September 15th, 2011 / 4:18 pm

The One MFA Program to Rule Them All

Scott Kenemore is very angry that his beloved Columbia University has fallen to #47 in the Poets & Writers MFA rankings and he’s going to tell you exactly why Columbia has the awesomest MFA program in all the world.

1. Columbia is expensive and that makes it awesome.

2. Fancy writers teach at Columbia and that makes it awesome.

3. Writers who go to cheaper schools end up selling chapbooks in quantities of 500 (?) and teaching at those terrible regional universities in fly-over states so Columbia is awesome.

4. He has written six novels! All his Columbia friends are equally successful. Even though you may not be able to name one of his six books, Columbia is awesome.

5. Only writers who attend Columbia (or the one school he considers superior, Iowa) have genitals. The rest of you have the smooth plastic of  Barbie and Ken so Columbia is awesome.

6. Unlike the thousands of writers at other MFA programs, or heaven forbid those writers who dare to write without the degree, students at Columbia want to be successful so Columbia is awesome.

7. The MFA rankings should include a category for manuscript placement and FOUR FIGURE advances so Columbia is awesome. (That last idea, minus the suggested prestige of a four figure advance is a good one.)

To summarize, Columbia is the awesomest and only MFA program worth attending if you are a serious, important writer. Other than Iowa.

Here is a rational, smart response to all this MFA ranking business (via Hobart’s Tumblr). 


  1. DD

      I actually do think that ranking programs based on alumni success would make a lot mores sense than teaching placement or an unscientific poll on a blog. Columbia’s funding sucks, but the writers I’ve known from there have had a huge degree of success. 

  2. Roxane

      Alumni success could be a key and useful factor to include in the rankings. I don’t really care about the rankings because I don’t have a stake but most people agree the rankings are deeply flawed. This guy’s argument though, does more to insult people and make him look a bit off than to make a compelling case. I kind of think the article is satirical. I think he writes satirical zombie books so that would make sense. I need it to make sense.

  3. DD

      Also, while this guys’ tone is pretty silly (as is the idea that it is “so” worth the money), the response letter (not to this, but to the initial thing) by Poets and Writers was one of the dumbest things I’ve read. They didn’t even attempt to address the criticism. 

  4. DD

      I wouldn’t say it is a useful factor, I’d say it is about the only useful factor as far as “ranking” goes unless you wanted to rank reputation. Funding is very important to note, but I think that is a much more individual thing. For example, some people get full funding at Columbia. Some people at highly funded programs get nothing. You should make a funding decision when you know what funding you have. 

  5. Bucho

      what a self-righteous douche rocket. i imagine if i were a one-trick pony writing only about zombies in all of my books, i could probably justify having an ego too.

  6. Dude

      This guy thinks of himself as someone who thrives in the world of American letters even though all of his books are cheesy, trend-chasing novelty zombie books that are prominently displayed in the 80% off section of Barnes & Noble.

  7. Nick Mamatas

      The trick would be not only to compare alumni success between programs, but to compare the program success to the success of authors who haven’t attended a program. 

  8. karl taro

      he’s strident and vain, but in there somewhere is an interesting notion: that Columbia teaches how to make a living as a writer versus how to become a writing teacher, and that writing programs should somehow be judged for the former as well as the latter. 

  9. Guest

      Who cares about all this MFA bullshit! Okay MFA GIANT! ANYONE who teaches Creative Writing(.)should be ashamed of themself.

  10. DD

      I dunno if Columbia teaches students that more or less than other programs, but it seems likely only in the last few years have people started thinking MFA programs as merely some kind of way to get a teaching job. Wasn’t the entire point to be a writer? To publish books? To have readers? 

      The idea of ranking programs based on who becomes writing teachers is crazy.

  11. Bucho

      i just finished my MFA at the University of San Francisco and i can assure you that there was more emphasis on living as a writer than there was on any aspect of teaching the writing. personally, i plan on teaching as well, so i took the more academic seminars to put me in that direction, but overall the program looked at us students as writers first.

      obviously i can’t speak for other programs across the country, just my own experience over the last two years.

  12. Trey

      (  .)(  .)


  13. Trey

      (  .)(  .)


  14. Nick Mamatas

      Except that one of the best ways to make a living as a writer is to keep one’s personal expenses down.

      One of the best way to keep one’s personal expenses down: don’t take out enormous loans.

  15. Shannon

      Watching people talk about this from a way outside of/no access to MFA programs in general has been very interesting. It makes me wonder do these rankings really matter that much? Do people choose their programs based on rankings and how big or existent the genitals of their potential teachers are? I have so many questions, the whole experience is so foreign to me.

  16. MFBomb

      The idea that the MFA could “lead toward a teaching job” is becoming a thing of the past, because of the advent of PhD programs in Literature and Creative Writing.  Today, if you choose the MFA as your terminal degree, you better have 1-2 books to overcome your lack of formal training in literature (the days when creative writers could expect to teach a a 2/2 load of graduate workshops are fading rapidly, and more MFA applicants are aware of this reality than ever before). How many people leave their MFA programs with 1-2 books already published? No one.  So the idea doesn’t even make sense. 

