Starving Artist seeks funding
March 13, 2008 1:40 PM   Subscribe

How do I pay for grad school?

So, I just got accepted to Columbia University for an MFA in fiction. Which is awesome. But I don't have a lot of money. Which is, well, just the way it is.

Do you know any resources for outside fellowships/scholarships that I could apply for?

Ways to get private and government loans?

I already filled out my Fafsa. That is the first step, correct? What next?
posted by whimsicalnymph to Writing & Language (28 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
You're already in contact with Columbia's Student Financial Services office, right?
posted by box at 1:42 PM on March 13, 2008

Response by poster: Yeah, I'm waiting on information from them (due in April) about what they suggest for me.

I was hoping someone could point me in the direction of non-Columbia scholarships that I could apply for, instead of sitting on my hands, waiting, waiting, waiting.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 1:43 PM on March 13, 2008

Have you checked out fastweb?
posted by jerseygirl at 1:52 PM on March 13, 2008

Whimsical, there aren't a lot of scholarships for writing MFAs. I encourage you to get a solid part-time job (or even full-time, if you can manage it) to help you through and to take some of the sting out of the loans you'll be getting. Columbia's program is good but the investment is upside-down. Your loans are going to cost more than the degree earns you for a long time and maybe forever.
posted by Mo Nickels at 2:03 PM on March 13, 2008

Can you get funding through teaching? TA work has paid many a student's way through grad school (myself included).
posted by caution live frogs at 2:14 PM on March 13, 2008

Response by poster: I'll be eligible for a TA position after my first year.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 2:15 PM on March 13, 2008

I'm not sure how it works for arts degrees but science degrees include a stipend. They pay you a small amount of money to learn. In my department it works out to about $25K a year. It's enough to live off of but not enough to live comfortably.
posted by LunaticFringe at 2:21 PM on March 13, 2008

Have you tried to get a job at Columbia? If you get a job there and be willing to do the course part-time, they will pay all of your costs minus fees and books.
posted by parmanparman at 2:45 PM on March 13, 2008

Honestly, have you really thought this through? I got accepted to the Columbia Journalism school a couple of years ago. Prestigious, whatever whatever. $80,000 for 1 year. No scholarship, no nothing. So I'm going to go into an industry that's dying, that's hemoraging its more experienced than I will be when I get out employees, and I'm going to be paying out $500 a month for some ridiculously long period of time afterwards...meaning that I'm not going to be able to do the things I want to do anyway.

So I decided not to go. Have not really looked back since. For me these creative MFAs are something of a scam. If you really want to write...write. You don't need an MFA to do that. You need time, space and a supportive community to do that, and you won't have any of that, except the community (maybe) when you are done.

I know this was unrequested advice but I'd think really carefully about it. Once you enter, your setting yourself up for many years of payments.
posted by sully75 at 2:54 PM on March 13, 2008 [3 favorites]

Well some arts degrees involve stipends but they're usually PhD programs and they're pretty scarce. I would recommend going to your local library and looking up grants/fellowships etc. Is there someone at Colombia that could point you in the right direction? Funding for us arty types can be tough, and I wish you the best of luck.
posted by ob at 2:57 PM on March 13, 2008

Student loans can haunt you for the rest of your life if you're going into a field where big money is not guaranteed.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 3:27 PM on March 13, 2008

ob, that is actually untrue. Many, many MFA programs in writing (and in other arts, too, as well as MA programs) offer good-to-generous funding. If you're a good enough writer to get into Columbia, you're good enough to get into Michigan, UVA, the Michener Center, Iowa, and many other programs that fully fund all accepted students via TAships. The benefit of Columbia is proximity to NYC, agents, and networking. If you're not already really good--good enough to benefit from meeting agents who'll be looking for solid work when they meet you (not just "promise"), the debt you'll incur from Columbia may be too much.

