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Top fully funded creative writing mfa programs

The “MFA Alternative”: the Best Option for Busy Writers

When I attended my excellent MFA program, I stopped, dropped everything, took on massive loans, and moved across the country for two years. I’d never done any of that before and it seemed dashing, sexy. And because I was in my 20s, it was.

Now, some years later (we’ll just leave it at that), I have a family and a job I love, a mortgage I don’t, and sexy has become a very relative term. Were I to want such an education at this time in my life, it would not be an option.

The distance has given me perspective. It’s clear that beyond the degree, what makes MFA programs so coveted is the rigorous education, consistent support from instructors and peers, and the opportunity to make writing an integrated part of a writer’s life they offer—all of which, it turns out, are achievable through alternative means.

Creating Your Own MFA-Style Opportunity

In a recent interview with R.B. Young, creator of the video series “Write Ideas”, I talked about how I built One Lit Place to offer writers this exact “MFA Alternative” model. As a full-service writers’ center, we have a solid infrastructure of courses and workshops designed for different levels and interests, provide one-on-one mentorship and editing to help writers realize their projects and prepare for publication, and offer the opportunity for conversation and continual connection with fellow writers, so writers are able- 24/7- to be amongst their own.

However unlike with an MFA where you have to put your life on hold for two years, or make a “radical lifestyle choice,” as chairman of the Columbia University Writing Program, Timothy Donnelly, calls it, One Lit Place’s programming fits organically into a writer’s life.

I have seen over the years how critical it is for all writers- myself included- to have a steady stream of education, community, and support. An MFA offers all of this in a packaged solution; however, recognizing that getting an MFA is not a realistic option for everyone, I created something that would give all writers the chance to have education and support in ways that respect the parameters of their lives and their writing goals in equal measure.

Why MFA?

It’s a well circulated idea that a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) is the gold standard of literary education. You spend two or three years living and breathing writing craft, reading mountains of excellent literature, and discussing theory and practice with mentors and other writers until dawn. For that period of time, you’re in deep, living the student writer’s life to a factor of 37.

For a writer, it’s heaven.

But even if you want it, it’s not always feasible to up and leave and/or shut down your normally scheduled programming, and pay anywhere from $20,000-$100,000+, to immerse yourself in a two-year program.

While the degree does indeed open doors, so does writing acumen achieved through practice, productivity, and perseverance.

If you look at a list of famous writers, you’ll see that most who lived prior to the invention of the MFA (Iowa Writers’ Workshop, 1936) were probably pretty OK writers, and nowadays, there are just as many household names who don’t have one (J.K. Rowling, Colson Whitehead, Elizabeth Gilbert) as those who do.

Low/Optional Residency Programs

Still, if earning a degree inside of a very intense two-year period is still what you’re after, there are MFA programs that offer Low or Optional Residency. These provide the full breadth of courses, workshop, mentorship and community, but rather than being a full-time student in residence, you can do most of the work online.

The “low” part typically takes place during summer, spring break, and December holidays when you’re required to fly to the school’s campus and fulfill the residency requirement, and the more unique “optional” recommends students physically join their peers during the residency periods, but it’s not required.

Got Time? In for a Penny = In for an 80-Hour Work Week

To be clear, you’re earning that degree. Getting an MFA- whether it’s a high, low, intermediate, or otherwise residency- is a full-time job that takes place both during the application period (researching programs and funding options, studying for and passing the GRE, submitting applications and ancillary materials, applying for loans, then figuring out how to either break from your current life or carve out the necessary time so you can immerse in a new one) and then during the program itself, which as everyone will say, is intense, to say the least.

Value is Relative

Atop the intense time commitment is the financial investment. Given the cost of most MFA programs, it’s a well-known fact that unless a writer were to strike the big time, one can assume the MFA-holding writer will never, not ever, recoup that investment through writing.

MFA programs have proliferated not only because universities yearn to launch more excellent books into the world and foster a brilliant, glimmering literary canon (surely, they must). But also, these programs make serious bank for their universities.

