The Top 25 Underrated Creative Writing MFA Programs
By Terry Helms|April 19, 2011
The twenty-five programs listed below fully fund a sizable percentage of incoming students, yet still receive less attention from applicants than they deserve. They are not — or not yet — among the very best creative writing MFA programs in the United States, but applicants looking to balance out an application list dominated by highly-ranked, high-selectivity programs would do well to consider, too, some entrants to the following list:
University of Central Florida. Recently named one of the nation’s biggest party schools, and why not? It’s in Orlando, so there’s more than just the weather to celebrate — Disney World is only a short car-trip away. But locale aside, who knew that UCF fully funds nearly all its incoming students? The faculty roster may not boast many superstars, but neither do most other programs’ faculties, and ultimately it’s the quality of teaching that matters, not public acclaim for professors’ writing. If you want to attend a large, vibrant university in the midst of a large, vibrant, warm-weather city — and be fully funded in the bargain — UCF is for you. It’s no coincidence that four programs on this list are located in Florida; MFA applicants consistently under-apply to Florida programs (even University of Florida, a Top 25 program overall and certainly the best MFA program in the state, receives only half the applications it should).
Ohio State University. Nobody can explain why this program isn’t Top 25 — perhaps even Top 20 — every year. Sure, it’s already popular, but it remains half as popular as it should be. Three years in an AIER-rated Top 15 “mid-size metro” with a strong faculty, a reasonable teaching load, and a vibrant university community deserves a close look from any serious MFA applicant. Every year OSU is outside the Top 25 (especially in poetry), something is grievously wrong with the national MFA picture.
University of Miami. Knocking on the door of the Top 50 in all categories of assessment, Miami will someday soon make the leap to the Top 50 and stay there. It’s a great university in a great city, and it deserves — and has — a great, well-funded MFA program. If you’re looking for a fully-funded-for-all MFA experience in a big city (and there are only around five such experiences available nationally), you’ve found your place.
University of Texas at Austin [Department of English]. This is the other MFA program at the University of Texas. The program at the Michener Center is already one of the most well-known and highly-selective in America; what many don’t realize, however, is that the MFA run by the university’s English Department is also fully funded — albeit less generously — and its students get to workshop alongside Michener faculty and students. Plus, it’s in Austin, as happening a college city as one could hope for. You can expect this program to crack the national Top 50 sometime in the next 24 to 36 months, but for now it’s still a hidden gem. No other university in America (except the University of Iowa, which offers both the Writers’ Workshop and the Nonfiction Writing Program) has two separate and distinct MFA programs, though the difference between Iowa and Texas is that both of Iowa’s programs are incredibly selective. Applicants looking to slip into a Michener-grade experience through the back door should take the hint.
University of New Orleans. The Big Easy is coming back — in a big way. The MFA at UNO offers both a full- and low-residency option, and frankly there’s no reason not to leap at the former. Many students get full funding, you can take classes in screenwriting and playwriting as well as poetry and fiction, and there are summer programs available in both Europe and Mexico. There’s much to be excited about here.
Oklahoma State University. The prospect of living in Stillwater won’t set many eyes agog or causes many hearts to flutter, but the fact remains that the Okies don’t currently crack the Top 100, and they certainly should. Lots of full funding packages are available, there’s a creative writing doctoral program at the university along with the MFA — meaning, by and large, a higher quality workshop experience than one might otherwise expect — and yet almost no one applies. That should change.
Florida Atlantic University. Last year the report on FAU was simply this: “A dark horse among dark horses.” This year the program earns a slightly more robust entry, as a spotlight is cast on the following program features: three genres of study are available; the program fully funds many admittees; it’s located three miles from the beach; and it’s woefully under-applied to. All of which are great reasons to consider applying to this under-ranked and under-rated gem.
Florida State University. Tallahassee gets mixed reviews, and some worry the program has gotten too large for its own good, but it’s three years of full funding at a university with not only a creative writing MFA but a top-notch creative writing doctorate, too (currently ranked second nationally). It may not deserve to be a Top 20 program in the national MFA rankings, but its recent fall in this year’s yet-to-be-released rankings (to #72) is entirely unwarranted. Right now there’s better than even odds it makes a return to the Top 50 next year.
Georgia College & State University. The whole operation here gives off a warm vibe, and why not: it’s a well-funded, intimate program that’s been flying below the radar for years. Yet now it’s within hailing distance (nine spots) of an Honorable Mention classification in the forthcoming national MFA rankings, and it really does deserves to make the jump to that next level. A better rural Southern program you’d be hard-pressed to find.
