach per academic year), Heavy (an average of four courses or more to teach per academic year); GRE Required: * (GRE scores required of applicants with an undergraduate GPA below 3.0), ** (GRE subject test is also preferred or required), *** (scores required only from applicants seeking funding); Cross-genre: (genre availability may be limited by program). Read more information about the methodology used to determine the rankings and check out the rankings of the remaining eighty-one full-residency MFA programs.

Reader Comments

  • umass76 says...

    Hi Caterina, I'm sorry my responses struck you as condescending (or hostile) -- I don't agree with that representation, but I do know it was never my intent to condescend to you or to get personal with you, so I do regret hearing that you feel that way. For my part, I felt your comments here were often couched as personal attacks, including several references to aspects of my personal life (and other things which have nothing to do with the only appropriate topic for this space, the ranking methodology), but I know you don't agree with me on that -- and I respect your right to disagree on that -- and at this point it probably doesn't suit either of us to continue this back-and-forth. I think (and hope) you've had an adequate chance here to present your opinions; my guess is that anyone reading this thread will readily see both your position and mine. It's part of my job, in my view, to correct misimpressions people may have about the ranking methodology; I can't promise folks will always admire or appreciate the way I do that, but I do it as professionally as I can and just hope for the best. I don't harbor any ill will toward you, and hope you feel the same about me. All I can do now is sincerely wish you the best of luck in all your future endeavors. Regards, --Seth

  • Caterina says...

    Online, Seth feels often works to "disabuse" others of notions (of him or his work) that he believes are inaccurate.
    *****
    I need to do the same, now that I've reread his initial response to me. (I haven't read his most recent postings and don't intend to read them, or any new ones, very soon; starting with his first posting, he made this topic personal when he referred to the small number of emails I wrote him over the years--as if he thought I was trying to pretend I'm someone I'm not and he was going to publicly expose me by referring to those emails--and I felt his responses were likely to get only more hostile.)
    *****
    1) I was very polite in my email exchanges with Seth until I finally got annoyed by his email to me on July 2, 2010, which was a response to another concern I had expressed to him about these rankings and which he opened by saying "I see where your confusion lies." I didn't consider it appropriate for a non-statistician to suggest that I must simply be confused about his statistical methods (it came across to me as very pedantic--not the way any professor of mine ever treated me).
    *****
    Prior to that, the last email I'd gotten from Seth was on May 28. It was a mass email promoting "Northerners." I also emailed him (and Tom Kealey) about the rankings on January 17, 2010.
    *****
    2) I NEVER said that I felt my professional opportunities were being hindered. I took a long time to finish my now-287-page thesis (which was 347 pages at the time of my thesis defense) because I didn't want to defend it until I felt it was closer to "finished"; though I completed my coursework in 2003, I didn't defend my thesis until last December, so I actually completed my MFA at the end of the fall of 2010; thus, I didn't even start applying for full-time jobs that might be compatible with an MFA until January. For two and-a-half years in the interim, I worked as a newspaper reporter (writing feature stories, mainly).
    *****
    I DID, however, express concern that these rankings COULD unfairly affect graduates' prospects for employment.
    ****
    Now that I've had a chance to clarify the content of my most recent emails to/from Seth Abramson:
    *****
    In June I finished editing a sizable portion of a book collection that's under contract with a well known academic publishing company (which I won't name because I don't want to drag them into this)--a job I got in large part because of my MFA.
    *****
    I don't want to be misrepresented. I also don't want to subject myself right now to any more "explanations" of why I just don't understand Seth's rankings. I do understand them. I just don't agree with certain of his conclusions, and I made a reasonable case for why I don't.
    *****
    As I mentioned yesterday, my brother is a statistician--his PhD is in mathematical statistics, and his dissertation, in which he disproved a well-known lemma, heavily utilized game theory--and he knows how tricky it is to interpret "hard data" of the sort on which this ranking system is based.
    *****
    Laura/Caterina

  • The Masters Review says...

    Rankings are always debatable, but I'm happy to see exposure for such programs in any capacity. The work coming out of MFA, MA, and PhD programs speaks for itself, and I'm continually impressed.

    Our new journal showcases graduate-level writing and we hope to see work from ranked, un-ranked, and upcoming programs across the country in our next issue.

