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Bang for your buck: Cost, affordability, and what to look for when shopping for an MFA program

Katy Yocom, Associate Director, Spalding University MFA

Fourth Street Live

An MFA isn’t a degree like law or engineering, where you’re pretty sure you’re launching yourself into a lucrative career. Most people I know pursue an MFA because they have an unshakable passion for writing, because they feel driven—sometimes in the middle of their lives—to step off the expected path and do this thing that doesn’t make any sense at all, except that they can no longer pretend it’s okay not to do it. 


You don’t get an MFA degree because it’s going to make you rich. But you do pay a not inconsiderable amount of money for the degree. So let’s talk about what you get for your investment. What’s the cost of following your dream of being a serious writer and perhaps a teacher of writing? What, to put it bluntly, is your dream worth?

I’ll talk about money at the bottom of this post; feel free to jump directly to that section if you like. But if you have a minute, I’d like to address—seriously—the question of your dream’s worth. I think one answer is, it’s worth doing in as rich a way as possible.

Here’s what I mean.

Value Added

If you’re going to pursue an MFA, it’s worth doing it in a program that asks you to write more and gives you more faculty feedback than you’ll get in less rigorous programs. A Spalding MFA degree is 65 credit hours, where other programs might be 48 or even fewer. We require you to write prolifically because that’s how, in four semesters of study, you’ll become a much better writer.

Louisville Review

It’s worth doing it in a program with a diverse faculty. Why? Because they’ll broaden your perspective and shake your assumptions, and because, with such a panoply of distinctive faculty voices, you won’t walk away from the program sounding like anyone but yourself. Spalding’s faculty hail from coast to coast and represent a range of races, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations as well as areas of pedagogical expertise. Our first requirement is that they are engaged, compassionate teachers. Beyond that, they’re active: publishing books or having their scripts produced; winning awards.

It’s worth doing it in a program where you have the opportunity to work on the staff of a literary magazine, to explore across genres, and to investigate the interrelatedness of the arts in a city rich in cultural opportunities.

It’s worth doing in a program whose alums have gone on to success. Spalding MFA alums have gone on to be their state’s poet laureate, to sell screenplays that become films screened in theatres nationwide, to publish essays in the New York Times Magazine, to win top prizes including the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, the Orlando Prize, and the Edgerton New American Play Award.

This one might not be intuitive, but it’s worth doing it at a university that, at an institutional level, really gets what “low residency” means. Why? Because a low-res MFA program whose institution doesn’t understand the model is on shaky ground.


Spalding’s president, Tori Murden McClure, is a Spalding MFA alum who wrote her book A Pearl in the Storm while a student here. President McClure flat-out loves this program.She’ll announce, unbidden, that the Spalding MFA is the best education she’s ever gotten—and she has degrees from Harvard and Smith.

Finally, it’s worth getting your MFA in a program where we proclaim, every residency, that the only competition is in the library–not sitting across the workshop table from you. This ethos allows your workshop mates to become your greatest allies. They become the ones you can text the night before your packet is due, when you’re having a crisis of confidence and suddenly everything you’ve prepared to send to your mentor seems like drivel. They will lift you up and dust you off and assure you that it’s not drivel, it’s just that you’re too close to your work to see it anymore for what it really is. You’ll hear the sense of their words and hit Send on that packet trusting that your classmate is speaking with the voice of compassion and reason and healthy perspective. And you’ll be right.

The Location Factor

The MFA experience is worth doing in a place with comfy lodgings conducive to after-hours conversations. At Spalding, students can spend evenings in a luxurious, Gatsby-era hotel lobby engaged in passionate writing discussions or an after-hours reading.

Brown Hotel Lobby

It’s worth doing it in the heart of a city where you might have the chance, during downtime at residency, to go hear the Dalai Lama speak, or catch Jason Isbell just a few doors down at the Palace Theatre, or walk to the riverfront to catch the Beatles tribute festival. It’s worth doing it in a place where you can see cutting-edge art at 21c Museum Hotel or the Speed Art Museum.

It’s worth doing it in a downtown where you can walk to good barbecue, amazing shawarma, great cocktails, craft beer, street tacos, pizza, inventive local cuisine, or fine dining.

It’s definitely worth doing in a program with a curriculum that allows for the influence and inspiration of other art forms—and thus incorporates museum visits as well as theatre, music and dance performances at venues like Actors Theatre of Louisville and the Kentucky Center for the Arts.

If you have the option to choose a program that can offer so many riches, why wouldn’t you?

Dollars and Cents

All of the above is not meant to distract from the bottom line, just to add perspective. So let’s talk dollars.

Spalding is the most affordable of the top-tier low-residency MFA programs. Compare the cost of this degree to other MFA programs and see how things stack up.

At current tuition rates, the entire 65-credit-hour Spalding MFA degree costs $36,400. Our average annual increase over the past five years is just 3.23 percent, well below the national average, and this year there was no increase at all.

Housing costs $500 for a shared room at what the New York Times described as “the landmark 1923-vintage Brown Hotel,” which “offers spacious rooms and an opulent lobby bar.” Or pay another $499 and get one of those lovely rooms to yourself. Spalding covers lunches, three dinners, and sometimes a few extra meals to boot. Campus parking is free. And we offer scholarships and assistantships.

Speaking of scholarships: Some of our competitors charge considerably more than we do but then discount their tuition with a sizeable scholarship. It’s a nice ego boost, and maybe it makes you feel like you’re getting a bargain. I’d encourage you to look past the distraction of that technique.

In the end, you are spending your treasure to earn this degree. Make sure you’re getting the richest experience you can.


Katy Head Shot 2015

Katy Yocom’s fiction, poetry, essays, and journalism have appeared in Salon, The Louisville Review, 2nd & Church, and elsewhere. The 2016 recipient of the Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature, she holds an MFA in Writing from Spalding University.



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