  17. Nathan Huffstutter

      Dude, I respect that you walk it like you talk it and juggle fiction, journalism, and everything else that goes into writing as a living-wage profession, but once you get past the laugh-factor of Googling Kenemore’s catalogue, something really sick about his argument sinks in. Not how ill it is that he had to go to an elite program to learn to write those novels; not even the diseased arithmetic where he mentions taking on 45 grand in student loans because authors have the right to expect to make “thousands” for finished work – but the foundation of his case is prioritizing “manuscript placement” as a ranking factor for programs. We just blew Labor Day in a tizzy over whether it was okay for poets to cough up a few bucks to see their work hit the street – and 45 G.’s for “manuscript placement?” That’s the lesson on what it takes to make a living as a writer? Hrmmm.

  18. weevil

      so you can get full funding to CU after your first year (through the english department) and teach in their comp program. you get tuition, stipend, free insurance and an extra year. a great deal, hard to get, and you still have to pony up for the first year’s tuition. 

  19. MFBomb

      …which is why I like PhD programs in Lit/CW right now.  RIGHT NOW is the perfect time to attend such a program, because they’re so new and aren’t competing with each other left and right.  You can’t really “rank” the PhD programs because a top 20 list would contain most if not all of the programs.  You don’t hear Texas Tech grads arguing with Nebraska grads about what program is better, has more successful alumni, etc., blah blah blah. People go to these programs to become more versatile teachers, scholars, thinkers, and receive 4-5 years of funded writing time to boot.  People in MFA programs often get 24 months and then plenty of time afterward to haggle over stupid rankings. 

  20. DD

      My understanding is that they offer full tuition to a few students starting first year now. Their funding has increased in the last few years. 

  21. Gus

      title and image on this post are SO GOOD

  22. Lomez

      But do the rankings actually matter, other than as a measure of genital size? Serious question.

      Do publishers look at these rankings and use them to determine which manuscripts they’ll give serious consideration to? Do English dept.’s use them for hiring? I’ve heard that it’s common for publishers to have a special pile for Irvine, Columbia, and Iowa grads (despite what any rankings might say). Can anyone speak to this?

      Or is this just about saying, “Yeah, dad, I know it’s imagination college, but my program is ranked 3rd in the country!”

  23. weevil

      yeah it’s painful to those of us who paid. i wonder how CU will move up in these sorts of ranks as they fund more and more students and super high tuition can’t dominate the discussion

  24. Leapsloth14

      Can I just say as a full-time RN entering my MFA program, it did matter. I had, finally, TIME. Years to read and write. A divorce from the real world. I found it unbelievable.

      Having said so, an MFA is one way to carve out time for writing. Academia and writing is a just a tiny sub-set of writing. I wrote as a nurse, too. I was just a much more tired writer.

  25. DD

      I don’t know anyone in the publishing world (editors, agents, etc.) that take these rankings seriously at all. But I’m sure they affect where students apply so matter to applicants and MFA programs. 

  26. Leapsloth14

      MFA programs should be ranked on:

      Funding. This just makes cents. Do not pay for
      an MFA. Have them pay you, poorly, just enough for coffee/beer/rent/(—). I would rather sell novelty staplers to farmers than pay for an MFA. If they will not pay you, take that as a clue. Most jobs allow time for writing.

      How big are the trees? I like big-ass trees on
      campus. Like oaks and shit. Like trees older than my dad. It is important.

      How long can you live off the capitalistic grid?
      At Bama they gave us a ridiculous 4 years. That’s crazy, but aim for 3.

      Will they let you edit a magazine? Will they let
      you work for a press? Will they let you design books? Or manage the finances of a magazine? This whole “They train you to teach thing” I never saw, personally.
      Sure, they farmed us out to teach comp, but so what? That’s just business. If teaching was your dish, cool. But there are many other avenues. Creativity is
      actually valuable. It’s like being funny. Comedians used to be under-valued,
      too, like skateboarders—freaks, right? Right. They now own every sit-com and
      clothing line in the world.

      Nearby bars that give discounts to writing
      students because they love books. (Bama had two)

      Genre. Go to the programs that don’t give a shit
      what genre you write, or how you mix/blend, etc. Others get all uptight on said
      issue. Fuck them.

      Highways. You need to have at least one major
      highway nearby. Highways are great for story material. And to enter and leave

      Do they serve alcohol at university functions?
      The good ones will. Raiding university functions is an art and science that EVERY
      grad student must learn. Wow, the carrot/ranch dip/red wine dinners I have
      enjoyed. Sort of like:

      How near is the Mexican restaurant? For grad
      students, eating the free chips and milking a beer is many a dinner.

