MFA as Luxury Resort

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.

 

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2 thoughts on “MFA as Luxury Resort

  1. “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…”

    Seems to make sense, at least within the logic of capitalism.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As you know, I spent some time here designing specs for a postcapitalistic, anarcho-collectivistic alternative to the fiction publishing industry. MFAs are part of that industry, especially on the literary fiction side of things. Back on Ktismatics I sketched out ideas for anarcho-collectivist alternatives to university education, which likewise has become prohibitively expensive and which serves an integral function within the capitalist economy. I extended these ideas to the MFA program in a pamphlet I wrote but never posted on. Here’s the salient financial simulation from that pamphlet:

    Suppose a novelist were to teach a writing course independently. Suppose this teacher took on 7 writing students for a semester. The teacher would convene the group of students as a class 3 hours per week, devoting an additional 1 hour per week to each student individually. In this hypothetical independent writing school there is no overhead – no buildings and grounds, no administrators and marketeers and fundraisers. Suppose each student were to pay $1,000 for the semester. All $7,000 of the class’s tuition would go to the teacher – a part-time wage comparable to what the university would pay an adjunct professor for teaching the same course in an MFA program. Maybe the 7 students enrolled in this independent fiction writing school would take two classes per semester for two years, while also studying and writing independently. At the end of the two years the 7 students would have earned the equivalent of an advanced degree in fiction writing while paying a total of $4,000 apiece – a small fraction of what they would have had to pay if they’d enrolled in an MFA program. Over those two years, each of four writers would have earned $7,000 working as part-time writing teachers – still not enough to live on, but combined with whatever money they might be making from their writing it might keep them from starving without having to bump up their barista hours to full time.

    If the US economy were to verge toward guaranteed universal income, then this sort of DIY writing education program could be conducted with no money at all changing hands. Hell, it could be done for free right now, especially given that students’ obtaining the official MFA badge doesn’t really count for much in the already-existing capitalistic publishing industry.

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