One such high-end example is Columbia University’s MFA program. While it features top writers such as Paul Beatty, Dorothea Lasky, and Phillip Lopate among many notable others, and it is located in fabulous New York City, its tuition is now $132,616 for two years (not including living expenses).

(Yes, you may pause to read that again AND do the math. I’ll wait).

For some people, spending $265,232 + NYC living expenses for two years is no problem, but for most normal mortals, that falls outside of the realm of the possible. Most of the big name programs listed as among the Top Ten MFA Programs all fall somewhere inside of that sum, causing art critic Jerry Saltz to call Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) degrees “straight-up highway robbery”.

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Of course, there are exceptions; for example, Canadian MFA programs are much more reasonably priced than their U.S. counterparts. The University of Guelph Creative Writing MFA is approximately $12,500 for two years (CAD), or just over $30,000 for International students (which, with today’s exchange rate, is about $23,000 USD) and the University of Saskatchewan is about $8,300 CAD with teaching stipends available (or approximately $13,000 CAD for International students).

Fortunately, in the U.S., many programs do provide stipends, scholarships, and in some cases, full tuition reimbursement in exchange for teaching and mentorship. The Rutgers-Newark MFA program does this as does the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the oldest and most commonly ranked #1 writing program in the U.S. Johns Hopkins, Cornell, and many other U.S. schools offer assistance as well. (Here is a good list of mid-priced programs, some of which offer tuition assistance).

Low-residency programs are also somewhat cheaper than full-residency programs ranging from $37,926.00 for a two-year program at Antioch University in Los Angeles, or $41,000 for two years at Bennington College in Vermont (or what the heck, spend a bit more and do a two-year low-residency through NYU in Paris for $55,000), and Canada’s UBC’s “Optional-Residency MFA” is approximately $21,305 CAD.

Lastly, thank goodness, some programs are fully funded (you heard that right!) such as Syracuse University, Vanderbilt University, the University of Wisconsin and the University of Michigan (and here are a few more).

While this is fantastic, amazing news, it also means that to receive such funding, you must still live close to the university, teach courses, attend and perform at peak in your program, and contribute actively to the greater literary community through mentorship and other duties.

Is an MFA Worth It?

It goes without saying that having an MFA from an accredited university carries great street cred, and the intense and exciting education and literary opportunity that comes with the period of time spent earning it is undeniably valuable.

Yet there’s also no guarantee that shifting your life around to spend all of that time and money will launch a career. Or even a book. When you’re young and untethered, it may be just the thing. A mature learner, however, may need to ask: at what real cost is the MFA?

The DIY MFA Alternative

Getting access to community, constructive critique, mentorship, and skill building through dynamic, personalized instruction is fortunately entirely feasible on a schedule that works for people with jobs and families, and at a price point that is for most much more … not bat shit crazy. (Sorry; I could have said “fiscally reasonable,” but the former felt more appropriate.)

One Lit Place was designed to integrate writing, learning, and connection with writers and mentors into writers’ lives; after all, all of our smart, interesting instructors and editors are working writers themselves.

Our programs are online, which enables writers to integrate them into their lives and always have the education and conversation available, and our mentors work with writers to create a tailored schedule that both pushes and respects the writer’s boundaries. Our Writers Lounge is available 24/7 for conversation, ideas sharing, or break-out groups to exchange work, talk shop, or just hang out.

Whether you want to bring more writing and connection with writers into your life or are craving a more immersive MFA Alternative, we are here to help you DIY a program that will join you to your goals.

Check out our upcoming writing course & workshop line up, including our Write Your Novel/Narrative Nonfiction Book in 4 Months Program, our customized writing coaching & editing , and feel free to be in touch any time. We would love to chat with you about your writing ambitions and projects and help you make them a reality.

10 MFA Programs for the Budget-Conscious

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It’s well-worn advice by now that you shouldn’t go into debt for an MFA. But how can you avoid it? Every year, the limited fully-funded programs—think Michener Center for Writers, Rutgers, Cornell, Brown, Purdue, Iowa, Johns Hopkins—receive a flood of applications. Fully-funded MFA programs at Syracuse University and Hunter admit around 6% and 2% of applicants, respectively.