Iowa State University. What was said last year bears repeating, especially with the program making the jump to Honorable Mention status in the national rankings this year: the secret’s almost out of the bag on Iowa State, and what’s not to like? It’s three fully funded years in one of AIER’s Top Five college towns (PDF) at a program to which few apply. ISU’s unique focus on the environment (as well as interdisciplinary work and one-on-one mentoring) are stand-out features.
Minnesota State University at Mankato. It’s a program you keep hearing good things about, even if you’re not entirely sure why. Maybe it’s the fact that the English Department offers a total of 30 full-tuition-remission teaching assistantships, and they’ll let you stay three years if you want. Maybe it’s the sense that this is a friendly, inviting program. Who knows. In any event, it makes the list, and while it may not be this grouping’s strongest entrant, by all accounts it deserves to be here.
New Mexico State University. Students insist the program’s website is outdated, and that NMSU actually fully funds the majority of its incoming students. We’ll take the students at their word. Certainly, the program gives all the signs of hosting a lively literary community, and that’s reflected in its slow creep up the national rankings (currently #82). As with Minnesota State, it’s certainly not the strongest program on this list, but nevertheless it’s worth watching.
North Carolina State University. Rumor has it that NCSU will soon become part of what’s become a national trend among MFA programs: only admitting students who can be fully funded through grants, fellowships, or assistantships, and thereby becoming a “fully funded program” under the current national assessment scheme via the back door. Well, why not? If the rumor’s true, you’re looking at a possible Top 50 program in the years ahead (it’s already Top 30 in selectivity, and just outside the Honorable Mention category of the national rankings). Poet Dorianne Laux is the star of the faculty here.
Northern Michigan University. A tiny program in the scenic UP that funds surprisingly well. It oughtn’t be as obscure as it is. As with so many — in fact, far too many — MFA programs, NMU’s website reveals little significant information about the program and thereby does it (and its applicants) no favors. But the sense in the creative writing community is that something good is happening here.
Oregon State University. With all the attention paid to the University of Oregon’s fully funded MFA program, Oregon State somehow gets overlooked. Corvallis isn’t Eugene, sure, and OSU can only fund many, not all, incoming students, it’s true, but the fact remains that OSU ranks just outside the Top 50 in poetry, just outside the Top 25 in nonfiction, in the Top 40 for placement, and in the Top 50 for selectivity. If you can get in with full funding, there’s no reason not to go.
San Diego State University. Hundreds of California residents apply to MFA programs every year, and a sizable percentage of those would stay close to home if they could. Unfortunately, the Golden State has the smallest percentage of fully funded MFA programs of any state in America as a function of population, if not landmass (that latter distinction goes to the great state of Alaska, whose state university at Fairbanks nearly made this list). Still, if you’re looking to apply to California programs SDSU should be on your list, especially if you’re a poet (the poetry faculty is especially strong). Tons of assistantships are available, the website (unlike 90% of MFA program websites) is fantastic (albeit a little vague about the actual quantity of student funding opportunities), and there’s a top-notch literary magazine on-site, too.
Temple University. Attention poets: Temple has an MFA program. Philadelphia has long been one of the great cities for American poets to live in, and now that Temple has transformed from a non-terminal MA to a terminal MFA, it’s suddenly worth a second look. Is it still a program in transition? Sure. But it’s also ranked 109th nationally, so the fact that it has a way to go is part and parcel of it appearing on this list. The faculty here is amazing, even if the funding is not (or not yet) — though it’s said that it’s much better for poets than for fiction-writers, in keeping with the program’s strong ties to the Philadelphia poetry community.
University of Arkansas. With Ohio State, University of Arkansas is one of two current Top 50 programs to make this list (and for the record, University of Nevada at Las Vegas was quite nearly the third). This is a four-year, fully funded program in a nice college town, and it offers literary translation as well as poetry and fiction tracks. It’s in the top tier in practically any measure you’d care to name, and yet it cannot — cannot — seem to crack the national Top 30, which is especially odd given that a similarly long, similarly well-funded southern program (University of Alabama) has been impossible to dislodge from the Top 20 for years now. The difference between the two programs isn’t great enough to explain the ranking difference. More poets and fiction-writers should apply here, it’s that simple.