    We're now accepting submissions: www.masters-review.com. I invite you all to take a look... and submit!

  • A Bloody Period says...

    My dear friends,
    I've been following this interesting (to say the least) little argument for a few days and I find it humorous that there is "Youtube" like mudslinging going on. For me personally, I love the rankings as an aspiring applicant. Here is why,
    -If it wasn't for the dedication of Seth to compile such data and an attempt by him, to make it as fair and transparent as possible, us applicants would have little resources to turn to when it comes to looking for a program to be a potential suitor. There will always be dissatisfied spectators. Its part of the game. Every person has an opinion and is entitled to it. Also, so much money goes into these applications from each prospective MFA candidate that what Seth has done has allowed for each individual to look at the bigger picture and find a program that they could potentially enjoy.
    - As far as selectivity, prestige, location, funding: I can guarantee that a huge portion of the pool of applicants look for funding.
    -Personally, you couldn't pay me the world to go to the Iowa Writer's Workshop. Not because they aren't any good (They have an amazing faculty and competitive writers) but because of location. I lived in Iowa for four years. God bless those who can stand looking at corn as entertainment (a hyperbole I admit but Iowa is barren, all would admit. And with those winters, you have to have thick skin).
    -In the end, writers want the chance to hone their craft in an environment that they feel productive in. Location, prestige, funding all play a role and differ greatly between individuals. The "rankings" help. The larger scope of the population would agree. Whether there are a few people personally hurt because their alma mater is not up there on the list is a personal affair. A writer's talent, perseverance, and some luck will get their chance in whatever they pursue. The school they graduate from is just a small portion of their professional careers. McCarthy didn't even finish an undergrad at Tennessee. What's his excuse? To be offended by such a trivial ranking conflict is immature. Attending a high ranking institution does not guarantee success. Same as attending one that is not up there doesn't guarantee failure. You are what you make you make of it. Everyone should know that. So with that said, the back and forth from Caterina, is funny. Seth will defend (or rather clarify) something that he worked so hard on so to ask him not to respond is silly.

    People, the rankings help a great deal. And they allow for easier access to information that takes a hell of a long time to compile. The information is not incorrect. The list gives you so many options and names of university's. And it is up to the applicant who is investing the money, to find out information about each institution. The personal attacks are silly Caterina. Really? Calling out Seth's Harvard degree? What does that have to do with the discourse. As a third party point of view, its a childish act. I think both parties involved in this argument could use a little bit of humble pie.

    Lastly, writers have egos--which sometimes gets infused in their writing. I think the ego bubble on this thread is about to bust. I think one of the misinterpretation that Caterina is caught up on is the labeling of "ranking" opposed to it being called something else (i.e. an informal pole). My advice would be to get over it.

    What I dislike about the rankings is that programs that were under the radar such as South Carolina and Texas State broke into the top fifty and now that I am going to apply to them, they will likely be more applicants to those schools. But that's a personal matter which is also laughable. I still will apply, may the best candidate win. Plain and simple.

    A round of hugs should be attempted here. Writers at peace. Peace to the world.

  • umass76 says...

    Caterina, it's okay, I understand what you were getting at. P.S. To see all posts, click on "View All Comments" right above this post.

  • Caterina says...

    I still can't read your more recent posts, Seth, but I remembered a word choice, from my last email, that I regret: "nastiness" (as if YOU were nasty, which isn't what I meant). I should have, instead, said something akin to "contentiousness," and I'm sorry I didn't.

  • umass76 says...

    HW, I know a bit about blacklisting, and I agree it's a horrible thing to experience -- and a horrible thing to have to fear. Best wishes, --Seth

  • umass76 says...

    Caterina, As I think you know, I have a years-long record of being pretty willing to engage questions about the rankings directly -- it's unworthy of you to suggest I was or am trying to "scare you off." That's never been my M.O. and it isn't now. I don't know your M.O. in engaging people on websites, but from your conduct here it does seem to rely quite heavily on ad hominem attacks and labored attempts at psychoanalysis. I'm really not interested in going down that road with you; this is a thread to discuss the rankings and their methodology, not your opinion of my personal life or personality. I clarified the things about the rankings that needed to be clarified, and that's all I'm here to do. I've done so from time to time on other websites as well; fortunately, the discourse elsewhere has usually been much more temperate than this was. I'll leave it to others to judge where the fault for that lies. Best wishes to you, --Seth

  • hello world says...