Statistically, it’s a simple fact that not every writer who feels committed to completing an MFA will find a seat in a fully-funded program—and those application fees add up. For example, Vanderbilt’s fee is $85 and Boston University’s is $95. Plus, even at full funding, location matters, as living on a graduate student’s salary has wildly different implications in different housing markets; some “fully funded” students do end up taking out loans to bridge the gap between stipends and what it means to pay rent.

Highly selective programs with extensive funding can be a gift for writers, but you also need a backup plan. This isn’t about thinking of MFA safety schools, but rather applying widely to programs that are a good fit both academically and financially. There are over 160 residential MFA programs in the United States, all of which have a different mix of aid and aesthetic. Even if full funding is not advertised, at some schools, you may still get it.

No matter what you get from the Registrar’s office, for any offer of admission, prospective students should ask to speak to current enrollees and recent grads and do as much vetting as possible. No program is perfect.

With that in mind, here are 10 programs for the cost-conscious to get started with, based on the institution’s financial transparency and publicly available data.

Butler University

Indianapolis, where Butler University is located, boasts a low cost of living in what is still a relatively major city, Indiana’s largest. As a private school, residency conditions do not apply, and Butler’s tuition and fees run about 16K a year. The MFA was established in 2008 and matriculates upwards of 15 students annually. There are a wide variety of scholarships available, including many that are not linked to instruction. Butler offers some paid teaching positions for second year students; in any given cohort, about half of enrollees would be eligible. As a university founded in a Christian religious tradition, Butler may not be right for everyone, even though its mission and degree programs (including the MFA) are firmly secular. However, with funding, this very small school can be an economical choice in a Midwest capital.

Eastern Washington University

Founded in 1978, the Eastern Washington University program offers full and partial funding for many students in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. A land-grant institution in Washington state that is closer to Idaho than Seattle, the MFA is housed in Spokane, a small walkable city with low living costs. A two year program, students who are not fully funded in their first year through a teaching assistantship have a chance to get second-year funding and stipend through community-based programs and publishing, including with the literary journal Willow Springs Magazine. EWU’s tuition is on the lower end, at $12,704 a year. Through a western states partnership, those who reside in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, or Nevada do not have to establish residency. A unique aspect of EWU is that classes are largely held in the evenings, making it possible to hold a day job if needed.

University of Florida, Gainesville

The University of Florida, Gainesville MFA program is a fully funded three-year program, and receives upwards of 500 applications a year. It admits only six students in each genre of poetry and fiction. Founded in 1949, UF is a well-ranked, established program and has maintained the very low application fee of $30. The town of Gainesville, in the central panhandle of Florida, is an inexpensive place to live, making it likely that a stipend will in fact cover living costs. UF is a very pedagogically focused school. It prioritizes permanent faculty rather than visiting writers or temporarily appointed professors to deliver instruction, and the admissions statement is clear that applicants are selected on what the committee sees as potential to develop through the course of study. The program emphasizes world literature, and over half of its faculty are bilingual and born outside America.

Long Island University

If you absolutely have to be in New York, take a look at Long Island University. Located in Brooklyn, this school has ample paid internship opportunities at PEN World Voices Festival, the National Book Foundation, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, among others. LIU also offers teaching assistantships that will offset costs. Tuition is half that of other NYC-based schools like Columbia, which is highly relevant for those students who may pay some out of pocket. As a private school, state residency requirements do not apply. Founded in 2007, LIU’s MFA has programs in poetry, fiction, playwriting, creative nonfiction, and cross-genre projects. New York is, of course, extremely expensive, so applicants must balance funding against cost of living. With a $50 application fee, for those who feel strongly about being in the epicenter of American publishing, LIU may be worth the relatively low initial cost.

McNeese State

Established in 1982, the McNeese State University MFA offers all who are admitted some level of funding, though it does not provide free rides. By their own metrics, MSU students enrolled in the MFA pay about $1,500 per semester for three years. The application process begins at no cost—prospective students are not asked to contribute any application fees or paperwork until after they are accepted. This is a positive model that helps students understand if they are a good fit before committing to fees or devoting time to formal applications. Prospective students should send in their work in poetry or fiction, their statement of purpose, and an additional letter spelling out one’s interest in teaching introductory composition. MSU is in Lake Charles, Louisiana, a gulf town about halfway between Houston and New Orleans with a very low cost of living. Demographically, Lake Charles is nearly 50% Black. MSU as a university enrolls more female identified students and employs more female identified faculty than average, making it a highly diverse option.