      I’m kidding, somewhat. Who the fuck reads MFA rankings? Think hard before going anywhere. OR ask yourself, “Can’t I write just fine without academia?” Yep. BUT, if you want TIME and a group of people who DIG WRITING, this is one way to go. One way. So.

  27. MFBomb

      There are all sorts of urban legends about “special piles” in publishing houses, but I doubt such piles actually exist.  Publishers do not have time to create special little slush piles for Iowa grads or writers from MS or NC (another urban legend is that houses have an affinity for writers from these two Southern states). 

  28. Dawn.

      If I was considering an MFA program (which I’m not, but maybe I will at some point, who knows), only three things would matter to me: 1) funding, 2) alumni manuscript placement, and 3) location. Nothing else matters IMO.

  29. Eliot

      It’s too bad his article is so focused on Columbia and not on the larger issue, which is that the methodology Seth Abramson uses to construct these rankings is completely dishonest and misleading. These rankings are indeed a sham, but not just because they screw over Columbia. Just too bad he had a big national forum like Slate to expose this and he chose to make it about one program.

  30. Marc

      The amount of money Scott Kenemore went into debt for his MFA at Columbia is the same amount my fellowship at Texas State University-San Marcos paid me to sit on butt and write for three years. It was kind of an “august” fellowship. Dick.

  31. Danieltagger

      Can I say, as someone who went to Columbia, that 500 chapbooks is a ridiculously long run. This guy’s an idiot and there’s a better way to talk about what’s good about that program and it doesn’t start by saying what’s bad about the P&W rankings is that Columbia’s not number 2. 

  32. deadgod

      ha ha ha

      pre-, primary, secondary, tertiary . . . and vanity education

      (. . . tertiary – and even earlier – is sometimes vanity

      but you don’t always get a vanity degree)

      ‘I got an MV from poop chute u that launched me into the real world of publishing majesteriality’

  33. deadgod

      Teachers? or a teacher?

  34. Francois Luong

      I earn a four-figure fee just translating a bad screenplay, so his four-figure advance on a book contract really makes me laugh.

  35. Gomez X


      P&W ranked the phds too. There are dozens of them, actually. Like over 40 now.
      So both your claims are off. And all the haggling still happens in the phds too.

  36. MFBomb


      Do you know who you’re talking to? “Do you know who I am?!?!?!” [/Tom Cruise voice] I’m a CW PhD student. I think I might know a thing or two. 

      P&W/Seth have been ranking PhDs for a few years, but no one pays attention to the rankings and even Seth has admitted on his blog how difficult it is to “rank” only a handful of programs (even 40, the number you cite, which I’ll get to in a minute, is a very small number). I’ve also followed discussions of PhD programs online for some time and have yet to see much haggling between Ohio U grads and UW-M grads, but maybe you can point me to such debates and the ensuing shitstorms they caused? Most shitstorms involving PhDs come from either MFAs who are insecure with their own degrees or people who think a CW PhD is just a longer MFA program. 

      And those “40” programs you mention that are often listed by Seth and P&W? Many have strange or loose wording about the option of creative writing dissertations, one is Wisconsin, a program that magically became a CW PhD program once Seth enrolled there, and programs that barely (if at all) advertise themselves as programs. 

  37. dinty@brevity

      Roxane is my hero.

  38. jdizzle

      Do your art wherever and however you damn well feel.

  39. Nick Noble

      Hah! My program had media celebrities who couldn’t teach for shit, but were constantly plucking the ripe fruit of young, female MFA incomers, avant guarde poets who screwed their workshop members while critiquing their poetry, and a few badasses who actually cared about the writing.

  40. deadgod

      To decompensate is an excellent neologism of (to my knowledge) hers.

  41. BoomersMustDie


  42. Mike Young

      this is actually the best MFA advice that’s ever appeared / good work addressing the mexican restaurant factor / umass amherst has Bueno, which isn’t a mexican restaurant, but it’s so cheap and filling

  43. Roxane

      All major life decisions should be triangulated by Mexican restaurants.

  44. LoanMoaner

      For anyone is in debt (federal debt that is): has information about the various mild government repayment programs, including the one that discharges debt in 10 years for non-profit and government workers (i.e. all professors, among other things)

      Private debt for an MFA is horrible idea, but payments capped at 15 percent of income might change the equation for people.

  45. John Minichillo

      Maybe this is karmic payback for Columbia’s publishing course, which has polluted the earth with agents.

  46. Cvan

      Does it make more sense if you consider that the Columbia ranking was all due to James Franco’s book or is that just a snarky overreach?

  47. Cvan

      John, see, there are points on which we can be in perfect agreement.  This is sure one of them.

  48. Cvan

      Never having heard of Scott Kenemore, I looked him and his books up.  This is what Columbia prepares one for?  Never has a greater ocean existed than that between the ridiculous cover art and the oh-so-serious author photo.  And yes, this is ad hominem, but good lord, zombies and pretension?!