    I am not Caterina (or Laura), but I appreciate and respect people who would prefer anonymity. Some are worried about being blacklisted (see Foetry).

  • Caterina says...

    Seth, I can't read your latest posting right now. I was a philosophy major, and apparently a damn good one, with experience in that discipline at three universities. I know how to reason well.
    *****
    You should not have revealed any part of my name on this site (but I guess doing so is ONE way to scare off your critics). You seem compelled to argue, but not in the way I'm used to from those who analyze, say, a piece of philosophical text (and you were, I'm sure, a fine law student--which is very different from what you're doing now as a pollster). I can see that your posting in response to me is another long one. I can also see from your Internet history that you Google yourself to see who's saying what about you, and then you dominate, at least briefly, those sites.
    *****
    On one poet's site (this is all publicly accessible), you claimed that your long-winded-ness is because you're a lawyer. Almost all of my "lawyer acquaintances," though, are MUCH more concise in their prose (again, I'm using caps in place of italics). But you did finally apologize on that site for the way you often express yourself. It was the first time I saw you express any serious uncertainty in yourself. Then again, you were in dispute with more than one person on that site.
    *****
    I don't have the temperament, though, for this kind of nastiness--not unless it's about a social or political issue I care about. What I've observed online is that you often keep writing until you exhaust the other person. It's not that you've "won" the debate; it's that you persist on and on and on, not always playing fair when it comes to either formal or informal reasoning (resorting more to rhetoric, in the classical sense, instead?), until that person is overwhelmed--and not by the force of your argument but by the sheer volume of text you offer in your own defense.
    *****
    I'm going to take a few weeks (at least!) from this topic. Later, I'll either read your posting or let a friend I trust report to me what it, in general(specifically, the TONE), says.
    *****
    (Caterina, by the way, is the name of one of my beloved cats.)
    *****
    L.

  • umass76 says...

    We all make mistakes from time to time. My goal was to correct some incorrect things the OP said and to address her in a less frantic and more respectful fashion than she did me. Addressing someone by their (real) first name is part of that, for me. It's how I was raised. I also showed a lot of patience toward this person in some very aggressive off-site correspondence, and I suppose patience is an exhaustible commodity. Mainly, though, I just fundamentally have much more respect for people who state strong opinions under something other than a pseudonym. You say you're "Hello World," but you could be Caterina, of course. I'd never know. I think the internet is a friendlier and more productive place when we're honest about who we are -- especially if we intend to criticize someone directly. --Seth

  • hello world says...

    Dear Seth,

    I have always respected you and your work, but I feel you were very rude and condescending to the other poster. I feel you had no right to publish her real name; if she wanted people to know it, then she would have posted under her name.

    Thanks.

  • umass76 says...

    Actually, one other quick note: I think you'll find that, in the literary arts community, most poets and writers aspire to no greater role in their community than to be someone who reads and writes (and occasionally performs) poetry, fiction, and/or nonfiction. I respect that ambition enormously; certainly, engaging Art directly is the first and foremost thing on the mind of nearly all artists (myself included). But those who aim to give back to their communities in other ways as well -- whether it be by running a reading series, being an editor, starting up a non-profit to benefit poets and writers, or, yes, trying to widely disseminate heretofore unavailable information to an information-starved class of persons -- generally have to put themselves "out there" more often to perform these other functions of a community member. I know you don't like a lot of what I say, and I'm certain you think much of it distracts, too, from my primary function (that of a poet), but I can only tell you that I recognize gathering this data entails not only a good deal of work but also a good deal of responsibility, and I try to deliver on that responsibility by always being available to discourse about the work that I do. If that makes me unpopular among some, I hope many more others will see it merely as a case of me trying to hold myself accountable. And if the overwhelmingly positive response I and others have received regarding the new rankings is any indication, I do think most folks understand this is just a question of a poet taking a non-artistic role in his community very seriously. But have no fear, I take my poetry even more seriously than this! --S.

