How to Afford Your MFA in Creative Writing

Naturally, this topic will have different answers for different people. The best way to afford an MFA degree depends a lot on you, your schedule, and your finances, so the the best answer will be different for everyone. What I want to do in this post is to present a few scenarios that will help students navigate their options and help them decide which option is best. You should also talk with the director and/or your advisor about your best route through the program. You want to design a program of study that is affordable and that also gives you the best educational experience. The information and examples presented are based solely on Mississippi University for Women’s Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing program. Other programs may not allow the same level of flexibility that we offer, since our residency courses are not directly tied to other courses and we are set up to allow part-time students. Some programs want everyone to take courses in the same sequence and do not allow as many options, but you may still want to think about the main questions: should you progress through a program quickly to save on tuition costs or progress more slowly to be able to work your way through and avoid some loans.

How to pay the least amount of tuition

One way to think about affordability is simply in terms of the total dollars spent on the degree. This is the plan you might want to consider if you are funding your whole degree yourself and want to finish in the least time possible. You should plan to devote all of your time and resources to the MFA, if you do this schedule, since you will be taking a heavy course load!

  • Full time
    • Time to degree: 2 Years
    • Hours per semester: 13 for 3 semesters = 39 hours
    • Summer classes: 2 Full Residencies = 4 hours
  • Part-time
    • Hours per semester: 5 hours for one semester (or possibly in summer)

In this schedule, you would take 4 3-hour courses per semester plus a short residency in the fall and another 1-credit-hour course in the spring, which might be another short residency or a 1-hour internship or independent study. In your final semester (or another semester), you would take 5 hours, which would likely be 3 hours of thesis and two hours of internship or independent study. The reason this plan costs less than any other is that at MUW you pay the same tuition for full-time classes from 9-13 hours. So you pay for 9 hours and earn 13 hours of credit.

It might be a little tricky to organize one semester with 13 hours and one with 5, so a slightly more expensive way to do this is to take 13 hours during two semesters and 12 hours during your other full-time semester. Your part-time semester in this scenario would be 6 hours, so you would pay for 1 more credit than you would on the fastest track. But you would still finish in the same amount of time. In this scenario, your final year would likely be your thesis semester.

One advantage to this schedule is that you pay for 36 hours and earn 48 hours of credit, which at current tuition rates would save you $3855. Another advantage to this schedule is that you finish in the least amount of time possible and are able to move on to other things (potentially earning a higher salary). You could practically finish in a year and a half at this pace, if you took summer classes (5 hours) between your first and your second years; though you would still be required to return in the spring of your second year for your final full residency. For scheduling reasons, the full residency classes will only be offered once a year in May or early June.

The disadvantage to this schedule is that you would not have as much time for your writing to develop during your MFA program. Another disadvantage is that you could face burnout. Needless to say, this schedule is only advisable for the student who is incredibly focused, is very far along in her or his writing, and is willing to devote themselves 100% to their MFA studies for two years. In other words, this is a very intense schedule and it may not be the best for everyone. In fact, we expect most students to take 6-10 hours of classes per semester, and some will take fewer than this.

A Slightly More Expensive Full-Time Schedule

As we have seen above, a student can still finish in 2-3 years by going full-time and taking 10-13 hours some semesters and 9 hours during other semesters. You can save a little money anytime you take more than 9 hours, even if you don’t take the maximum number of hours every time. Anyone should consider taking an extra class now and then. If you are full-time and taking 9 hours per semester, adding the short residency hour won’t cost you extra (other than room and board costs). If you find you can take 12 hours one semester, you can save a little money that way as well.

Part-Time Schedules

Since the cost per credit hour of a full-time 9 hour schedule is the same as the cost per credit hour of a part-time schedule, I want to consider part-time next. You can decrease the time to graduation by taking 9 hours per semester, but you won’t save money unless you take at least 10.

The advantages to a part-time schedule are that you can take more time to pay for your education and you have more time for your writing to develop during your MFA program. You won’t feel so rushed, and you are less likely to face burn-out. So for many this is the best option, and it may end up costing less.

