Is an MFA worth the cost?

Nosing around the web tonight, trying to find out how much it would cost to go back to school for an MFA, I ran across a very interesting post on on a blog called The Elegant Variation. In a post titled Why the MFA is important, the blogger says this:

    It’s imposible to start a life committed to literary fiction when you are $60,000 in debt. ($60k, by the way, is a conservative estimate, Peter — but that’s sweet.)

    That said, Peter gives some more very good advice in his New York Magazine article:

    This is the thing about MFA programs that is so often ignored: the cost defeats the purpose. No one wants to talk about money (how taboo!) — but really, unless you have a fellowship or your parents foot the bill, an MFA is self-destructive. We want the Iowa/Irvine/Columbia label, but a place like UNLV makes a lot more sense. Or else just stalk Denis Johnson at his listed number in Idaho. Move there, work at the iHop, and beg him to mentor you. Free!

The Peter he refers to is Australian author Peter Carey of Columbia University. While the section above is talking about writing, it seems to me the same applies to the studio arts.

Unless I were to really “make it big” shortly after finishing my degree, how could I realistically pay on student loans as a full-time painter or sculptor? Or do artists earning MFA’s these days just assume they’ll carry their debt with them for years — or plan to teach where a regular paycheck can be counted on? A few years back I discussed this with a friend who was wondering the same thing about people earning bachelor degrees for things like social work from the local private university. The university apparently prides itself on cranking out socially aware and concerned citizens. But how can someone in social work pay the cost of a private education?

Unless, as The Elegant Variation suggests, someone else pays for it. Thing is, not all of us have parents who earn six figures, and there aren’t enough full tuition scholarships for everyone either. From my very limited research tonight, it looks like private colleges charge around $20,000 per year for graduate studies. Even if I had scholarships to cover half of that, I’d end up with more than $30,000 in loans not taking into account numerous living expenses (and sundry art supplies for my classes?) required to, um, live. This leaves a student with monthly payments of more than $325, based on my previous loans which had a better interest rate than you’d get today, over 10 years.

Sure, it’s not what many doctors or lawyers will rack up in their schooling. But then, they have some assurance of a well-paying job at the end of it all. An artist can throw himself into his paintings and not necessarily be able to earn a living.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

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