  • umass76 says...

    Hi Caterina, I think you're failing to distinguish between condescension and this simply being a conversation in which I have more facts and more experience at my disposal -- not because I'm any better than you or anyone else, but because this project is one I've spent hundreds and hundreds of hours working on. You've consistently made your comments personal, which is consistent (I would guess) with the fact that, as you've told me several times here and elsewhere, this is a personal issue for you. It is not a personal issue for me. I don't have an educational pedigree I'm trying to protect; I don't have an ax to grind. I know how the rankings were compiled and I merely correct misstatements on that topic whenever and wherever they arise, the better to spread accurate information rather than disinformation or misinformation. So I will continue to correct your misstatements because it's my job to do that. If you want to state a mere _opinion_ about the rankings, you won't hear me respond (anyone can decide for themselves whether your opinions hold water or not); if you want to make misstatements of fact about the rankings, you will get a response from me because, again, that is my job. I'm afraid I honestly don't see any of this as defending myself. I see it as correcting you. You continue to repeat that you've read the methodology article, but I'm afraid I don't believe you. You note, for instance, that we have no way of knowing how important a consideration location was for surveyed applicants -- but we do, as that information is clearly stated on pg. 1 (that's right, pg. 1) of the methodology article you indicate you read thoroughly and carefully. You ask, with seeming bewilderment, why programs weren't contacted directly; in last year's methodology article (which you indicated previously you had read) there's an entire section devoting to answering just that question. In any case, that said, there's much we agree on: The most common critique of the rankings is that current students and faculty should be surveyed about their own programs; I'm glad that you see, as I do, the impossibility of that methodology (though later in your note you seem to contradict yourself by bemoaning the fact that those surveyed "have no direct experience with the programs"; that sounds like a walk-back to me). But where we diverge is in your insistence that (for instance) a program's acceptance rate is not hard data, but rather "hard data" (in scare-quotes), a somewhat petty bit of recalcitrance which doesn't suggest you're interested in a serious discussion here. The important thing, though, is that just because you don't see the value in anything but unranked recitations of hard data doesn't mean that others do not. For all that you imply that I am narrow-minded and obsessive, the methodology I've spent years working on (in conjunction with many others, BTW; it's hardly the case that all the work has been mine) is intended to suit the disparate needs and interests of thousands of applicants, whereas the assessment regime you insist upon is really only targeted toward increasing your own chances of getting a job, if I understand you correctly. Likewise, you persist in smearing the rankings, or at least the contextual demographic surveys done in conjunction with the rankings, as somehow the product of my own opinions (e.g., "According to you, most applicants don’t care much about the accomplishments of alumni"; no, it's according to applicants, thousands of whom have responded to demographic surveys on such questions, as you would know from reading the methodology article). You certainly do demand a good deal of patience from your reader -- personally attacking me repeatedly, using capital letters, demanding responses to your erroneous subjective impressions of things you appear not to really understand -- but I continue to respond because of the 2% or so of rankings-readers who indicate intense dissatisfaction with the rankings, about half are willing to be corrected as to any misimpressions (willful or otherwise) they may be under about how the rankings were devised. That you are in the other half doesn't dissuade me from trying to speak to the other 1%, and _for_ the 98% who say they find real utility in the rankings. --Seth P.S. It's customary for me (and a lot of people, I think) to engage with others by their first name; as I didn't know what your true first name was or is, I put both possibilities in my last note to you. I certainly have no intention of revealing your full name, though I hope you realize, too, just how easy it is to hide behind the shield of a) anonymity, and b) having strong opinions on a subject you know little about, and then act indignantly when someone who does _not_ hide his identity, and who _did_ do a good deal of work to educate himself on the subject at hand, responds to you with a comprehensive correction of your errors. Generally speaking, it's easier to get someone to honor a plea that they not respond to you if you avoid a) personally insulting them, b) misstating facts you know are important to them, c) asking non-rhetorical questions they're in a position to answer, or d) misleading your reader as to things you've said previously, or that another has said previously, or regarding your own level of research on a topic.

  • Caterina says...