What you save in tuition on the full-time schedules, you might end up paying back in interest if you have to take out loans to make ti possible to have such an intense schedule. If, on the other hand, you take fewer classes at a time and avoid some or all debt by working your way through your degree, then you might end up paying less over time, even though you pay more for tuition. So one way to think about what is affordable is to consider how many credits you can take per semester without taking out a loan (or by taking out the smallest loan possible).

As we have seen above, you can finish in 6 years even if you take 3 hours per semester. In order to qualify for federal loans, you need to take at least 6 hours per semester, in which case, you can finish in 3-4 years. How quickly you move through the program may depend on how many classes you can afford each semester or how much time you can devote to your classes in addition to your work schedule.

What Is Affordable Really?

When thinking about affordability, you should consider the total cost of your MFA program, in other words. Don’t only look at tuition, but consider what it will cost to pay off your loan — and if you do have loans, remember that you can reduce the cost of the loan by paying back more than the minimum amount each month: the sooner you pay off some of the principal of a loan, the smaller amount of total interest you will pay over the life of any loan. If you can work your way through your degree, you might decrease the amount of loan you need. If you can finish sooner, you might get a better-paying job sooner and be able to begin paying off your loans sooner. If you have saved up enough money to be able to take 2 years off and complete your degree on the fastest track, then that might be the best option for you. If you want more time and want to keep working while you’re in school, then a part-time track may be the best option. And if you’re somewhere in the middle, you might plan on taking at least 9 hours per semester so you can take advantages of the savings that taking an extra hour or two now and then can bring.

The Fix: MacBook Pro Trackpad Scrolling Issue

If you’ve followed my last two posts, then you know my beloved MacBook Pro had to go in for repairs to the graphics card, which mean they replaced my logic board (for free). Everything seemed to go well, but when I got it back, I noticed the trackpad wouldn’t scroll. I could grab the scroll bar and scroll the old-fashioned way, but when I moved my finger across the trackpad, the window wouldn’t scroll. It didn’t matter what program I was in either.

Since he asked whether there were any issues, I checked in with Sean, the AppleCare technician who had been helping me set up the repair. I asked if there was a simple fix or if I should take it back in to be looked at. I was a little concerned that they might not have hooked everything up right, though that seemed unlikely. Instead, Sean asked if he could call me, and we went through several steps to rule out a hardware issue and try to find the problem. All my trackpad settings were good. We tried replacing the com.apple.systempreferences.plist file (hold down the Option key and select Library from the Go menu to get here—in Library, go to the Preferences folder). I had already removed the trackpad plist files in case they were corrupt. But none of this solved the problem, so we logged me into my admin user account and checked scrolling there. No problems, so that ruled out a hardware issue — something was messed up with my main user account, but we couldn’t find where it was.

I will say, that I was impressed that Apple would spend this much time working with me when the repair had been done by a local authorized service location. Unfortunately Sean admitted defeat, saying he needed to research it and would call me back the next afternoon when he was back at work.

Naturally, I didn’t want to wait that long, so I kept researching and looking into it. I knew the tech guy who replaced my logic board had zapped the NV-Ram on my MacBook when he was testing it, so I figured some setting got set back to default, but I couldn’t find it. I thought maybe a keyboard shortcut could toggle the setting, so I searched for that and found  a really great site by Dan Rodney that lists them all (or most). This jogged my memory that there are settings in the Accessibility control panel in addition to the ones in the Trackpad control panel or General control panel, where we had already looked. Lo and behold, there was the problem setting. Under “Mouse and Trackpad” there was a button for “Trackpad Options” where “Scrolling wasn’t selected. I clicked on that and the trackpad returned to normal!

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 9.53.27 PMScreen Shot 2015-06-16 at 9.53.47 PM

MacBook Video Card Repair Conclusion

In my last post, I wrote about how my 2011 MacBook Pro died, due to the common issue with the graphics card. I had been experiencing all the symptoms of weird lines (artifacts) across my screen, random restarts, and finally the inability to boot up the computer at all. That’s what led me to bite the bullet and call Apple, who authorized a local service place to replace my logic board for free.