University of California at Riverside. Trying to get funding information on California MFA programs requires more than a little detective work. UCR is rumored to fund many of its students well; only the program’s webmaster knows for sure, however, and he’s not telling. Whatever the truth of the matter, a few things are for certain: the program offers five genres of study; it (wisely) requires rather than merely encourages cross-genre work; the faculty is excellent; and the fact that the university has an undergraduate creative writing major (the only one in California) tells you how committed the entire university is to creative writing. The location is also a plus: a large city (300,000+) within a short distance of Los Angeles.
University of Kansas. What was said last year still applies: this now-Honorable-Mention program offers three years of well-funded creative writing study, and KU is one of the few U.S. universities that cares enough about creative writing to host both a creative writing doctorate and an MFA. And did you know Lawrence, Kansas is deemed a Top 10 college town nationally by AIER? The 2/2 teaching load is daunting, but there’s still a lot of reasons to be excited about KU.
University of Utah. Back in 1996, the creative writing program at Utah was ranked in the Top 20 nationally — largely due to a creative writing doctoral program that still ranks among the Top 10. It’s a mystery why the MFA program at Utah (now ranked #115) isn’t more popular, given that almost a third of incoming students are fully funded, everyone gets to workshop with some of the best creative writing doctoral students in the world, and Salt Lake City is by all accounts a surprisingly nice (and surprisingly progressive) place to live for a couple years. The literary arts community here deserves much more attention than it’s getting from applicants.
Virginia Commonwealth University. For years now VCU has been in and out of the national Top 50 — it depends on the year — but in a just world it would consistently be on the inside looking out. And it has nothing to do with the spotlight recently shone on Richmond by the successes of two of its college basketball programs (VCU made the Final Four in 2011, and University of Richmond the Sweet 16). No, what’s happening here is that a three-year, well-funded program in a Top 15 mid-size metro (according to AIER) is being overlooked. This should be a perennial Top 50 program, and someday soon it will be.
Western Michigan University. Kalamazoo is a larger and more vibrant college town than many realize, and now that — as word has it — the MFA program at WMU is seeking only to admit students it can fully fund (much like North Carolina State, above), applying to be a Bronco just seems like good sense. As with some other programs on this list (Florida State, Utah, and, to a lesser extent, Oklahoma State) students at Western Michigan get to workshop with some of the nation’s most talented MFA graduates — the creative writing doctoral program at the university is ranked among the top dozen nationally. Perhaps that’s why student satisfaction here appears to be so high? WMU is knocking on the door of an Honorable Mention classification in the national rankings, and if it goes public with its plan to become fully funded it will achieve that classification and perhaps even more — a Top 50 designation, too.
West Virginia University. They’ve been cagey about their funding in the past, but reports are that the funding is actually excellent and that the program’s annual applicant pool is swelling. It’d be hard to argue that the program should be ranked much higher than it is — it makes the Top 60 nationally in the forthcoming national rankings — but it still isn’t spoken of as much as you’d expect.
Wichita State University. The graduate creative writing program perhaps best known for being the place Albert Goldbarth teaches at has enjoyed a sudden bump in the rankings, from just outside the Top 100 to just inside the Top 80. And the ride may well continue; there’s still relatively little competition for admission to WSU, a real surprise given that this is a well-funded three-year program with a light teaching load.
All of these programs (with the exception of University of Arkansas and Ohio State) will need to spend much more time on their online promotional materials in order to make the jump from this list to the bigger one: the Top 50 national rankings, as published by Poets & Writers. Applicants to these (and, really, all) programs need to know precisely what percentage of incoming students receive the equivalent of a full tuition waiver and a livable stipend, as well as see some hard data on how selective their target programs are. Until that happens, most of these programs will continue to be unjustly underrated rather than justly highly-ranked. And, not for nothing, nearly all of these programs (with a few notable exceptions: Florida State, Iowa State, Ohio State, University of Arkansas, University of Miami, and University of Texas at Austin, all fully funded programs) could do with even more full-funding packages for incoming students.
For those keeping count, this is the second year this list has been compiled. Last year’s list can be found here. Feel free to discuss these and other programs in the comments section below.
A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Seth Abramson is the author of two collections of poetry, Northerners (Western Michigan University Press, 2011), winner of the 2010 Green Rose Prize, and The Suburban Ecstasies (Ghost Road Press, 2009). Presently a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he is also the co-author of the forthcoming third edition of The Creative Writing MFA Handbook (Continuum, 2012).