    Seth, I've been mostly gracious to you in our few email exchanges, but I object to the way you so often condescend to those who disagree with you. I can be persuaded by a good argument; the best you could do the last time was to say that "we'll have to agree to disagree." Meanwhile, you carry on with this enterprise. (I brought up credentials, by the way, because you advertise yours in every possible context.)
    *****
    I've followed your online arguments enough to see you once in a while concede a point to someone who disagrees with you, but when you do, it's usually a relatively trivial point. Thus, it's unfair of you to claim that I'm the one who can't be persuaded (I conceded something rather significant to you once, actually--I still have the email in which I did so, in fact). I know for certain that some people won't post comments about anything you've said or written for the same reason I nearly didn't.
    *****
    Speaking of graciousness: There's something magnanimous about stepping back and allowing people to publicly disagree with your frequent and widely disseminated writings without your repeatedly defending yourself. You put yourself out there on the Internet, after all--more so than any other serious poet I can think of anywhere, at any time.
    *****
    My only hesitation about posting my first comment was that I didn’t want to get sucked into the kind of comment wars I’ve seen between you and others online. For one thing, many of your postings are exceedingly long—2000-3000 words or more, in some cases—and they therefore take a long time to read. I hope others will post soon so that I can retreat from the discussion and just observe. Please don't respond to this comment; I'm asking you that as a favor. I wasn't writing for you; I was writing to share my opinion with Poets & Writers and with future applicants. You've had your say, over and over and over again. Can I now have a tiny slice of this ongoing discussion?
    *****
    I want to emphasize that I never raised the question of self-selection; as I pointed out in my first posting, the USN&WR set of rankings was also a poll, and it was clearly a self-selected one, as you point out in your “Methodology” section. Just in case that wasn't clear to you.
    *****
    You consistently claim that MFA applicants’ lists of programs to which they’re applying reflect their “esteem” for those programs, yet you acknowledge that location is a factor for many of those applicants (what’s unclear is the extent to which they consider location important).
    *****
    Regarding faculty views on MFA programs: It would be absurd to allow faculty members to rank their own programs (and I don’t know whether or not that was a problem with the USN&WR rankings), but that problem could be prevented in a good poll that included faculty respondents.
    *****
    You could include your “hard data,” doing a service for prospective students and carrying out your mission to increase “transparency,” while avoiding these “rankings” altogether. Further, if these prospective students have done such a remarkable job researching these programs for themselves, why do they need you to rescue them with your data? After all, you yourself relied on the schools’ Web sites for information (just as, according you, the applicants did); if you care so deeply about “transparency,” why not dig a little deeper—say, send a form letter to all the schools, followed up by a phone call, in which you request the information? Then we’d truly know which schools were avoiding revealing certain information. I would never assume that a school’s failure to put certain information on a Web site is an attempt to deceive applicants. Why not serve as a more disinterested—meaning, impartial—participant in this process? I think you would be more credible to many of your critics. (I’ve seen people defend your poll by making comments along the lines of, “Personally, I think the rankings are damned accurate,” but I’ve seldom seen them say WHY they think they’re “accurate”—though one person admitted that she just “liked” the position her program held on the list--and I admired her honesty there.)
    *****
    Some of the newer programs on the list are too new to have produced many alumni who have made names for themselves. According to you, most applicants don’t care much about the accomplishments of alumni. So, how is this vague category of “reputation” defined? What do these applicants mean by “reputation”? First rule of philosophy: DEFINE YOUR TERMS. The quality of the alumni was one of the most important factors for me, as was the makeup of the faculty. If your poll respondents don’t care about either, it makes me wonder what they MEAN by “reputation.” That the landscaping on campus is impressive? That the program has really wild MFA parties?
    *****
    I don’t know why you rail against Columbia. I don’t understand the basis for your moral outrage over that program. I didn’t apply to Columbia; the cost of living in NYC discouraged me from applying. But I picked up the phone and called them to ask about funding. I never got angry at them for not providing more funding; I simply didn’t apply. I didn’t conclude, however, from my decision not to apply to Columbia that it isn’t a strong program. In fact, it still produces fine writers, despite its lower acceptance rate; perhaps the pool of applicants to Columbia is, on average, of a far higher caliber than that of a much more “selective” program that has rarely produced an acclaimed writer—which is why I think “selectivity” is a misnomer in this context (you should just call that measure “acceptance rates” instead).
    *****
    Your “Methodology” section contains numerous assumptions, including your view on who the “best researched” applicants are. (And you really consider it a strong argument to appeal to the “conventional wisdom” contained in “most media accounts”? That’s why I consider the section excessive rather than “comprehensive.” How is the matter of “most media accounts”—“most” being un-quantified, of course—relevant here? I'm mystified as to why you included that in a section on methods.) I could spend much more time raising questions about that section. Alas, I’m not under contract with Poets & Writers, so I need to get back to my own work.
    *****
    Just for the record: I greatly admire some of your poetry, and I like much of what you’ve written about politics and the law. I will never, however, be able to get behind a ranking system that’s based solely on the opinions of prospective students who have no direct experience with the programs to which they’re applying--not unless you can come up with a new defense of it. As far as applicants' research is concerned: I highly doubt that most MFA applicants look up every single program (or even most of them) online for themselves. They look up maybe twenty or thirty, I imagine, doing so based on location and their own biases and preconceptions and whatever informed or ill-informed word-of-mouth they encountered—and now, of course, based on where the previous year’s poll respondents applied.
    *****
    P.S. I liked Tom's book, very much. I read it before I'd ever heard of you. (I used to like his site, too, but it became too contentious--and certainly not because of me, someone who's posted only twice there, and posted only extremely short, innocuous comments.) But if he's going to turn the book into a formal rankings game, I probably won't enjoy future editions. (What I liked about what you now call the "Kealey Scale" was that it was NOT a formal "scale.") My references to your own comments about your methodology are based on what you've said elsewhere on the Internet, not just what you wrote in this P&W piece.
    *****
    I don't think it's very ethical of you to reveal (out of spite?) my first name. I chose a username for a reason; unlike you, I don't want my name all over the Internet, and I assume that Poets & Writers had intended to protect the anonymity of those of us who feel that way (I assume that's why they gave us the CHOICE of whether or not to use a username--and I'm capitalizing here because I don't know how to use italics on this site).
    *****
    I've contacted you directly (though only a few times over the past five years), and I certainly didn't go out of my way to hide my identity from you. I'm on (or WAS on) your email list. You could have written me privately to confirm that I was the person who posted the comment; I would have been happy to tell you. I'll need to find out now what the magazine's official policy regarding online privacy is.