Others may have different opinions, and there's been a lot of discussion about whether it's useful/appropriate to pay for a writing MFA on the Poets&Writers messageboards (called "the Speakeasy" which is a great resource for all MFA-related questions), fyi. Personally, coming from a fairly poor family, the idea that I'd be incurring such great debt would be crippling (when I applied to MFA programs, I didn't apply anywhere that didn't fully fund all accepted students). Good luck with whatever you decide to do!
posted by soviet sleepover at 3:34 PM on March 13, 2008

Uh oh--I should've previewed. The MFA-specific message boards I mentioned above are here.
posted by soviet sleepover at 3:38 PM on March 13, 2008


Short answer: loans and TA ships. Maybe rich relatives too.

Long answer: I like writing and have been doing it in some form all my life. I would REALLY reconsider the MFA if you 're not going to be teaching writing. I could never take on the debt associated with "mastering" writing.

I'm sure you may have already proven you're talented in other ways. Maybe like me and some of friends you've won contests and been paid for the first couple of pieces you ever wrote.

Another piece of good news if you don't go: there are many cheaper alternatives to an MFA like workshops,writing groups, or starting your own blog empire like Gothamist, austinist, etc.

You can keep writing! You can write and learn for the rest of your life very easily compared to someone trying to learn law without a JD.
posted by Freecola at 3:55 PM on March 13, 2008

I'm sorry to say that you shouldn't go. Columbia in particular is notorious for giving almost no funding; most reputable schools give full or almost full funding. While some people accepted to Columbia have success for the reasons soviet sleepover mentions, most will wind up in debt and have little payoff.

Being "eligible" for a TAship is also not the same as being given one. Columbia accepts about 50 students a year in fiction and gives support to very, very few.

When I was accepted to Columbia several years ago, I was told I should expect to borrow $50,000 a year to be able to attend. And I was coming in with a very good fellowship, the Javits -- I was told that Columbia, unique among all the schools that offer MFAs, wouldn't accept it. The administration at Columbia views the School of the Arts as a money-producer; students with outside fellowships, unbelievably, are frowned upon there.

I'm sorry to rain on your parade, but I wish I'd had access to information when I was making my decision. I wound up going to a lesser-ranked school, and like most MFA graduates I don't have a book out -- but at least I didn't have to borrow any money.
posted by gerryblog at 3:55 PM on March 13, 2008

The Columbia MFA program in particular was the subject of controversy a few years back for not being worth its hefty price tag. The original letter to the Columbia Spectator appears to be gone, but there are many, many blog posts summarizing the main points.

The key distinction I failed to make in my earlier comment is that the School of the Arts is a secondary and subsidiary entity to the main Columbia University. It's job is to kick money up; very little money is kicked down. In my efforts to get them to accept my Javits fellowship, I was told explicitly that this was the case; they view students paying $30,000 to the school and borrowing another $20,000 to live like a pauper in NYC to be a feature, not a bug.
posted by gerryblog at 3:59 PM on March 13, 2008

If you can't get a TA gig, you might try Columbia Undergraduate Writing Program.

I have to say I am dubious of costly non-professional graduate programs.
posted by grouse at 5:10 PM on March 13, 2008

I completed an MFA in Poetry recently. I was lucky enough to be funded for all three years. I would never recommend paying for an MFA because of the reasons noted above; the degree in no way implies you are qualified to take any well-paying job afterwards. Teaching is an option, but it's mostly scrape-it-together adjunct positions until you get a book out. I had friends turn down acceptances to Columbia for exactly this reason. That program is notorious for putting students into a financial sinkhole!

There are options for funding. The Javits fellowships, as gerryblog suggests, are one way to go. Unfortunately, I think you have already missed the deadline for this year. Poetry Resource Page is, obviously, geared towards poetry. However, they do have an entire page on funding opportunities for writers. I imagine that most of them are applicable to fiction writers as well.

