Thursday, September 01, 2005

Making Sense of the U.S. News Rankings




In 1997, U.S. News and World Reports set out to rank the top Creative Writing Programs. They distributed a questionnaire to four members of each creative writing university – including deans, program directors, and professors – asking them to grade, on a scale of 5 (highest) to 1 (lowest), the other programs in the nation. Responders were asked not to grade programs that they had little knowledge of. The outcome, published in 1998, (and republished in 2002, but generally the same) was a listing of almost 100 programs, each ranging in grade from 4.5 to around 2.0. In many ways, this survey and its results have been a touchstone for prospective graduate students since that time.

And of course, it’s become a subject of great and often heated debate within the writing community. If you trust peer-reviewed rankings, and I'm not saying that you shouldn't, you'll see the rankings as relatively fair and accurate. If you don't trust peer-reviewed rankings, or the way they are administered, then you likely don't think much of the rankings. Either way, the rankings are many years old now, and they do not at all reflect the issue of funding. And funding, to my mind, is one of the top criteria for selecting a program.

I’ll have a feature about funding in the next few weeks. The short version: To my mind, the best programs fund all of their students and fund them equally. Funding usually involved a teaching assistantship, where a graduate student will either teach his or her own class (generally English 101 or creative writing) or assist a professor in teaching a larger class. This type of assistantship offers a tuition waiver and about a $12,000-15,000 stipend. Some programs offer writing fellowships, with no teaching involved, but these are rare. Generally speaking, about 20% of programs fund all of their students. About 40% fund some of their students. The remaining 40% fund few or none of their students. I’ll talk about the middle version, which I think of as ‘tiered’ funding in a future post. The key for prospective students is to seek out programs that offer funding, or who offer affordable tuition.

Back to the rankings: My main point in this article is that the U.S. News Rankings are a good starting point and definitley not an ending point. Prospective students should not make their final decisions based on these rankings. The ranking of a school is not near as important in creative writing as it is in, say, law or business school. You’ll want to apply to programs that you can afford, that are located in a place you’d like to live or could stand to live, and that are thought of highly by present and past students. If you’re looking for Low-Residency options, then you’ll want to lean heavily on that third criteria.

I’ve profiled fifty programs in The Creative Writing MFA Handbook, with an eye especially toward funding. I’ll not list that information here because 1. It’s a lot of information, 2. I’m trying to sell the book, and 3. I don’t want a lot of mean emails from graduates or teachers in programs that I did not rank as favorably as others. I definitely have a different take from the U.S. News Rankings.

My advice to prospective students is to figure out where you want to live, decide on what funding you’ll need, and then rank your own programs that fit these criteria. I strongly encourage students to apply to eight or more programs. Use the U.S. News Rankings as a starting point for researching your programs, but don’t use it as a criteria for your selection. Your individual experience in a writing community will matter much much more than any set of rankings.

Future features will explore elements I’ve touched on here, including how many programs to apply to and why, why funding is important and how to measure it, websites of programs (most of which are terribly designed and contain little information), and a criteria that I didn’t mention: How to measure the importance of professors in your research and selection process.

8 comments:

David Milofsky said...

Tom,

I hate to disagree with you and I'm eager to see your book, but I can't think of a worse reason to pick a program than funding. True, some very good programs provide funding and equal funding for all, but most don't, including Iowa, Stanford, Umass, Arizona, etc, etc. For me, beyond all doubt the most important issue was who I was going to work with and that made all the difference. Although I did get a teaching assistship at UMass, I didn't go there with one and it wouldn't have made any difference if I hadn't had a good relationship with my advisor. The second most important thing for me was my peer group, the people I was with in workshop who became my friends and best critics--an extraordinary group. One could get full funding and have lousy teachers and mediocre peers and have a bad experience in any MFA program. Of course all of these things are relative--as is funding. You'd like to have them all, but in this as in life in general that seldom happens.

The Daily Pick said...

Hey David.

Thanks for your comment. My main point in this response is to say that while, yes, I definitely agree that teachers and peers will have the biggest impact on a student's graduate experience, I don't thinks this aspect is very measurable. (More below). I do think that funding is measurable, and for better or worse, students need to make their decisions based on measurable aspects.

1. I'm only meaning to be clear here: funding is not the worst aspect to pick a program by. If a program supports their students financially, then they will support their students in other ways as well. Prospective students want to avoid "cash cow" programs. i.e Those that charge outrageous tuitions ($25,000 or more). And Stanford does fund all its Stegner Fellows equally.

2. I totally agree with what you've said about the importance of an advisor and peer groups. They are of the utmost importance. If you don't have those, then you're wasting 2-3 years of your life.

3. I feel that prospective students should look at measurable aspects, including funding, in their early decisions. By that I mean: There are over 100 MFA programs. In order to narrow that to the 8-12 programs one should apply to, students should use aspects that are measurable. Funding is one. Location is another. Teacher experience is a third important aspect. Obviously, genre and length of program also factor in.

4. I don't know why I'm ending all my sentences in prepositions. Obviously I haven't learned anything in all my graduate experience.