The Repair

I will say, the whole process has been relatively smooth, and I’ve been impressed with Apple’s willingness to stand behind a 4-year-old computer (now). Exceed Technologies, where I took the MscBook was relatively knowledgable, and had done the repair before. I still knew more than they did about the issue, but they handle more than Macs, and they don’t need to know the cause to know how to replace a logic board, so why should they remember every detail of the issue the way I would. 

The repair was done fairly quickly. It took them a day to get to me (my only minor disappointment), a day to get the part,, and another day to do the repair and test it, do I could get it back the next day. I took it in on Thursday and got it back on Tuesday, so that was a bit faster than Apple’s estimated 5-7 days. And I didn’t have to drive two hours to take it in or wait for Apple to mail it back. For those of us living in the sticks, this is a great option!

Apple Support

Apple support during the whole process has also been fabulous, better than I would have imagined. Not only was I able to call and get this service authorized quickly, but the support tech, Sean (the supervisor of the woman I spoke with first), gave me his contact info and encouraged me to let him know if I decided to go to the Apple Store or have the repair done locally. So I emailed him to say I had gone to Exceed. He wrote back a couple of times to verify whether the repair had been initiated. I wrote when the repair had been completed, thanking him for his help, and he offered to help out more if a I had any related issues. As it turned out, I did, but that is for another post. Let’s just say for now that he was willing give a support call and even spend some time working on my computer to try to resolve an issue I was having with my trackpad after the repair.

The Aftermath

The repaired MacBook Pro appeared to be working well, when I got it back. The only issues I had other than the trackpad scrolling, were with passwords. I had asked the tech if I would need to authorize the computer on iTunes again, due to the new logic board, and he said I wouldn’t because he had put in my serial number when he set up the new logic board. That turned out to be true, but I did have to login with iCloud again to access my keychain, and before I realized this, Mail tried to connect to Google and didn’t have the password. I had to reset that, though once idealized the iCloud issue, my other mail accounts worked. I’ re had to login a few times to Google to get it all straightened out on all my devices. If I didn’t have so many email accounts, including two with Google, this would have been easier. And if I had taken the MacBook to an Apple Store, they probably would have helped me through that process (at least they did when I had an iPad replaced under warranty last year). But if Apple had mailed it back to me, I would have been in the same boat.

I expected to have to reset a few settings and passwords and such after a major repair. In fact since I wasn’t able to secure my computer before I took it in, since I couldn’t even start it anymore, I probably need to reset most of my sensitive passwords, anyway. I basically trust the technicians at Exceed, but I don’t know them personally, and you never know. And it’s good to change passwords now and then , so this will be a good incentive to do that again.

So the only real issue that I faced after the repair was  the fact that my trackpad wouldn’t scroll. That’s what I mentioned to Sean, asking if there was a simple fix or if I should take it back in to be looked at, and that’s what led to a service call and an eventual solution. But more on that in my next post, since it is arguably a different issue that resulted from the repair or the crash. But other people with the issue might get it another way. So I want to go into it in more detail separately.

MacBook Pro Video Repair

Maybe you’ve heard of this story: 2011 MacBook Pros with bad graphics cards that get weird lines on the screen, restart randomly, and then die. I had read about it, fortunately, and I knew it was starting to happen to mine, but yesterday it suddenly went from bad to worse. If you’ve read the stories, then you know how mad some people have been, but you may not have heard that Apple finally did the right thing and extended warranty service for this issue. I had read that, so I was glad to call Apple and arrange for a repair.

First, I spoke with someone who could only offer limited help. She said I needed to take it to an Apple Store to have it checked out. When I explained that the nearest store is two hours away in another state, she eventually put me through to her supervisor who could authorize more options. He not only offered to let me mail in my laptop, but also offered to let me have it repaired locally at an authorized service location. I called them, and opted for that, once I learned that they had done this before and would be replacing the logic board.

