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Because Nightmare Debt Doesn't Quit
By M. Alouette
If you never heard it anywhere else, you heard it here: Do not go into debt for your M.F.A. It doesn't matter if you're going for writing, visual art, or film. Don't do it. I'm not saying don't go. I'm just saying that you should do yourself a HUGE favor in a society that doesn't want you to act in your best interest. Realistically, you will probably never make enough money to pay back those loans anytime soon. Ensuring your own financial security and maintaining control over your finances is an essential form of self-care. We need money for just about everything in the United States. Not even water is free. If you really, really, really want your M.F.A., that's fine, that's great. But do it without acquiring debt. Again: Don't. Go. Into. Debt. For. An. M.F.A. Otherwise that debt will haunt you for the rest of your life. And it's not a cool supernatural experience; it's just an anxiety-inducing one. You will have much more room for magic and freedom in your life after your M.F.A. if you don't rack up debt.
Here's how to get an M.F.A and bypass the debt:
• Apply to fully-funded programs. Some programs offer the whole shebang to everyone they admit: a tuition waiver, a fee waiver, and maybe even a living stipend and health insurance. These programs are the golden ticket. They're also rare and extremely competitive. Depending upon your M.F.A. field, you might not have many options. Fully funded programs seem to be most common among M.F.A programs in creative writing, but there are some in studio art, too. You will probably have a harder time finding such an option in film, theatre, and design. But do your research!
• Apply for tuition waivers. This is what it sounds like: get one and you don't have to pay tuition (though you'd be responsible for fees, unless otherwise mentioned.) Some schools require you to apply for a tuition waiver separately from your admission application. This deadline tends to fall earlier than the regular admission deadline. Don't miss it!
• Apply for assistantships. There are different kinds of assistantships, but all of them involve working for the department in some way. Maybe you'll get to assist a professor in teaching a class or conducting creative research. Maybe you will help run a media lab or studio space. Some schools award assistantships upon admission. Others require you to apply separately for consideration. Again, this deadline may fall earlier than the regular admission.
• Apply for scholarships. Your intended school might offer need-based or merit-based scholarships in addition to tuition waivers and assistantships...or this could be all they offer. The amounts vary widely. See what's offered by the department and the university at large (including alumni associations.) Also look outside of the school. Non-profits, trade unions, and other organizations might have the perfect scholarship for you. Pay special attention to the deadlines and get ready to write some essays.
• Apply for fellowships. There are different kinds of fellowships and they vary by program, department, and school. All of the nuances are too unwieldily to begin untangling them here, so just start Googling and going through academic websites.
• Apply to in-state schools. Another option is to only apply to public schools that would offer you in-state tuition. This will lower the cost of attendance in the first place and also lower your need for scholarships.
• Work full-time before your M.F.A. Get the fattest job you can and keep your eye on the prize: Your M.F.A.! Warning: This job might make you miserable, but it's for a limited time.
• Save up before your M.F.A. There's no point in working that fat job if you're not going to save up. Remember that even if you get into a fully-funded program with a living stipend, that living stipend is very modest. You need money for supplies and emergencies, too.
• Work during your M.F.A. Work as much as you can without taking away too much time from your studies. Think carefully about what skills you already have and what kind of work you were doing before your M.F.A. Something that allows for a flexible schedule or even remote work will probably be ideal. If you have to work on-site, find a job close to campus so you're not wasting a lot of time commuting.
• Live frugally. You're supposed to be dedicating time to your studies, remember? Your M.F.A isn't the time to be picky and exceedingly glamorous.
• Be careful with credit cards. There's no reason to have more than one credit card. Make sure you use it for necessities like groceries, gas, or your subway card, and that you pay it off every month. Don't live off of credit cards! Keep working and fall back on your savings when necessary.
These aren't commandments, just tips to make life easier, but, hey, it is your life!
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