  49. Ben Segal

      one important thing that should be mentioned is that columbia is a huge program. in terms of admissions, this makes them somewhat less selective than many other popular programs, simply because of the # of spots. selectivity is one of the primary means by which most school rankings (p&w or otherwise) are compiled. in terms of selectivity, columbia was not one of the top 50 most selective schools in the country. one could argue that, given its selectivity, size, and poor funding, columbia’s reputation is significantly stronger than hard numbers suggest it should be. this means that reputation of school and faculty were taken into account by the ranking.

      columbia’s size also means that, in raw numbers, more columbia mfaers are going to be publishing than, say, people from brown or syracuse, even if every single brown or syracuse grad has a book and only 10-20% of columbia grads do. further, one could argue that because of its location, faculty connections to large publishing houses, and (somewhat perversely) because of the huge debt students take on to be there, students who attend columbia are likely to be more marked-oriented than students at other programs. this is not a good or bad thing, but the fact that columbia students are self-selecting for certain writerly goals does not mean that those goals ought to be the standard by which programs in general are judged.

      this is not to say that i’m a fan of the p&w rankings. i wish that, instead of a single ranking, they made a series of lists like ‘programs that are open to experimentation,’ ‘programs with excellent teaching opportunities,’ ‘programs with strong literature/theory emphases,’ ‘programs with strong mainstream publishing connections’ etc. then applicants could figure out which of those things they wanted and and find which programs fit their needs best.

      for example, i know that, personally, a big reason to enter an mfa program was because i want to teach, so teaching opportunities were important in my search. for others, teaching is a burden they wish to avoid. i also wanted a program where formal experimentation would be encouraged and i know if i had to go to class every day and workshop would-be future bestsellers, i’d drop out within a month. many people would probably feel exactly the opposite. this is all pretty obvious stuff, but it shows how patently absurd single hierarchical rankings are.

  50. Ben Segal

       *market-oriented, not ‘marked-oriented’

  51. BoomersMustDie

      Columbia’s MFA has a different structure than most MFA programs, you’re paying to take a full-credit load at a private university of seminars and lectures alongside of your workshops. If this is not something you want, or wish to pay for, then don’t apply. If it sounds like might help your writing and you wish to borrow modestly to pay for courses along with your degree, then Columbia is a compelling choice.

  52. BoomersMustDie

      But you had to live in Texas for three years

  53. BoomersMustDie

      And $15K/year kind of sucks if you had to teach a clatch of retards

  54. Nick Mamatas

      Are they hiring?

  55. MFBomb

      Yeah, it must suck to live in a town 30 minutes a way from Austin, and in a state w/ no income tax. 

  56. Marc

      No teaching requirement with the fellowship (hence the word fellowship and not assistant ship). But, hey, they also gave me a TAship (like stackable coupons!) because I wanted to teach and I enjoyed teaching my “clatch of retards,” many of whom were first generation college students, the polar opposite of the entitled rich kids who have nothing better to do than revel in their own ennui. 

  57. BoomersMustDie

      You aren’t going to pay much income tax on $15K no matter where you live and Austin sucks

  58. BoomersMustDie

      I know the difference, but some schools like to give ‘teaching fellowships’ so I thought I’d pry. Hey, Columbia has a course-heavy program with lots of exposure to supposedly great faculty. To many that makes it worth paying a premium…but I’m glad you found the experience you were looking for in San Marcos. I wouldn’t have chosen it but I can see how some might. 

  59. BoomersMustDie

      I’m sure you could have access to an MFA program if you so desired

  60. Marc

      Most decent MFA programs are course-heavy, offering exposure to good faculty and Texas State was no different.  Tim O’Brien, Bob Stone, ZZ Packer, and Dagobero Gilb all taught at Texas State while I was there, and in the two years before I entered the program the university brought in Denis Johnson and Barry Hannah to teach.

      No one paid a premium to study with them, at least not a Columbia-sized premium.

  61. MFBomb

      *Plenty of people would disagree w/ you that Austin “sucks.” That particular part of Texas was also good enough for Tim O’Brien. Who are you again?

      *Personally, I’m not very impressed with Columbia’s faculty, despite the big names, other than Victor Lavelle (love his work–real heart, soul, and intelligence there). But who else?  Sam Lypsyte, one of HTMLGiant’s favorite writers (big surprise)? Not digging the pomo-misogyny-ironic-thing. Gary Shteyngart? LOL. While it’s true that a good teacher should not be judged by his own work, I’m not forking over that kind of coin to work with such an overrated cast of writers, either (you’re not included in that group, Victor Lavelle). Oh, and Ben Marcus bores me to tears these days. What happened to him?

      *One can still take out loan money even w/ an asst’ship, so you could earn more than 15K if you wanted and still save a boatload of money compared to paying for Columbia. That’s okay, though–we get that you’d rather pay 2K a month to live in a 40 SQF closet and never have enough money to actual enjoy the city.  Then again, you’ll be writing 24 hours a day like most other Columbia grads, so I guess it doesn’t matter if you never leave your shoebox apartment. 

