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
- 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.
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.