5. When "acceptances" start rolling in, hopefully students will have options of 2-4 schools. I think then is the most important time to call up current and previous students to ask about teachers and program atmosphere. It's manageable then (phone calls). It's easier to make 3-4 phone calls for 2-4 programs than it is to make the same amount for 100 programs, or even 15. And current students are much more likely to talk with you, once you've been accepted.

6, and final: I don't know how one measures teaching, outside of feedback from current students. Just because someone is a great writer doesn't mean that they are a great or even competent teacher. I don't see that there is a way to measure teaching - especially not on "program reputation" (my quotes) - until one talks with current students.

I should've been clearer that I am ranking funding as so important in the early stages of the application. Teaching and funding are both very important in the later stages, and students should choose a program that fits their most important needs.

Thanks again to David for his comment. I would welcome more comments from him and others.

-- TK

Carrie Hall said...

Hey, I understand that you don't want to spill the beans on your rankings, but I'm trying to apply to graduate schools this year, which means that waiting until Dec. to buy your book is just TOO LATE for me. Do you have any tips in this department? I'm planning on applying to 11 schools, but I don't really know where the hell to apply! 11 just sounds like a nice number.

David Milofsky said...

Tom,

Not to beat a dead (or dying) horse but it's probably easier to get funding at programs that are not among the best. Would you, therefore, choose the program that gave you money regardless of its excellence, or lack of? Let me be clear. I believe in fully funding one's students. Some do, including my alma mater Wisconsin, which wasn't even in existence when US News did their rankings. Often, however, it just isn't possible and thus programs don't fund everyone. This doesn't it wouldn't be a good choice, though of course what you say about "cash cow" programs that are just trying to get either tuition money or bodies should be avoided. I dunno about reputation.

Jenny D said...

That was a great post, and an interesting discussion. David knows far more than I do about MFA programs, so I bow to his judgment, but I completely agreed with Tom's original observation about funding. (And more and more my best students are choosing to go where the funding's best--the New School over Columbia, say, or Iowa over Columbia--so the peer-group issue is actually related to the money question.) Students in their mid-20s are probably better positioned to make sensible financial choices, but I'm often talking with college seniors who will go on to do an MFA within a couple years of graduating. And for students who already often have in the region of $40-60,000 of debt from their undergraduate degrees, I simply don't see how taking on the additional loan burden makes sense, even if it's to attend the best program in the world. The loan payments afterwards can effectively prove crippling and make it impossible to write anything much at all. Going where there's full and equal funding may be unrealistic (though PhD programs are certainly moving to this model, and it's an easier criterion to meet there), but taking the less prestigious but better-funded offer over the more prestigious unfunded one seems to me always the wiser choice, unless someone else (i.e. parents or other family members) is going to pay the tuition. It's so hard to know in advance whether a given teacher's a good match for a student, that actually seems to me a much iffier proposition for choosing, unless you really have detailed knowledge about that person's abilities and affinities as a teacher rather than as a published writer. Feedback from current students is the most reliable way to get a sense of this, no doubt. Finally, I take Tom's advice to be particularly valuable for students at very prestigious undergraduate institutions who may be looking too narrowly at the 4-5 "top" (i.e. best-known programs) in the country, and who will be well-advised to consider a range of factors beyond name recognition as they choose where to apply and enroll.

the unreliable narrator said...

Tom—right out of the gate I'd like to say THANK YOU for this website. I found myself conducting illicit (desperate) searches at work and stumbled on it; can't wait to obtain and read the book when it does come out. But like your earlier poster Carrie I'm in a bit of an awkward position. Last year I applied to Columbia, Iowa and Brown (based on the "people I'd like to work with" criteria, and faculty recommendations). I got into Columbia, but the aid package was dreadful, absolutely dreadful (I'm a graduate of Mount Holyoke College and the University of Cambridge, and also attended Boston University's creative writing MA program as the George Starbuck Fellow, so I know a little bit about aid packages). Fortunately (?), due to ill health I was able to defer for one year. Now I'm in the position of trying to decide 1) if I should reapply to Brown (my first choice since they fund all students fully and equally, though I hear the professors aren't particularly available), 2) if I should apply to some other places, maybe PhD programs, maybe MFAs with a better funding track records, and/or 3) write letters petitioning the poetry professors at Columbia, several of whom I know, and hope they can plump up the offer (entirely loans, and not enough to cover tuition and fees at that—much less living in Manhattan).

Phew. I didn't realize how much this all has been bothering me.

What Would Tom Do?

Yours in artistic penury, the unreliable narrator

PS I should add that I agree with you COMPLETELY about loans being the worst thing for young writers. I emerged from undergrad + an MA with around $35K in debt, and it took me a total of five years as a much-abused junior college administrator to get out from under. Now I work for $225 a week as a film critic for the local paper, in a small-enough town where I can live on that salary and write—which I couldn't do as long as I had $450/month in loan payments. I'd happily finish out my days here if I were satisfied with my poems, which I'm not—ergo the MFA debacle.

Thanks again!

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