University of Mississippi

Founded in 2000, the fully-funded program at the University of Mississippi Oxford is free to apply to, and the phased application is very low stakes. Email in a writing sample along with a statement of purpose essay, and the first part of the application is done. Much like other Gulf schools, it’s only once these initial materials are reviewed are some students asked to move to Phase II, which requires filling out the graduate application and providing letters of reference. In many ways, applying to UM is like submitting to a literary magazine or pitching agents. Applicants will only hear back and be asked for additional materials if the committee is interested. UM offers funded positions that do not involve teaching, and specifically earmarks financial aid for students of underrepresented groups. Oxford is a diverse city that is approximately 22% Black.

University of New Hampshire

The University of New Hampshire’s program is newer, founded in 2007. It is very small and also very selective. Graduate school tuition rates were $14,170 in 2020. Residents of Rhode Island receive a discount. UNH has a reputation of being very community-minded, the kind of school where students celebrate on another’s successes. An advantage of UNH is the availability of paid internships in research and communications, and stipend positions at the literary magazine, Barnstorm. Top applicants will receive tuition waivers and a stipend through teaching fellowships. Durham, New Hampshire, has a high cost of living for such a small city, but in contrast, the housing costs in Boston, about an hour away, are 60% more than this college town.

Texas State University

The Texas State University MFA, founded in 1991, is a large program, with upwards of 70 candidates enrolled at any given time. The cost of living in San Marcos, located between San Antonio and Austin, is slightly lower than the national average. While TXST is technically only partially funded, 90% of applicants receive full funding, a hefty percentage. In-state tuition rates are $8664 annually, but essentially no students pay the full balance. While 75% of candidates are from outside of Texas, the university has a generous out of state waiver that is not contingent on residency. In 2019, this applied to 100% of students, suggesting that while not guaranteed, getting a waiver is highly achievable. If not offered full funding, note that TXST is a 3-year program, which could potentially increase costs and delay entry into the job market by a year. The university is designated as a Hispanic Serving Institute, with 25% of enrolled students identifying as Hispanic or Latinx.

University of Texas, El Paso

University of Texas, El Paso has both a residential and a fully online program; this section covers the residential course of study. Since 1992, UTEP has enrolled a cohort of a dozen MFA students, and like other Texas-based programs, it is a 3-year course of study. That said, this program has the lowest tuition of any program on this list, at $6600/year. Graduate stipends pay $1200 per month for ten months, which is fairly average, but put in context of El Paso’s extraordinarily low cost of living, those dollars will stretch much farther than in other cities. UTEP is distinctive in that it offers a bilingual English/Spanish MFA, though bilingualism is not required of any applicant. Classes draw on both Spanish and English texts, and the program offers support for student matters like housing and financial aid in both languages. The campus is located near a shared border crossing with Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

St Mary’s College

The St. Mary’s College program refreshingly focuses on life after an MFA and publishes statistics on the careers of its graduates. All incoming students are funded at 40–50% of tuition in their first year, and a smaller percentage in their second year. This brings tuition costs at this private school down to something that is more in line with a public school, with no penalty for not having California residency—although note that attending SMC means living in San Francisco, which is more expensive than New York. All students are invited to apply for graduate teaching assistantships, which offer an additional stipend. SMC is an option for students who are interested in interdisciplinary work, as there is funding for dual-concentration students who may take three years to complete their degree. The college also provides paid internships with Lambda Literary, Kearny Street Workshop, Hedgebrook, and is notably LBGTQIA+ friendly. Without a full portfolio of funding, St Mary’s can be unreachable for many, but because it has a free application process, it’s worth seeing where an application shakes out in the funding hierarchy.

A comprehensive list of MFA programs from Poets & Writers can be found here.

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