  62. MFBomb

      “teach a clatch of retards”

      So a mid-tier state university that serves many first-generation and working class students is beneath you?

      Yep, you’d definitely fit in with the vegan, trust fund hipsters at Columbia. 

  63. BoomersMustDie

      You’re such a shitty fucking troll… but whatevs…

      * Tim O’Brien is an old fart and a hasbeen. Austin is a hipster-infested sore. And it’s hot.
      * A quick glance at their website, aside from the names you mentioned: editor of Granta, James Wood, Deborah Eisenberg, Philip Lopate, Richard Howard, Lorin Stein, Heidi Julavits, Timothy Donnelly, etc etc… I mean come on, the structure of the program (i.e. charging high tuition) means bringing a lot more faculty

      * Brooklyn doesn’t cost $2000/month, and there are jobs that pay pretty nicely in NYC, and a lot more of them involve writing than tehy might in San Marcos. 

      * And who says I had to pay a dime?

  64. Pat the Guest

      After reading all you MFA tarholes I have to say I’m so glad the book is DEAD!

  65. BoomersMustDie

      Maybe I’m regionally biased but I don’t recognize a single name on your roster. Seems like a fine program — and for someone who wanted to stay put in Texas, sure why not… — but the courses aren’t really the same. Whether Columbia’s special seminars and master classes are worth the price is debatable but UT is offering something different. 

  66. BoomersMustDie

      I don’t want to teach, Roxanne… I want to write 

  67. BoomersMustDie

      You will die too but the books will still be there… 

  68. NoMoreMFA

      MFA programs are a Ponzi scheme.

  69. Pat the Guest

      That is an ignorant statement / no wonder I only read writers after they have killed themselves.

  70. MFBomb

      “tarholes”? Are you a Duke fan? If so, it would make perfect sense…

  71. MFBomb

      Do whatever you want, Junior. You obviously want a Columbia MFA badly, so go for it.  I’m beyond the MFA degree at this point and no longer need workshops. If a six-figure tuition bill will help you write a publishable story or novel, then by all means, give it a whirl. You don’t need to convince us.  I’d rather herd all of you snooty, regionalist types in one city anyway.

  72. BoomersMustDie

      Then why comment at all?

  73. Jessica

      Okay, what?  You aren’t familiar with Denis Johnson and Barry Hannah? Are you serious?

  74. John Minichillo

      Alumni success is a stacked deck. A large % of agents went to Columbia for the publishing course. Most agents court the top-tier schools. An agent doesn’t = success but it increases the likelihood by miles and miles.

  75. John Minichillo

      But there’s a key problem with alumni success: most schools will be leery about giving out info on former students, and at times, because it can take a decade or more to get a book, they may not know themselves. How would anyone effectively and authoritatively track this?

  76. DD

      Everything in life involves stacked decks. Honestly not sure what you are getting at here? If going to a certain school (say Iowa) increase your likelihood of your manuscript being taken by an agent and thus of being published, that’s a real benefit to the program at Iowa. Whether it is fair or not in some abstract sense is irrelevant here, I think. 

      Also, these rankings already take into account “fellowship placement” and “job [teaching] placement” which include plenty of deck stacking bar don’t seem remotely as relevant as actual manuscript placement. I mean, this is a degree in writing! Not a degree in fellowship getting or teaching!

  77. DD

      How is this any different than teaching job placement or fellowship placement that these rankings already have? (And again, I think few if any applicants would consider more important than actual alumni publication success) 

  78. DD

      Columbia’s faculty is probably the most impressive in the country and all the people in it actually TEACH students. Unlike a lot of other programs that hire big names for non-teaching roles or very limited teaching roles just to boost the reputation. 

  79. John Minichillo

      Oh I don’t know, if these rankings mean anything other than prestige, like say the student’s experience while in the program. You know, the educational opportunities. There’s a class element at work when prestige of the institution is the most important factor in future success of the student.

  80. John Minichillo

      There are plenty of comparable programs with respect to faculty and plenty of assumptions in this statement with respect to who is teaching what.

  81. MFBomb

      Other than at a Princeton or Harvard, it’s rare for any university to hire a writer who doesn’t “teach students.” 

      Do you have any recent examples of MFA programs who have recently hired well-known writers who don’t teach students? 

  82. MFBomb

      And those well-know writers at Princeton and Harvard aren’t teaching graduate CW students. 

      Also, a 2/2 or even a 1/1 + dissertation and thesis work is a standard teaching load for any well-regarded person in academia, regardless of field/area/discipline.

