2014 MFA Index: Further Reading

Seth Abramson

One explanation for the bunching phenomenon may be that low-residency programs are less susceptible to comparison than full-residency programs, as many of the major considerations for full-residency applicants, including location, funding, cohort quality, class size, program duration, student-faculty ratio, job placement, and cost of living, are not major considerations for low-residency applicants due to the structure and mission of low-residency programs. Generally speaking, low-residency programs are assessed on the basis of their faculty and pedagogy, neither of which are conducive to quantification.  It is worth noting, too, that a significant number of the world’s sixty-three low-residency MFA programs were founded within the last eight to ten years; applicant familiarity with these programs may still be relatively low.

The six-year low-residency surveying described above has been further broken down into year-by-year survey results. The survey cohort for the 2012–2013 annual survey was twenty-three; for the 2011–2012 annual survey, forty-six; for the 2010–2011 survey, thirty-six; for the 2009–2010 survey, eighty-nine; for the 2008–2009 survey, fifty-six; and for the 2007–2008 survey, fifty-three. If and when individual Speakeasy account-holders applied to programs in more than one admissions cycle, their application lists from each cycle were treated as separate survey responses; repeat applicants accounted for less than 10 percent of the survey cohort, however. Full-residency applicants on The Creative Writing MFA Blog who applied to one or more low-residency programs as part of their overall slate of target programs (see "Structure" and "Cohort") were also included in the low-residency survey; due to the exceedingly small number of such survey responses, these entries were manually compared both to one another and to existing low-residency application lists to ensure duplicate lists were avoided.

While surveys with larger cohorts are, all other things being equal, more reliable than those with smaller ones, the fact that the annual applicant pool for low-residency programs is likely between 350 and 400 suggests that the total survey cohort for the 2014 MFA Index of low-residency programs likely represents more than 80 percent of a single-year national applicant pool for this sort of degree program. Moreover, as is the case with the 2014 MFA Index of full-residency programs, cross-checking applicant survey responses across a period of six years reveals substantial consistency in the responses and quickly unearths any significant anomalies or outliers. Of the ten most popular low-residency programs listed in 2014 MFA Index, eight (80 percent) were among the ten most popular programs—according to applicants—in all six years of surveys, while the other two programs were among the fourteen most popular low-residency programs in all six of the application cycles studied (and in both cases missed the ten-most-popular grouping in two or fewer admissions cycles).

An “n.d.” notation signifies that a program has not released the requisite data. An em-dash indicates that the program did not place in that category. Only fifteen of the nation’s sixty-three low-residency MFA programs earned a positive score in the either of the two placement surveys, which considered placement data for full- and low-residency programs in a single assessment. In order to better acknowledge the achievement, in the placement categories, of these fifteen low-residency programs relative to their low-residency peers, and in recognition of the fact that low-residency graduates are substantially less likely to seek postgraduate fellowships or even postgraduate university teaching positions (largely because they do not give up their present employment when they matriculate), the national placement data collected for the low-residency MFA Index have been reconstituted as an ordered, low-residency-only listing.

Low-Residency Applicant Pool Size
A realistic estimate for the annual number of low-residency MFA applicants is four hundred.

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.


Special Note on International Programs
The Poets & Writers Magazine full- and low-residency program tables have always considered, and will continue to consider, international MFA programs. However, international programs are unlikely to fare as well as they otherwise might in the surveys 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 Magazine tables); (2) non-U.S./non-Canadian applicants are less likely to frequent U.S./Canadian-based MFA-related websites like The MFA Draft 2013 Facebook Group and The Creative Writing MFA Blog, and therefore non-U.S./non-Canadian programs are less likely to appear on the application lists of those surveyed for the Poets & Writers Magazine tables (and Canadian applicants applying to Canadian programs may be less likely to patronize the aforementioned websites 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 MFA Draft 2013 Facebook Group and/or The Creative Writing MFA Blog; and (4) due to the exceedingly small number of non-U.S. terminal-degree MFA programs now in operation (well over 90 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 five years), programs in Canada and elsewhere simply have fewer entrants into the international MFA system with which to achieve a relatively high placement in the applicant popularity surveys (as compared to any of the hard-data categories in the Poets & Writers Magazine tables—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 Research Project (MRP) has catalogued nearly three thousand MFA applicants’ application lists. One abiding trend is that only a small number of nonterminal master’s degree programs in creative writing can be found on application lists otherwise comprised entirely of terminal-degree MFA programs. Consequently, and due to the distinct curricular and structural differences between creative writing MAs and MFAs, non-terminal master’s degrees in creative writing have not been included in either the one-year or five-year full-residency applicant surveys. Instead, a separate listing of the ten most popular programs in this category (according to the application lists of 157 applicants to such programs) is provided below. The methodology for this applicant popularity survey is identical to the methodology employed for the full-residency and low-residency applicant surveys. Applicant mores seem to indicate that the most popular of the programs in this class are now considered on par with MFA programs in educational quality—if not in the critical feature of terminality.

