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
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.