Finally, I want to echo the advice that you might want to wait and apply more widely next year. Columbia is a great school, though (in my opinion) one with a clear aesthetic. I think it's entirely possible for someone who was accepted there to get into a program with a funded position. As sovietsleeper states above, ob is incorrect. Many many MFA programs have generous funding. I wish you good luck with this tough decision! Happy to talk more via mefimail, etc and so on.
posted by theantikitty at 5:49 PM on March 13, 2008

Michael Chrichton payed his way through med school by writing novels. You could do that! But then, you wouldn't need the MFA so...never mind.
posted by trinity8-director at 6:15 PM on March 13, 2008

Crichton. Talk about the right hand not knowing what the left is doing.
posted by trinity8-director at 6:16 PM on March 13, 2008

I didn't apply anywhere that didn't fully fund all accepted students

Yeah, that was what I was getting at but as I'm not in this field I have no idea if this is a good program or not. Actually my point was answering an earlier answer about funding for the sciences, I'm sure I overstated my case, but the fact is that there is much less funding for arts grad degrees than science degrees. Anyway, like you said, personally I would never ever consider paying for grad school.
posted by ob at 7:23 PM on March 13, 2008

I have a friend who is doing a PhD in Spain. She paid for it by spending an afternoon in the library, looking up department heads, notable folks and generally persons related to her studies. She then shot them a hand written letter saying, "I am so and so and I am going to study xyz and if you'd like to sponsor me, I'll keep in touch". She didn't pay for the whole thing that way, but she recieved quite a few five or six hundred dollar checks. YMMV, but it can't hurt!
posted by GilloD at 7:51 PM on March 13, 2008

Hey, I'll be graduating soon with loads of debt. If I had it to do all over again I would have REALLY thought long and hard about taking on all this debt for a degree that doesn't pay back.

REALLY THINK ABOUT IT. It's only too easy to put it out of your mind. I know, you'll get some loans and crunch the hard figures later, when you're graduating. Because of course, education is so "enriching" that it's not quantifiable. That's what well-meaning people will tell you about..."the untold benefits of education that cannot be measured." That's certainly what they'll tell you at the university. This all happened to me. Then reality hit. Payback for some 30 years. Yep, that's right. And it's not like I have an M.D., MBA or JD to show for it, either.

If you're going for a degree that doesn't pay my advice is either get it paid for by someone else (TA position, fellowship, company education benefit) or go part time and pay as you go. Apply to 10 or 12 schools and you may hit the "funding jackpot" with one of them (insert politics here: what is the sorry state of education in the US nowadays that people have to borrow such insane amounts of money for school when higher education in Europe is paid for by the gov't?)
posted by mintchip at 10:12 PM on March 13, 2008

I'll give you further details of my situation: I got accepted to Berkeley Journalism school, and I liked that a lot better than Columbia. I had some issues about the program but decided to go out there and give it a try. I didn't fully understand the loan payback system until I actually moved to CA. And got the loan payment book. I think it was something ridiculous. Like $500 a month for 30 years? Could that be? It seems totally ludicrous. Anyway, think about it. A lot. And I'd find that book sooner than later. And it worth it to have a really cool 2 years, and then the next 30 years to pay for that?

I think the thing to do it find a good paying part time job in a city that supports bohemians, a good community of like minded people. Find some people who enjoy your writing. Take the other half of your full time, and all your free time and write. If you can't make that happen, than you are probably not a writer. And you know, if you are not a writer, that's just fine because most of them are really unhappy and unfulfilled and drive themselves crazy in the process, and in the end it doesn't make much of a difference.

But if you are a writer, and that works for you, then have at it. I think the way to learn to be a good writer is to write tons, read the best writers, and have good friends around who can tell you when what you are writing is crap. I have a good friend and she's always telling me everything I do is awesome,'s not helpful after a while. Or maybe it is.