1. University of California in Davis

2. University of Southern California in Los Angeles

3. Miami University in Ohio

4. Ohio University in Athens

4. University of East Anglia in England

6. Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti

7. University of Tennessee in Knoxville

8. Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania

8. Kansas State University in Manhattan

8. University of Toronto in Canada

Many of those who attend MA programs in creative writing subsequently apply to terminal-degree creative writing MFA or doctoral programs upon graduation. Despite an ongoing dialogue as to whether MPW (Master’s of Professional Writing) degrees are considered terminal degrees in the marketplace, for the moment the two such degrees tracked by the MFA Research Project are included in the class of non-terminal creative writing master’s degrees rather than in the one-year or five-year full-residency applicant surveys. As there is little evidence yet on the question of whether or not MPWs enjoy the same regard in the field of creative writing (as to terminality) as the MFA, it has been deemed fairer to these programs and their students to assign the MPW to that class of degrees within which it is most competitive; MPW programs tend to appear on the application lists of non-terminal MA applicants more often than those of terminal-degree MFA applicants.

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, but offered at several universities in the United Kingdom.


Nothing in the MFA Index 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 the funding listing 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 2014 MFA Index takes this into account, as funding is an important factor among the current MFA applicant pool when deciding where to apply—and is also rated the number one consideration by MFA faculties themselves.

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 placed ahead of any program fully funded for all students. Likewise, no nonfully funded program placed, in the numeric ordering of programs, ahead of any program in a higher "coverage" bracket. The one exception to this rule is that programs whose funding coverage is known but unaccompanied by hard data have been reordered as indicated below.

The fifteen coverage brackets acknowledged by the hard-data funding assessment are as follows, with each number corresponding to the percentage of incoming students who are fully funded in an average admissions cycle: 100 (with hard funding data available); 90 (with hard funding data available); 100 (without hard funding data available); 100 (at a funding level below fully funded); 70 to 89 (with hard funding data available); 70 to 89 (without hard funding data available); 40 to 69 (with hard funding data available); 40 to 69 (without hard funding data available); 33 to 39 (with hard funding data available); 33 to 39 (without hard funding data available); 20 to 33 (both with and without hard funding data available); 10 to 20 (both with and without hard funding data available); 5 to 10 (both with and without hard funding data available); 0 to 10 (both with and without hard funding data available); and 0. The reason both “5 to 10” and “0 to 10” brackets were used is to distinguish between programs with variable funding lines that nevertheless fully fund some percentage of their incoming class each year, and programs with variable funding lines that in some years offer full funding to none of their incoming students.

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 MFA Index. Consistent with the structure and conceit of the table, 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 category does take into account duration of funding, as programs’ funding packages were assessed for this category by multiplying average annual package value by the duration of each program in years. Other than for the deduction of outstanding tuition costs (as described above), 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 a thousand dollars, and usually less than five hundred dollars—from their annual stipends. These fees were not considered in the funding listing. 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: 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 MFA Index’s selectivity category 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 most recently reported total annual applicant pool across all genres.

The relative paucity of data available for the selectivity listing—acceptance rates are available for 126 of the 234 MFA programs worldwide (54 percent; however, dozens of these data-unavailable programs were too new to have produced reliable admissions trends yet)—is partly 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 2013 suggest that a program's acceptance rate is one of the five pieces of information applicants most frequently seek out when researching a graduate creative writing program. Fortunately, all but five of the 78 programs with an MRP Index of three, four, five, six, or seven (thus, 94 percent of such programs) have made their annual acceptance rates public either directly or indirectly.

The small number of low-residency programs with publicly accessible acceptance rates makes crafting a selectivity listing for such programs difficult. Of the 24 programs (38 percent of all low-residency programs) with available data, several have available admissions data only from the 2007–2008 admissions cycle or earlier. Fortunately, of the 16 programs in this group most popular among applicants, 14 (88 percent) have available admissions data. Moreover, the three most popular programs (in the view of applicants) have all released data from one of their past three admissions cycles.