  • umass76 says...

    Hi Caterina, I'm not sure what my educational background has to do with anything? In any case, I actually wasn't trying to persuade you; I know from our previous conversations off-site that you can't be persuaded, my factual clarifications were actually intended for others who might be reading this and erroneously believe that some of the things you've said are accurate. Your latest comment adds some new inaccuracies that now must also be addressed (which is disheartening, but keeping the methodology for the rankings clear, concise, and available to all is one of the tasks that's been set for me and that I set for myself). I did not say there is "nothing" scientific about the rankings; in fact, the methodology article is quite clear that this isn't so. The funding, job-placement, fellowship-placement, student-to-faculty ratio, and selectivity rankings all use available hard data (the largest such stock of MFA-related hard data in the world) and constitute a statistically-sound ordering of that data, just as the rest of the rankings table (which recites nearly ten other program features for every program listed) is constituted almost entirely of hard data. Education rankings are not merely a single column; media outlets which publish rankings deliberately and conspicuously publish all constituent data so that consumers of the rankings can use individual columns as they see fit. So yes, someone interested only in attending a program considered excellent by one's peers is likely to use the left-most column in the rankings, that column by which the rankings are ordered (as some method of ordering must be found); but those who are more interested in other program features will use the other -- separate and distinct -- rankings columns to create their own hierarchies, and they will then (of course) further inflect those hierarchies, as they should, with their own subjective values and interests. Anyone who wants to only use the "scientific" portion of the rankings table, which is substantial, is free to do so and need not worry about the vagaries of surveys. You say that you've read the methodology article; if that's so, you'll know the reason that the P&W rankings do _not_ employ weighting methods, as do a few of the more highly-visible USNWR rankings (even as most of them are actually survey-only rankings). That reason is this: Weighting systems force the intrusion of the researcher's own value system, something P&W has avoided; likewise, weighting systems tend to devalue the subjective values and interests (and impressions and desires) of real consumers, while elevating objective measures to the level of the sacrosanct -- a folly the P&W rankings avoid by ordering the programs on the basis of a measure (the esteem of the best-researched applicants) which by _definition_ takes into account (and precisely in "actual," real-world proportions) whatever it is that the folks the rankings are geared toward (applicants, not alumni like yourself) actually care about. "Caterina" (or "Laura"), you can put as many words in quotes or capital letters as you like, but it doesn't make your understanding of either the rankings or their methodology any more objective or accurate. I've always addressed your concerns head-on -- if you don't like the answers, I do believe it's for the reason you already gave me in prior correspondence: you don't like what the answers mean for your personally and professionally. But as a researcher my obligation is to accuracy and to all consumers of the rankings, not one person. I hope you can understand that. Best, --Seth P.S. The Creative Writing MFA Blog was not founded by me, is not owned by me, is not run by me, and is "voiced" by (depending upon the day and the post) any of the site's seventeen moderators, of which I'm only one. My personal website, The Suburban Ecstasies, was founded by me, is owned by me, and is authored exclusively by me -- and none of the polling for the rankings was conducted there, as I've already said.