Here are a couple of things I learned in the process. I couldn’t start up at all, so I couldn’t do a backup. Starting in Safe mode didn’t work (press the Shift key at startup) and neither did starting in Recovery mode (command R at startup). What did work was starting in single user line mode (command S) at startup. I was able to run a file system check (fsck -f), but that didn’t help. But it did suggest there was hope, even though letting the computer sit all night didn’t magically fix it. So I started in Target mode (press T at startup) and connected to another computer with a FireWire cable to rescue the files that were after my most recent backup. This was successful, but nothing would get it to boot up. Thanks to Zach Clawson for some of these suggestions,

I’ve generally been pleased with the support I’ve received from Apple about this. Both service people were helpful and understanding, and the supervisor who took the case over has been quick to respond when I told him I had taken it to the local service place. We’ll see how it all turns out. 

Of course, I also know that if this had happened a few months ago, my experience could have been very different. So I’m very glad my little MacBook held out until the repair extension went into effect. Now I just hope the repair shop does a good job and it comes back better than ever.

‘Political’ Theater Anyone?

Yesterday’s news in our local paper about the jobless rate (unemployed and those not seeking employment) being 34% in our county and 44% in a neighboring county, combined with the same report’s statistics on high school dropout rates, has me thinking about ways writers and artists can contribute to a solution. I’m thinking about this in part because of the Low-Res Creative Writing MFA program I’ve been starting. It seems like any new program like this ought to have community involvement, whether that is locally or whether it is where our students actually live. I’m also always thinking about how our program will ad to the economy — what kinds of jobs our students will have and how they will benefit (practically) from their education.

Another recent news report was about for profit universities who will now be held accountable based on their graduates’ employment. While I’m glad our program won’t have to prove we led to higher employment rates or higher incomes of our graduates (not everyone studies creative writing to make more money), this report underscored the belief I have that create writing programs need to pay more attention to the practical realities of their students. We can’t just think about art for art’s sake, and we do need to consider the professionalization of our students as a positive thing.

What does all that have to do with political theater? Reading the newspaper article about jobless rates and dropout rates made me think about writers like Federico Garcia Lorca who was involved with proletarian theater in Spain. It also reminded me of the Reilly Theatre, whose play “Spill” documents the effects of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in Louisiana. Community theater is possible, and it can be political, though in my title I put that word in scare quotes because it doesn’t have to take a political side or advance any group’s political agenda. Theater that addresses relevant community issues and gives voice to those who may not have a voice without it is political.

So a community-based theater that explored the issues of dropouts and low employment rates could be a good idea for a program like ours. It could take people’s stories and put them on stage (or on the street if it’s street theater). It could get community members involved in the production and even the writing of a play or theater event. It might encourage some in the community to go back to school or to find a job, and it might expose the real problems these people face to a wider audience who may not see the issue in all its complexity. I don’t know all the complex facets of this problem, but a community theater project could explore them and help communicate them.

And a community theater that was actively involved in fighting the epidemic of high school dropouts or the challenges of a high jobless rate would probably be eligible for grant money. Artists don’t have to be starving and they don’t have to be completely altruistic in order to make a difference. MFA graduates should be creative and they should find creative ways to make a living, while also making a difference. Community service and self-interest don’t have to be at odds in other words, and any program that’s worth it’s salt ought to have a community service component. Theater is only one avenue that we might explore — literacy training, a poetry project, or an oral history project all might be equally effective. What we do will depend on the interests of our students and on what works with the community.

A Philosophy of Bread

I have baked bread every week for nearly 30 years. About the only times when I haven’t baked my weekly loaves of bread are when I have been on vacation or living in a country with great bakeries and no ovens in their rental apartments (I’m looking at you, Belgium!), so making bread has become part of the rhythm of my life. If you’ve read my other food posts, then you won’t be surprised that I don’t use a recipe. All you need to bake bread are yeast, water, flour, and a little oil and salt. If you know how much water to start with, you’ll always have about the right amount of bread. You can even do without the yeast, which I’ve tried now and then with a sourdough. Or you can get fancy, adding ingredients like milk or eggs.