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 program websites and the Poets & Writers MFA Programs database, student-faculty ratios were calculated for the 140 full-residency MFA programs (82 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 listing, unlike others in the MFA Index, 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.

Student-faculty ratio is treated, here, as a presumptively orderable program element. 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 lower student-faculty ratio to a higher one—the better to have immediate and meaningful access to those charged with instructing, mentoring, and advising them.

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 past decade (2003 to 2013). 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 listing was on forty of the fellowships and residencies in this group—generally speaking, the nation's most prestigious post-MFA fellowships and residencies. For low-residency programs, the number of fellowships surveyed was forty-two—the forty surveyed for full-residency programs plus two additional residencies whose extremely brief duration implicitly caters to individuals working full-time.



I think people mistake all education with vocational training these days.  They want a certificate and a job when they finish. Money in, money out.  At Columbia, I was given time (and academic credit) for writing.  There were no teaching fellowships and no one chased after you to give you career counseling, agent counseling. There was not one single lecture on marketing your work.  Much of what I learned had to do with developing a certain angle of vision. Attitudes about my work and how to pursue my ideas with both faith and objectivity.

"academic" versus "studio" MFA program distinction

I've read comments on a couple of sites claiming that the so-called studio-versus-academic distinction regarding MFA programs was created by the AWP. If so, that's too bad. It's an unfortunately misleading distinction.

What does "academic" mean? I attended one of those so-called academic programs, where certain courses were modeled after earlier courses at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where one of the co-founders of my program studied under Donald Justice in the 1960s. Our "Form and Theory of Fiction" and "Form and Theory of Poetry" courses were modeled after courses in Iowa's MFA program, including "Form and Theory of Fiction" and its later versions under later names. In fact, here's an example:


I read a few years ago on the MFA blog a comment by one potential MFA applicant who stated that she would prefer a "studio" MFA program because she couldn't stand the thought of writing another lit crit paper.

After having read plenty of "critical theory," etc. on my own in an effort to figure out what all this jargon-laden prose by contemporary lit scholars was saying, I became determined to never write such a paper EVER. The sole reason I didn't major in English (I majored in "analytic" philosophy instead) is that I was appalled by the obscurantist writing that characterized so much of the scholarship I'd come across in literary theory, and I didn't think I would benefit from any course that would reward me for writing that badly.

And had I been expected to write such papers in my "academic" MFA program, I would have left the program after one semester. Fortunately, the focus was on craft, not Derrida or post-structuralism, etc, etc.

So in case anyone fears the more "academic" programs, rest assured that at least SOME of those programs won't torture you by making to write a Marxist or feminist or Foucauldian analysis of "Sense and Sensibility." (As physicist Alan Sokal demonstrated, one can be politically liberal, or "progressive," without embracing the ideas of the “academic left.”)

the claim that creative writing can't be "taught"

I'd like to avoid altogether referring to Seth Abramson, the creator of this system of "rankings," but he's created such a world for himself around his views on MFA programs that it's impossible for me to avoid referring to his other comments on the topic--or impossible to avoid if I'm to again raise questions about the wisdom of his system and about the wisdom of Poets & Writers for advocating the system's worthiness. 

Abramson has a habit of proclaiming that something is true and then assuming, as if through magical thinking (or so it seems to some of us), that the mere the stating of the idea therefore makes it true.

One of those truisms of his: that being a good writer has little or nothing to do with being a good writing teacher. Yet, he provides utterly no evidence for that claim--not even his own anectdotal evidence.

Here's my own anedtodal (experience-based) evidence:

With one exception, all the good writers I had as writing teachers were very good writing teachers. True, it's not necessarily the case that a good writer would be a good writing teacher. But unless the teacher has an emotional problem, is self-centered (and, therefore, uninterested in students' needs), or has some other emotional/social/psychological reason she cannot communicate her ideas orally or in writng to students, it would make sense that good writers would tend be good readers and good at expressing themselves in language about the art of (say) fiction writing and, therefore, would make good writing teachers.

Having an asute reader is vital to learning to write well. 

Rust Hills wasn't a fiction writer but he was a great fiction editor (meaning, a smart fiction reader) and, therefore, a good writing teacher:


On the other hand, good fiction writers tend to think about what they're doing and--barring some bizarro problem with their abilty to work with other human beings--tend to be (if they communicate even a tenth as well outside their writing as they do in their writing) perfect candidaties for being good writing teachers.

I'd like to see us rid ourselves of this romatic/romanticized notion that writing teachers are pretty much irrelvant in these programs.

