Since 2011, enrollment in US universities has dropped 10 percent, and the decline is expected to accelerate. It’s not because fewer high school graduates are attending college, or because fewer college students stick around long enough to graduate. It’s because the pool of potential applicants is slowly draining.
The overall US population continues to rise, but that’s due almost entirely to an increasing average lifespan, resulting in a decreasing death rate. The birthrate, by contrast, has been declining for a decade. The replacement fertility rate for keeping the long-term population on an even keel is 2.1 children per woman; as of 2017 the US fertility rate was 1.76, accelerating the downward trend that began ten years earlier.
Enrollment in MFA programs is also dropping. What’s the replacement fertility rate for MFA faculty, where they’re spawning new hires at a rate that equals their retirement rate? I don’t have the data, so I’ll estimate. Let’s say that on average a professor spends 30 years on the job. As long as the average MFA professor reproduces one MFA teaching candidate over the course of his or her career, staffing equilibrium is maintained.
Pretty clearly MFA programs are vastly exceeding the professorial replacement rate. Let’s guess that a typical MFA program has a faculty-student ratio of 4 to 1, which would mean that each MFA faculty member produces 4 MFA graduates per year. Over the course of a career that’s 4 x 30 = 120 MFA grads. What percentage of those graduates would want to teach in an MFA program? Practically nobody is able to make a living solely from writing or painting or acting, so teaching is a good fall-back career move. Let’s be conservative and say 20 percent of MFA grads would want to teach in an MFA program: so that’s 120 x .2 = 24 potential replacements spawned by each MFA prof over a career — 24 times the replacement fertility rate. So only 1 in 24 = 4% of MFA graduates who want to teach in an MFA program will get hired to do so. Wait till next year? Oh wait, enrollments are declining, so fewer of the retirees will need to be replaced. Teach undergrad? Same problem. High school?
While the overall US economy has been growing at around a 2 percent rate annually, the global luxury sector is growing at around 5 percent per year, as a consequence of increasing income and wealth stratification. Is the MFA a luxury spend? It’s expensive, and most graduates won’t recoup the expenditure via lifetime earnings. It’s a consumer good, like a BMW SUV. If you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it. Or maybe enrolling in an MFA program is more like a long-term stay at a luxury resort, the guests serviced by a horde of lackeys making minimum wage or less.
This line of thinking is where I began Ficticities. And now here it comes back around, the return of the repressed, the line curving into a circle.