The first method I used to bake bread was taught to me by my Danish friend, George, who had researched it and found what he thought of as the best. It involved making up the sponge and the dough late at night, and baking the bread in the morning. That was a great method that I used for many years. My thoughts on bread were also influenced by Ed Brown’s Tassajara Bread Book, where I learned a few of the other recipes I’ve tried, including a way to make your own sourdough starter.

Eventually, as I grew older and started a family, I changed my method. The overnight one involved getting up early in the morning an hour before you wanted to bake it in order to punch down the bread and let it start rising again. We decided fresh bread for breakfast wasn’t essential, but more uninterrupted sleep was, so I developed a method to make bread in the morning and have it ready for Sunday lunch. It takes about 4-5 hours from the time  you add yeast to the water to the time it comes out of the oven.

Over the years, I’ve discovered that bread is very flexible and very forgiving. Though I follow the same method every week, it rarely comes out identical. A lot depends on the kinds of flour you use, though I keep that fairly consistent. Sometimes I’ll ad buckwheat or rye, and we like to include some oatmeal when we have it on hand. Otherwise, I usually use about half white and half whole wheat. How the bread rises depends on the environment and how attentive I’m being. In the winter, I might warm the oven before putting in the dough. See my post on Twice Baked Bread for a time when this went really wrong, but the bread still survived! I’ve had plenty of mishaps and baked a few barely edible bricks, but by and large, the bread turns out wonderful every week, especially when it’s fresh from the oven.

What this has taught me in terms of a philosophy is to be flexible myself. Though I aim for perfection, I try not to define it too much in advance, and I try to be open to valuable surprises. If things don’t go the way I expect them to, I try to roll with the punches and find a new way. So if I’m baking bread and I’ve forgotten to punch it down when I should, I either extend the time I need before the bread comes out of the oven, or I skip the second rise and put it into loaves right away. Generally, that works relatively well, given that I often leave it in the sponge stage long enough to develop some really good gluten (no I haven’t jumped on the anti-gluten bandwagon—I’ve never had a problem with it, at least not with homemade bread). Other times, if I’m in a bit of a hurry, I might skip the sponge stage and make sure i give it two really good rises before making it into loaves. It might take a little longer rising in the loaf pans if I do.

I like the rhythm of making bread, mixing it up, kneading the dough, watching it rise, nursing it along or letting it do its own thing as needed or as my schedule will allow. And of course, I love the taste of fresh bread!  I rarely buy bread in the store and am disappointed when I do. I don’t mind bread-machine bread, but making it on my own is easy and such a part of normal life by now, that I hardly see the point in a machine. I could use our KitchenAid to do the mixing and initial needing, but so far I prefer to do it by hand. It’s what keeps you grounded to the food you eat, and that is what can turn any kind of cooking into a philosophy best written in the daily or weekly habits and the food you make.

Risotto with Baked Golden Beets

I figured it’s time to get back to posting about food now and then. This weekend at our farmer’s market, I was able to pick up a few golden beets, and made a delicious risotto (if I may say so). I won’t go into the Risotto part of the recipe other than to say I didn’t do anything special, just cooked the arborio rice with sautéed onion and vegetable broth until it was done.

For the risotto part, I chopped up the beet tops and some mushrooms, then sautéed them in olive oil until the mushrooms were browned and the beet tops just lightly wilted. I added a bit to tomato sauce to the risotto right before adding the sautéed greens, and mixed it all together with a liberal amount of Parmesan or Romano cheese.

What really made the meal good, though were the baked beets. It took about as long to bake them at 400 as it took to make the risotto. I quartered them, added olive oil and cut up part of rutabaga that I had left in the fridge, then mixed with the oil and a bit of salt until they were coated, and baked until they were tender. The juices of both root vegetables were trapped inside by the baked-on olive oils. Both the beets and the rutabaga were sweet, and more flavorful than if I made them on the stove. The combination with the risotto was excellent. The golden beets had a wonderful color — this would probably work with red beets, too, but the beet flavor might be stronger. So if you’re looking for something new to try with beets or a new ingredient to have with risotto, give this a try.

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