  • Caterina says...

    I don't have much time to devote to this topic over the next few days, but I feel I need to say SOMETHING for the moment:

    I'm supposed to be persuaded by your argument above, Seth? Harvard law degree or not (and by the way, my former "white-trash" parents got full rides at Harvard, so I'm not intimidated by your resume): You consistently contradict yourself on this point; you admit, on the one hand, that there's nothing scientific about this "ranking" system, but on the other hand, you try to justify your "rankings" as meaningful. You can't HAVE it both ways, as much as you seem to want to.

    *****

    I actually took the time to read--quite carefully, in fact--your "methodology." I've taken differential equations and one semester of number theory as well as some stats, so I'm not entirely NAIVE about this topic. (By the way, I've noticed how often you respond to your critics by saying "Perhaps the source of your confusion is..."--and then you often write around that person's criticism or question. You did the same in your response, on this site, to me.)

    I don't know what you mean by your "personal" Web site. I never said it was "personal"; I just said that it was YOURS--and it seems that it was/is at least Partly yours--your VOICE.

    Later I'll write more about your apparent misapprehension of my points, but for now: Don't assume that those of us who find fault with your "methodology" fail to comprehend it; your "methodology" section wasn't "comprehensive"; it was, instead, unnecessarily long. More important, it was also utterly lacking in LEGITIMATE scientific justification: no LESS so (and perhaps even MORE so) than the flawed USNWR rankings.

    C.R.

  • umass76 says...