Oh, and by the way: I, like many other voracious readers when we were young, was able to read astutely long before I entered an MFA program (even though I didn't major in English!). Although the sprouting of more and more MFA programs would serve Abramson's purposes well, the idea that MFA programs should increase in number so that Americans can become better readers of literature is not only absurd when we look at literary history--including the history of readership--in the U.S. but also conspicuously self-serving on Abramson's part.   

Abramson's expertise on MFA programs and literature

Also, Abramson has claimed that he's acquired special expertise on MFA programs, and Poets & Writers editors have quickly supported/defended that claim. Yes, he's got some numbers down--though those numbers don't satisfy either a doctoral-level mathematician or statistician I've talked to about this.

The problem is that, in a broad range of areas, he doesn't display great expertise:

1) He shows an almost obsessive need to classify things: literature, writing teachers, periods in the history of poetry... 

But the difficulty with a tendecy to classify that intensely is that it veers increasingly toward over-classification--and, as many people realize, overclassification often leades to oversimplification.

Seth Abramson is trying to learn about the history of poetry, and I laud him for that effort, but he so often gets that history wrong. And his rather grandiose claims about the worthiness of MFA programs does next to nothing to elevate the status of MFA programs in the eyes of those who didn't attend one. Pre-Seth, we had Dana Gioia as the main detractor of MFA programs. I seems obvious to me that as more of these programs have sprouted, the more resistence I'm seeing among "literary" (and I mean that in the best sense) poets and witers who didn't get an MFA. And to be honest, had my first encounters with MFA programs been with Abramson's description of them, I would have likely regarded the whole phenomenon with much more suspicion.

As it is, Abramson sometimes seems like a kid who's just encountering a whole new history of poetry, but his reaction seems to be an over-simplified thinking about that history

His latest view on the future of poetry: Metamodernism is taking over lierature--or lit crit? (It's an intersting conclusion for someone who supports the ideal of the "studio" program where no "analysis" takes place.)


And while this exchange is clever on the surface, it's also worth reading because it shows that literary history is messy and complex:


By the way, the latest (as far as I can tell) fad in lit crit is "neuro lit crit." My favorite sentence from this particuar article:

"Given that many philosophers saw critical theory as a way for English professors to do philosophy really badly, it should not come as a surprise to find that some with a keen understanding of neuroscience are deeply skeptical of this attempt to say something new about old books." 


about the value of the MFA

I was in a dark hole-in-the-wall corner of a restaurant when I wrote my last post, but I nonetheless apologize for the typos, etc. therein. (If there's a spellcheck on this site's keyboard, I missed it).

A New Yorker piece from 2009 about the many attempts to define or explain the worth and purpose of the MFA program in creative writing:


Based on the accounts of two people I know who got their MFAs at Iowa, former director Frank Conroy didn't appear to believe that faculty ought to just "get out of the way" of students and let things happen, creatively. (And WERE that truly the case for the faculty at Iowa's writing program, the university might want to consider putting those same faculty members' salaries toward another use.) Anyway, Conroy was known to sometimes say to a student (and in front of that student's classmates) some things that certain others in the class saw as emotionally damaging. In any case, Conroy was, apparently, never known for "getting out of the way" and leaving any discussion of a story's merits solely to the students in a particular workshop. 


"Beautiful prose in the service of what?" That's the sentence one Iowa-alum friend of mine described Conroy as saying when the prose in a story that was being workshopped was lovely but nothing of consequence was actually happening in the story. My friend, who saw Conroy as sometimes very unkind to students, has still said, all these years later, that he "learned" a great deal about story-telling from being in Conroy's workshops.

Besides Stop-Time, his memoir (written before the memoir became hip and widely marketable), Conroy's work includes the short story Midair (first published in a collection by that name), and it's astonishingly good--one I've read three or four times in the past 15 years.


After reading your post, I would like to talk to you and get your advice. When it comes to an MFA and Critical Theory, NH Institute of Art is big on that....I applied and got in....now I am strongly wondering if this will help me.....I applied to Lesley as well. What are your thoughts about both programs? Which one is better???


What Seth still seems to fail to grasp is that what he calls "selectivity" is really just the school's acceptance rate. A school that generally draws less qualified applicants but has (or claims to have) a 5 or 10% acceptance rate is not going to be as "selective" as a school that attracts much more qualified applicants and has the same acceptance rates as the first school. He never makes that distinction.

Of course, it would be hard to compare the quality of current MFA students in one program with those in another on the basis of any clearly quantitative measurement.