  83. Guest who

      posted this comment to the slate article, thought it could be of use to people here:

      Mr. Kenemore writes: “On top of this, when I graduated in 2002, I had about $45,000 in student loan debt.” I applied last year and was accepted into Columbia’s MFA Writing program for fiction starting Fall 2011. I was ecstatic. I had applied to eight other schools and only Columbia had accepted me. An email told me I could expect a package to be mailed to me with more info. I was offered $0 in funding was told my first year of tuition (out of a two-year program) would run approximately $75,000. I was also informed tuition was expected to go up during the second year. I inquired about work-study programs and research assistant positions that would help put me in the ballpark of even being able to think about affording attending, and was told I had (at best) a 1 in 4 chance of winning such a slot, and that competition for second-year, full-tuition-wavering teaching slots was even more fierce. I applied to Columbia (btw, a $150 application fee) because of its amazing faculty, but I just couldn’t justify what would have amounted to a SCUD missile directly impacting on my financial future. I’m verging on 30, and worked out if I had to pay ~$1,000 a month to repay necessary private and gov’t-backed loans, I’d have to earn something like $60,000 a year for just over 20 years on day one after graduation. [brag]Something I could actually do[/brag], but I doubt doing so would ever afford me the time to get any real writing done. I mean, honestly, $150k for a two-year MFA? For that kind of money, Thomas Pynchon himself would have to star in a porno I was writing and directing.

  84. Guest who

      formatting error, trying again:

      Mr. Kenemore writes: “On top of this, when I graduated in 2002, I had about $45,000 in student loan debt.” I applied last year and was accepted into Columbia’s MFA Writing program for fiction starting Fall 2011. I was ecstatic. I had applied to eight other schools and only Columbia had accepted me. An email told me I could expect a package to be mailed to me with more info.

      I was offered $0 in funding and was told my first year of tuition (out of a two-year program) would run approximately $75,000. I was also informed tuition was expected to go up during the second year. I inquired about work-study programs and research assistant positions that would help put me in the ballpark of even being able to think about affording attending, and was told I had (at best) a 1 in 4 chance of winning such a slot, and that competition for second-year, full-tuition-wavering teaching slots was even more fierce.

      I applied to Columbia (btw, a $150 application fee) because of its amazing faculty, but I just couldn’t justify what would have amounted to a SCUD missile directly impacting on my financial future. I’m verging on 30, and worked out if I had to pay ~$1,000 a month to repay necessary private and gov’t-backed loans, I’d have to earn something like $60,000 a year for just over 20 years on day one after graduation.

      [brag]Something I could actually do[/brag], but I doubt doing so would ever afford me the time to get any real writing done.

      I mean, honestly, $150k for a two-year MFA? For that kind of money, Thomas Pynchon himself would have to star in a porno I was writing and directing.

  85. BoomersMustDie

      Seriously, name one… 

  86. BoomersMustDie

      I didn’t recognize many of the names on the roster. Barry Hannah taught there in ’05 I think

  87. BoomersMustDie

      You think about pornography a great deal, don’t you?

  88. BoomersMustDie

      Hence the recent BusinessWeek article calling the MFA the new MBA (not even kidding)

  89. Anonymous

      Rather than paying six figures for tuition, why don’t they just read and edit voraciously? 

  90. Anonymous
  91. Anonymous

      Was “plucking the fruit” done to directly illustrate show, don’t tell?

  92. BoomersMustDie

      I don’t think many people going there actually pay the full tuition for two years… any way, IBR dude

  93. BoomersMustDie

      Do you recognize any of these people? Barry Hannah died (and he was allegedly in talks to join the Columbia faculty at the time, btw), maybe they seance with him once a semester at UT, but if they do it isn’t mentioned on the site.  

  94. BoomersMustDie

      Not to piss on my own shoe, but you could probably say that about Omar Pahmuk at CU

  95. BoomersMustDie

      ICM and William Morris Endeavor readers and agents assistants have told me they are instructed to set aside submissions from Iowa, Columbia, Michigan, NYU, Irvine, John Hopkins and Brown (though this is the equivalent of being automatically skipped from the sub-literate pile)

  96. MFBomb

      I call BS.  Johns Hopkins? 

      And, Brown? Brown is an experimental program. 

  97. BoomersMustDie

      Not BS, I swear… but honestly, it’s not as much of a boost as like publishing a half dozen short stories or having a prof (even a third tier toilet professor) personally recommend you

  98. BoomersMustDie

      John Hopkins is highly credited: they require a foreign language and there’s a mandatory teaching requirement but the tuition is waived)


      John Barth, Professor Emeritus: fiction.Tristan Davies, Senior Lecturer: fiction.John T. Irwin, Decker Professor in the Humanities: criticism and poetry.Brad Leithauser, Professor: fiction.Alice McDermott, Richard A. Macksey Professorship for Distinguished Teaching in the Humanities: fiction.Jean McGarry, Professor: fiction.Mary Jo Salter, Professor: poetry.Dave Smith, Elliott Coleman Professor of Poetry (Chair): poetry.Greg Williamson, Senior Lecturer: poetry.Visiting AppointmentsWayne Biddle, Visiting Associate Professor: nonfiction.Ann Finkbeiner, Visiting Associate Professor: science writing.Marc Lapadula, Visiting Assistant Professor: playwriting/screenwriting.Joint AppointmentsRichard A. Macksey, Professor (T

  99. MFBomb

      Yeah, I know, but reputation-wise, its similar to several other programs you didn’t even mention. 

