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We’ve examined Masters of Fine Arts degrees from various angles in this column, but one thing all of the programs we’ve looked at have in common is that they certainly aren’t cheap. For many prospective students, the high cost of attaining an MFA is daunting – and often prohibitive. That’s why Robin Tung, who received her own MFA from Johns Hopkins University, started the blog “Affording the MFA” in 2012, with the intent of helping others navigate the difficult and stressful waters of applying for – and affording – the MFA. Her site contains a full list of schools Tung considers to be “fully funded,” which the site defines as “one that provides both tuition remission and a stipend to EVERY admitted student.”
Tung has taught creative writing at Johns Hopkins and served as the first female editorial assistant for The Hopkins Review. Her work – fiction, essays, poetry, and more – has been published in numerous outlets. We spoke with Tung about her blog and the affordability of the writing MFA in the United States today.
Why did you start the Affording the MFA blog?
Robin Tung: I started becoming interested in MFA programs as an undergrad. There were no resources, and I had no idea what I was doing. I just picked 12 schools that I thought were prestigious and probably had good writing programs, and I applied from there. But there wasn’t a place where all of the fully funded schools were being grouped together, so I thought, “OK, I’ll put a list together so that people know what schools to apply to when they’re looking for fully funded schools.”
How is your list of affordable MFAs organized?
Tung: The site is organized basically by geography: West, Midwest, East, and South. I did it that way because a lot of people aren’t necessarily willing to move across the country to go to school. So it kind of helps you look at what’s around you and what’s accessible.
How did you determine which schools qualified for the list?
Tung: It was an enormous research project. Now that the site’s been established for a couple of years, I have MFA students or previous readers of the blog who are applying or are now in school reach out to me and tell me they’re fully funded. That’s how I get some of my information now.
You describe an affordable MFA program as “one that doesn’t require you to go into any debt at all” and say that schools listed must meet three criteria. What are they?
Tung: Full funding via stipend and tuition remission; funding for all students, not just some; and healthcare provisions.
Healthcare is a factor that a lot of applicants may not consider.
Tung: Healthcare is important. It’s not talked about. If you’re in a program and don’t have healthcare, that’s a constant on your mind. Anything that’s going to help clear out mental space for the writer to do his or her work is fantastic.
As far as full funding via stipend, what is the minimum a program must offer to make your list?
Tung: Right now the site says the minimum stipend is $9,000, and I think I’m going to change that to $15,000 for the following year. I don’t think $9,000 is livable at all anymore.
Do you consult with the colleges or is your research independent of them?
Tung: I have an interview series that I do, usually in late spring and summer. I’ll reach out to various schools and their directors and faculty people to answer some questions about the application process and their funding.
How realistic is it for a student to expect to find a fully funded, debt-free MFA? Some of these schools accept less than 1 percent of the applicants.
Tung: I think the highest percentage admission rate that I applied to was 3 or 4 percent, which is kind of insane. I work privately with writers on their manuscripts, and a lot of them are hedging and saying, “Well, I may not get in this year. I may try again next year.” I think that’s realistic. It’s also a good idea to have different tiers of schools. You don’t want to apply only to three schools that let in less than 1 percent. The most-viewed section of the blog is the acceptance rates and application dates.
How can an applicant improve his or her chance of getting in?
Tung: I encourage writers to read faculty bios and look at what they’ve published. There may be some resonance there. That’s a way to heighten your chances of getting into a school, by researching the faculty interests. I encourage optimism. Do your best work, stay organized, complete the application, and go for it. You never know.
Applying in itself is very stressful. What other advice do you have?
Tung: One of the keys to a successful application is giving yourself a little more time than you think you need [to get] organized. Start saving money for the application six months in advance, start thinking about what materials you want to submit, who’s going to write your letters of recommendation. The last thing you want to be doing is scrambling in the last two months and familiarizing yourself with the online application and creating passwords. Look at this as a job, as work. It’s a discipline.
Ultimately, all you can really do is write your best work. Where you are is where you are. It doesn’t really matter if you have any publications or any awards. What the faculty is looking for is your point of view and your voice. That tells them what you’re interested in and how you see things. You can determine a lot through someone’s language and point of view – it tells you how they see the world. Your track record doesn’t matter; what matters is how well you can do something you’re interested in.
Jeff Tamarkin is a freelance writer/editor. He lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, with his wife, novelist Caroline Leavitt.