Art Therapy: Which MFA Program Should I Choose?

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Dear Bmoreart,

After I finished an undergraduate degree, I waited a few years to apply to graduate school. I waited tables, taught finger painting to pre-schoolers, and painted in my studio all the time. When I felt I was ready, I applied to ten schools. Of the ten, I was accepted to four and there are two at the top of my list. Now, I can’t decide which one to go to and I am terrified of making a mistake.

One of my top choices is a big university, a three year program, and is a full scholarship, with work study and teaching responsibilities. My other top choice is a smaller, private college and I prefer the smaller size of the grad program. It’s also a ‘top 10’ mfa program and brings in amazing visiting artists. It’s a two year program and they gave me a small scholarship, about a third of what I would owe. My question is this: should I take the free ride, with the knowledge that it’s going to be up to me to “make” my grad experience amazing OR should I go to the smaller ‘dream’ program and owe close to FIFTY THOUSAND DOLLARS when I am done? That sounds crazy, just writing it.

Student Loans Suck


Dear Student Loans Suck,

There is nothing worse for a career in the arts than crippling debt. If you were going to medical school and your future job’s salary included provisions to pay it back, it might make sense. But the arts??? Not so much. However, this is an issue you haven’t said much about – What are your goals for your career as a visual artist? What role does geography play? You should take some time and do research on the careers of graduates of both programs and see if there is a marked difference. Colleges do their own PR on this, so accept any ‘official’ stats on student success with a grain of salt. At this point, there is no clear, objective research to indicate outcomes for success for students attending public vs. private MFA programs, probably because success in the visual arts is virtually impossible to quantify.

The good news is you have a few options and you’re in a great position for bargaining. Any seasoned shopper will tell you that big ticket items – a car, a house, a painting, graduate school – always come with an adjustable price. There’s the ticket price, the preferred customer price, the sales price, and the competitive sales price. If you’ve ever purchased a car, you should know that the best price can be achieved by competitive bidding between different dealerships. For example, “So-and-so down the road has the same car and will give it to me for X$. Can you beat that price?” And you play the game back and forth until the price is significantly lower. You can’t play this game unless you have multiple offers and, lucky for you, you do. What works with car dealership also works with graduate programs.

Contact your dream school and inform them that you’ve been given a free ride at another University. You favor their program, you desperately want to attend, but you simply can’t afford it. What can they do for you? Chances are they will adjust your price. They may not offer a full scholarship, but you never know. Every program has a certain number of scholarships and these are typically offered to the same top candidates that other schools offer them to – these candidates can only attend one institution, and scholarships are turned down more than you would expect. The best time to make your move is a few weeks after acceptance letters have been sent out. Schools need to fill their spots and it is possible that a refused scholarship can be transferred to you, especially if you take the initiative to call and express your needs.

Best of luck shopping and, eventually, purchasing the best graduate program for you. Remember that a graduate program cannot transform you into the artist you want to become. No matter where you attend, this part is always up to you.


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