  100. MFBomb

      Do you mind sharing your age? Are you published? Just wondering…

  101. BoomersMustDie

      Why give you fodder?

  102. BoomersMustDie

      Somebody else was talking about selection bias below — agent shit i’s ridiculously coastal – I mean where’s Mitchner, UHouston etc. but they like known knowns and Columbia, Iowa, NYU etc are known knowns

  103. John Minichillo

      You named quite a few yourself in this very thread. Anyone with Google and an open mind can find no shortage of seriously good programs.

  104. DD

      You are just misinformed here. Lots of friends at programs complain about faculty who don’t teach or teach very rarely at various MFA programs. 

  105. MFBomb

      I’m glad you’ve taken that anecdotal evidence from “your friends” to the bank.  I have an MFA–do you? Or, have you been spending too much time on the MFA Handbook website as a potential applicant?

      Oh, and since we’re doing the anecdotal-thing, I’ve known “lots of [primadonna]friends” at MFA programs who expected faculty to fawn all over them 24/7, and when the faculty didn’t, the faculty “didn’t teach.” 

      In today’s market and economy, the average MFA professor is not teaching one course every two years, and the ones who do are usually older, full professor types who have already put in years in higher ed, but these folks are not the norm. 

  106. MFBomb

      Fodder? I’m just curious–this topic seems to mean a great deal to you, what with you feeling the need to respond to almost every single post on the thread, it seems. I’m curious about the source of your intensity. 

  107. BoomersMustDie

      There are many good programs, but there are few programs that have as many faculty and offer as many writing courses as Columbia (b/c of the size and expense of hiring professors).

  108. BoomersMustDie

      I do just fine. The source of my intensity is likely the same as yours, I enjoy amusing myself by bothering people on the internet

  109. J.

      Things might be working out OK for you, Marc, which is no small thing. But what about the rest of your cohorts? Do many of them have books out, or stories? Do you honestly see many of them making it to the next level? Because when I visited a couple years back that was the thing I didn’t see and it scared the crap out of me.

      I was fortunate enough to have had the choice between Texas State and Columbia for fiction. And there’s never been a single day where I’ve thought: boy, I should have taken the fellowship money and moved to San Marcos. Nothing against them, they all seemed like nice people, the offer they gave me was fairly generous, and I’m sure there are more than a few writers, like yourself, who go there and are able to get something out of it.

      But the difference between the quality of the two program seemed completely unambiguous. This was across the board–faculty, peers, coursework, school prestige, even just the seriousness with which people approached writing and a general “life of the mind.” The writers I got to work with and build relationships with at Columbia was pretty mind-blowing. And if you include the “contacts”–a gross word, I’d prefer to call it “community”–poor Texas really doesn’t have a chance.

  110. DD

      This isn’t really accurate: “Most decent MFA programs are course-heavy”

      MFA programs wildly vary in the number of courses they require. Some, like Columbia, require a lot. Some require/allow only two courses a semester. 

      I won’t argue one is necessarily better than the other, but the number of courses required varies. 

  111. BoomersMustDie

      Exactly: Columbia offers a courseload of seminars and lectures about writing taught by writers, which the others don’t. Most other course-heavy programs offer a one or two writing workshops plus your pick of literature classes. Columbia has an entire curriculum built around writing.

  112. Marc

      You mean you don’t even recognize the Columbia grad? : p

  113. BoomersMustDie

      Not even her! I’m sure she’s GREAT though

  114. Marc

      No. Most do not have multiple Zombie-themed books published.

  115. Marc

      UT is not Texas State . . . thanks for playing!

  116. BoomersMustDie

      Nelly Rosario, acclaimed author of “Song of the Water Saints,” and proud professor of fiction at the great Texas State University – San Marcos appears to be Columbia SOA ’02 

  117. BoomersMustDie

      To be fair, I’m sure undergrads at TSU are a 1000x more attractive than Columbia’s

  118. Guest who

      i have the time to, since i’m not fretting over 150k of debt.

  119. 154443
  120. Literary Man

      It’s worth taking a look at the Literary Man’s defense of MFA programs in general and the Columbia MFA program in particular:

  121. BoomersMustDie

      At 60K/year, owing 150K you’d have to pay $550 a month (not $1000/month) with IBR, for 10 years with the non-profit PMLF program and 25 years otherwise. You can also try asking for a fellowship – sometimes schools will bend if you push them

  122. Guest who

      judging from this and your other comments in this thread, i’d wager that you either work for columbia or have gone to school there.

      the non-profit program you’re referring to helps forgive debt from gov’t-funded loans (see

      to go to columbia, of the 150k potential debt i would’ve incurred, approximately 50k or so of it would’ve been gov’t-funded loans.

      private loan companies are predators. this is why it was such an easy choice to not attend. not only are interest rates higher with private loans, but they’re next to impossible to get rid of if you don’t pay them off in huge chunks. student loans don’t go away if you declare bankruptcy.

      i didn’t have a spare beach-front property to sell to pay for tuition, so i didn’t go.

      re: ‘sometimes schools will bend if you push them’

      everyone i spoke to at columbia seemed nice enough (including the famed faculty member who called me with the congratulatory acceptance call), but not once did i ever feel like i was being given a rational explanation for the cost of tuition.

      i’m hesitant to speculate as to what kind of fiction writers are starting school there right now, but i wish those in similar (or worse) economic conditions as myself all the best. 