    Hi Caterina, just to correct a few misimpressions I think you may be under (and I should note that all of these clarifications are available, also, in the online, freely-available methodology article for the rankings, which I definitely recommend to you and any others reading this): (1) None of the surveys completed for the rankings proper were conducted on my personal website; (2) substantial empirical evidence about those surveyed is available in the methodology article (including the bases for their information, the number of programs they applied to, and many other pieces of internal demographic data); (3) many education rankings, including the longest-running and most popular such rankings in the United States (those published for the last quarter-century by U.S. News & World Report) rely heavily on unscientific surveys, and in fact the P&W rankings -- which are not a single ranking, of course, but a discrete compilation of nine heterogeneous but non-comprehensive rankings in a single space -- rely less heavily on such surveys than most other ranking methodologies, as detailed at length in the methodology article; (4) the reason the methodology article is so comprehensive is to avoid having consumers of the rankings ask questions, as you have here, whose answers are readily available online and for free (in a document no longer than a single chapter of an average genre-fiction novel); (5) the article regarding under-rated programs to which you refer was in fact devised using hard data compiled for these rankings (that is, it assessed which programs appeared to be substantially less popular among applicants than the hard data associated with those programs -- data relating to selectivity, postgraduate placement, funding, student-to-faculty ratio, cost of living, program duration, and other factors -- would seem to predict); (6) since 2009, the Poets & Writers rankings have been acknowledged by scores of independent media outlets as both a ranking system and one with a national (even international) scope, as well as being cited as the only credible ranking methodology presently in use (the last data-collection effort for the now-defunct USNWR rankings was fifteen years ago, in 1996, when there were approximately 150 fewer full- and low-residency MFA programs than there are today); (7) applicants report (via internal demographic surveys conducted in association with the P&W rankings) that their reliance on previous iterations of the P&W rankings is inconsistent at best (e.g., nearly half of current applicants report a neutral or negative interest-level in prior rankings), and to the extent all ranking methodologies are self-fulfilling prophecies (which is, certainly, at least partially true), they are also virtuous circles which, over time, become more accurate -- as the more popular a program is, the more selective its admissions process can be, the stronger its cohort is, the better its alumni publication record, and thus (in turn) the more popular it becomes (not because of rankings but because the program is actually beginning to undergo internal changes in terms of its cohort quality). In any case, I know none of these responses are particularly surprising to you; you e-mailed me directly about the rankings last month, asking all these questions and more, and I answered you in some detail -- in fact at greater length than I have here. During that prior exchange, you were going by a different name (I don't know what your real name is, but it wouldn't change my responses in any case, of course) and you indicated that the primary reason for your ire toward the rankings was your dissatisfaction with the ranking of your alma mater -- a ranking you felt was hindering your professional opportunities. To that concern I can only say that the program you mention is highly ranked, that employers do not in fact hire new employees on the basis of rankings designed for use by applicants (nor should they), and that certainly no ranking system can please the graduates of every program -- the important thing is that the ranking methodology be transparent, coherent, readily available, and probative. Which is certainly the case here. Thanks for your comments, --Seth Abramson

  • Caterina says...

    I have three main objections to Seth Abramson's so-called rankings, but I'll address only two of those objections here:

    *****

    1) Seth has defended these rankings based, in part, on the "reasonable" assumption that prospective MFA applicants have seriously researched a number of MFA programs (he hasn't, as far as I'm aware, said what that number is). Without offering any empirical evidence about the prospective MFA students who respond to his blog site, he has no choice but to make an assumption about those respondents--no choice, anyway, if we're to take the "rankings" as being at all accurate. I have no problem with his method as long as he calls it, in this publication and elsewhere, what it essentially is: an informal poll. He has admitted that it's an "unscientific poll," yet he persists in calling them "rankings." Why? (Is the term "rankings" more marketable?)

    *****

    Poets & Writers, of course, could change the terminology, and I believe that continuing to call them rankings is misleading. (I wonder how many people actually read the extraordinarily long-winded explanation of the "methods" behind this supposed ranking system? I've read shorter "methods" sections in legitimate scientific journal articles.)

    *****

    2) He also persists in referring to this poll as "the national rankings." When he listed the program where I earned my MFA as one of the "top twenty-five underrated" programs (along with the University of Florida!), he was defining "underrated" according to the choices of those who responded to his site. (So it was his OPINION, then, that these programs are underrated? Doesn't the existence of such a list illustrate the flaw in this method?) I appreciate that he at least pointed out that my program was in his respondents' top 50 picks, but referring to those responses as "the national rankings" is a terribly overblown way of putting it. (What other national rankings could he be referring to? The U.S. News & World Reports rankings--also a poll--that he dismisses at great length? My program was in the top twenty on that list.)

    *****

    I'll admit that I hope I don't get a lengthy response from Seth; if it's not a scientific poll, then there's no need for him to defend his top-50 list's validity; after all, validity--at least in the statistical sense-- doesn't apply to this method.

    *****

    Finally, a concern I have:

    *****

    In the first year that Seth listed "selectivity" for programs, my program (the University of Arkansas) was in his twenty "most selective" programs (Iowa didn't quite make it). According to his selectivity lists since then, my program has become less selective than it was in comparison with others. Whether it's actually become less selective than several of those other programs, I can't say. But if it HAS, I hope that's not because of this poll. I know from observation that many MFA applicants do only superficial research into MFA programs, and that many of them would love nothing more than for someone else to do that "research" for them.

    ****

    In short: We shouldn't assume that this small number of respondents is especially well informed about their choices or that their choices aren't affected by factors other than quality (e.g., location), and neither should Poets & Writers.

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2012 MFA Rankings: The Top Fifty (September/October 2011)
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