Anyway, sorry that I started a shitstorm of people telling you not to go. But I really think that grad school without a $$$$$ payoff at the end is a scam.
posted by sully75 at 5:31 AM on March 14, 2008

I went into debt to pay for my MFA -- not Columbia level debt, but debt all the same -- and I'd do it again. I absolutely understand the opposing point of view and don't think my choice would be right for everyone. However, I am now making a mental note to chime in with an opinion the next time someone asks about other kinds of graduate programs...I don't know anything about them personally, but they're definitely a waste of time!

Along with Poets and Writers mentioned above, you might want to have a look at The MFA Blog, where these issues (and Columbia's price tag in particular, actually) get talked about a lot.
posted by gnomeloaf at 6:04 AM on March 14, 2008

Response by poster: Well, the arguments against going to school at Columbia are definite concerns. In some ways, however, I am in a unique situation:

1) I'm getting married in July and my husband will be working the whole time I am school. Therefore, my living expenses will be substantially less than if I had to support myself alone.

2) I am finishing a manuscript of children's stories and poems that I intend to sell ASAP. (This is my pull-myself-up-by-my-bootstraps plan to pay for grad school. Granted, it could fail.)

3) My husband and I both come from working class backgrounds and the fact is, there is no way for us to acquire the kind of credentials and do the kind of networking that other folks can get from the people they "just know" if we don't go to sheeshy schools. He has student loans from his graduate degree and that's just how it is. He is also doing what he loves (graphic design) and not living in bumblefuck, Alabama which is where he'd be if he hadn't taken the chances (and gone into debt) for the things that he loves.

4) I've been doing the work-at-a-job-and-write-and-submit-thing for a while now. It is okay. I've even made some headway, been a finalist for a few awards, etc. Whatever. The fact is, 2 years of concentrated writing would mean the world to me. A booster shot. I'm not doing this to just go to class and come out with an MFA. I'm doing this to aggressively pursue contacts, get my work in the hands of agents, and have two manuscripts ready-to-publish by the time I graduate. At my current job, (I write business plans), I am often expected to pump out 5,000-7,000 words a day. If I had that time to write my fiction, stageplays, and poetry exclusively, it would be huge.

5) The daughter of my great-grandmother's sister (yes, talk about distant relations) has offered to help out with some of the cost of me going to school. She has no kids and thinks I'm pretty cool.

6) I'm going. Therefore, the most helpful suggestions would be the names of outside fellowships that I could apply for to help me pay my way. If no one knows any in the hive mind, I'll do research elsewhere. I just hoped someone knew. You never know what metafilter will churn up.

7) To the folks who are advising me not to go: I appreciate your concerns and I think they are valid and worth considering. I weighed those pros and cons when I applied to school, however, and knew what I was getting myself into (a lot of debt). What it comes down to is that I'd rather have two years of concentrated study, invaluable contacts, proximity to the publishing world, and be not just another anonymous writer in my room, even if I have to pay $500 a month for 30 years, than plugging away at my work, having minimal credentials to list on my cover pages, and consistently being another hopeful in a submission pile. Like the business world, it matters who you know, and Columbia can help me who I know.

8) Lastly, the scenarios we have played out seem to be as follows:

a. Go to grad school. Have two years of concentrated writing time. Graduate. Work, write in your spare time to pay of debt if you don't get publishing contract out of school (which, I understand, is a small percentage of graduates. Therefore, this scenario is most likely).

b. Don't go to grad school. Work, write in my spare time and keep the money for myself (instead of paying down debt). Do not have concentrated writing time. Do not have contacts in New York.

It looks like I'd be working, and writing in my spare time either way. I'd rather have that debt and concentrated time in New York, than not. The fact is, I live simply, and don't mind living simply for the rest of my life. When you don't have much, you don't miss it.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 9:06 AM on March 14, 2008

Response by poster: *can help me WITH who I know
posted by whimsicalnymph at 9:11 AM on March 14, 2008

Sounds like you have thought a lot about was hard to tell that from your first question. Thanks for the details. Sorry that I was not able to be more helpful...but good luck!
posted by sully75 at 6:03 AM on March 15, 2008

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