  123. BoomersMustDie

      It’s insane to take out private debt for education in my opinion, and if you’re already in so much debt that you’d max out Staffords and Pells then you’re probably making a wise decision… (FWIW interest on private loans is usually lower unless your credit is shitty) 

      Columbia, like Sarah Lawrence, Bard, New School, etc etc is expensive for many, many reasons – the biggest being that it is a professional program (housed in the School of the Arts) in a private school rather than a quasi-academic program housed in an English department. The high tuition goes to paying faculty salaries and for a long list of classes that are devoted to writing (as opposed to literature or just electives). 

      Is it worth it? Who knows… but that’s why it’s expensive.

      I don’t go to/didn’t go to/don’t work at Columbia. 

      Financial aid is mostly need-based, so if you report 60K on your FAFSA, you’re going to get screwed… 

  124. Guest who

      talking to current and former students when i was making a decision, i got the impression that columbia is a great place to teach, as well as a great place to study if you’re wealthy.

      if money is not an issue, the program is conceivably ‘worth it’ if you’ve haven’t been accepted anywhere else (as was my situation). but for those who worry about such things, there’s also the issue of how essentially uncompetitive it is to get accepted into columbia. they accept like 15% of all applicants, though i imagine most decline given the cost.

      re: FASFA

      i applied for FASFA and received the maximum amount allowed: ~$20.5k or so. there’s another ‘graduate plus’ loan scheme that i think would’ve doubled the amount i would’ve received, but when i saw how much tuition would actually cost, i walked away without applying for it.

  125. BoomersMustDie

      Hmmm… 20.5K sounds like it might be per semester, but if they’re unwilling to bend at all then maybe it wasn’t the best choice for you. Javits Fellowships and the like might be another option to consider… If you’re truly committed to your craft and being a writer, I wouldn’t let things let debt bother you. For reals. Do an MBA, MAccounting, MFinancial Engineering or a JD instead

  126. Guest who

      the max ~$20.5k amount through FASFA was for the academic year 2011-2012.

      “If you’re truly committed to your craft and being a writer, I wouldn’t let things let debt bother you.” <– i'm sorry, but this is incredibly irresponsible advice to be giving writers.
      people get sick or injured, children get born, car payments get made and require biweekly (if not weekly) trips to the gas station, all sorts of insurance is paid for in monthly installments, rent, rent, rent, food, food, food, utilities, internet access, and then maybe there's a bit left over for the occasional vacation. now add $500-$1,000 a month for 15 years or so to pay off the loans from your two-year arts degree, along with all their accrued interest.

      time to write and quality of life counts, and if you don't get how taking on massive amounts of debt can eat into that, given the meager social safety net available to the vast majority of americans, then i don't know what to tell you.

  127. BoomersMustDie

      If you’re afraid of debt and the thought of paying bills troubles you then don’t be a writer, get a PhD or like I said an MBA/JD etc

  128. Guest who

      my only overarching point has been that columbia is charging an unrealistic amount for tuition. 

      do you think $150k for a two-year arts degree is reasonable?

  129. BoomersMustDie

      Tuition isn’t 75K, it’s ~$45K, presumably most people have some sort of job for living expenses, or a working spouse or something like that to defray the cost. Borrowing 30K a year for living expenses in NYC seems silly.

      I think Columbia undergrad costs roughly 45K per year, Harvard is about 40K, NYU is about 50K a year… so no, I don’t think paying 45K tuition for a year of full-time study at a private school seems unreasonable.  

  130. Guest who

      are you sure you don’t work for columbia? this is copy and pasted straight off one of my acceptance package letters (hope the formatting holds):

      —– 2011-12 ESTIMATED COST OF ATTENDANCE —–                                          Budget Category AmountTuition 47,135Fees 3,358Living Expenses 15,300Books & Supplies 2,000Transportation 1,300Personal Expenses 3,465Loan Fee 185———Budget Totals 72,743

      Please note that the amounts listed for Tuition and Fees have not yet been approved by the University’s Board of Trustees and are subject to change.

  131. Guest who

      yargh, that should be: tuition 47,135 …. fees 3,358 … etc. etc.

  132. BoomersMustDie

      So? It seems consistent with the other expensive schools in the area… where did you end up going?

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