To MFA or Not to MFA? That is the Question.

by Cara Ober

Is an MFA in Visual Arts worth the price tag? In today’s economy, how do we justify spending $60,000 on a degree which may or may not pay off?

I know too many MFA graduates who owe more money in graduate loans than they can hope to ever earn as adjunct professors and professional artists. Personally, I know many, many artists who owe from $20,000 to $80,000 for their graduate education – I know this is not unusual. For those MFA’s who find themselves full-time professorships, Fullbright Grants, and MacArthur Fellowships, I say it was money well spent/owed. For the rest of us, I’m not so sure.

As I write this, more colleges than ever before are rushing to add MFA in Visual Art Programs. This means that every year, more MFA degrees are granted, flooding an already small market. It’s not surprising. Colleges consistently earn more income from graduate studies than undergraduate ones, which are heavily subsidized and scholarshipped. MFA programs are a money maker and colleges need money.

Here in Baltimore, MICA seems to add a new MFA program or two each year. This year the new MFA in Curatorial Studies Program enters its inaugural year, and it looks like an amazing program. All the grad programs at MICA are consistently filled with students, so there is definitely a ‘need’ for them. While we should celebrate the vast array intellectual opportunities that are now available, it seems irresponsible to do so blindly. For every prospect, there is a price tag. How can we justify the cost of a degree which doesn’t offer any direct employment options? Why do artists willingly sign themselves into debt and servitude for a professional field which, on the whole, does not pay its practitioners?

If you are currently in the process of applying for an MFA degree, or presently enrolled in an MFA program, I would like to hear from you. How are you financing your education? What are the strategies that can make the whole experience more affordable and valuable?

Let’s be honest: most artists do not crave riches, but what we do need, above all else, is TIME to make our work. How can we expect to grow forward if we’re saddled with a huge dept? How can an artist guarantee enough time for the studio if she is constantly working to pay back her debt?

Above all else, artists are creative. How can a young artist be creative about their financial future and also complete an MFA?

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Author Cara Ober is Founding Editor at BmoreArt
Image by Scott Campbell