USC MFA Students Quit En Masse; Art Institute Students Seek Student Loan Forgiveness

girls mfa program

My theater MFA program had two different directors in the three years I was there (and a third director who started shortly after I graduated). The second director decided to change the grading scale to reflect what he considered a true assessment of our work, and he considered us average.

“Do you think your production is as good as the best production on Broadway?” he asked me, when I went to talk to him about what I needed to do to not get Cs on my transcript in the future. “Your work is average. We don’t expect anything else. Average is where you should be right now.”

At that point, I was in the game with the idea that I would leave grad school and start competing for one of the tenure track jobs out there, and I knew that a transcript full of Cs would pretty much tank that idea. So I went to talk to another professor about the idea of teaching at private high schools.

“Everything’s changed so much, even in the past few years,” she told me. “We used to send our MFAs out to those kinds of jobs, but now you’d probably need to go back and get a two-year teaching degree and license. I can give you some resources on that if you want.”

So I sympathize very much with the two groups of fine arts students currently in the news: the University of Southern California MFA class that quit, en masse, after issues with funding and work opportunities; and the Art Institute students fighting for student loan forgiveness after the announcement that most of the for-profit Art Institute campuses would be shut down.

ThinkProgress quotes Art Institute student Rebekah Hancock-Murphy:

“As I was going through classes, my teachers would tell me the degree I was getting was worth nothing,” Hancock-Murphy said. “They would tell me that it was going to get me nowhere, so I better have a great portfolio.”

On the one hand, I get the “it’s all about your portfolio” thing. We were also told that, in the arts world, degrees matter much less than the work you are able to complete. On the other hand, I went to a well-known, accredited state school, and the Art Institute is a division of EDMC, aka the Education Management Corporation, which has been in the news for at least the past four years as it continues to fight allegations of fraud. From the NYT, in 2011:

The complaint said the company had a “boiler-room style sales culture” in which recruiters were instructed to use high-pressure sales techniques and inflated claims about career placement to increase student enrollment, regardless of applicants’ qualifications. Recruiters were encouraged to enroll even applicants who were unable to write coherently, who appeared to be under the influence of drugs or who sought to enroll in an online program but had no computer.

To restate: this is a for-profit educational company working to enroll (and collect money from) as many students as possible, specifically targeting students who might be unfamiliar with what to expect from a college experience. EDMC schools do teach courses, but the courses are not necessarily appropriate for their students’ goals. From ThinkProgress:

“We were learning 3-D rendering programs that are rarely used by people in the industry and we didn’t learn for example, that ZBrush is a big thing in the industry or Mudbox and things like that,” Hancock-Murphy said.

Many Art Institute students are fighting to have their student loans forgiven, arguing that if a school is shut down for fraud, they should not be required to pay back the cost of their education.

Then we have the MFA class at the University of Southern California’s Roski School of Art and Design, who published a public resignation letter to Art and Education. Here’s an excerpt:

The Roski MFA Program that attracted us was intimate and exceptionally well-funded; all students graduated with two years of teaching experience and very little, if any, debt. We were fully aware of the scarcity of, and the paucity of compensation for, most teaching jobs, so this program seemed exemplary in creating a structure that acknowledged these economic and pedagogical realities. However, a different funding model was presented to us by the Roski administration upon our acceptance to the program: we would receive a scholarship for some of our first-year tuition; and for the entirety of our second year we would have a teaching assistantship with fully-funded tuition, a stipend, and benefits, upon completion of our first-year coursework. We, the incoming class of 2014, were the first students since 2011 to take on debt to attend Roski, and the first students since 2006 to gain no teaching experience during our first-year in the program.

All seven MFA students resigned together, and plan to create their own educational experiences to substitute for what they had hoped to complete at USC: “We will be staging a series of readings, talks, shows, and events at multiple sites throughout the next year, and will follow with seven weeks of “thesis” shows beginning in April of 2016.”

The cynical/strategic part of me thinks “that is a great way to get people to pay attention to your portfolio,” since we just proved that arts degrees are all about the portfolio. The idealistic part of me thinks that arts students taking their education into their own hands is exciting and full of possibilities. The financial blogger part of me thinks that if you want to get out of a degree program, finding a way to quit before you rack up a bunch of debt is a very smart decision.

And part of me thinks that they shouldn’t have quit. My MFA program was extremely challenging and I often joke about it being my “bad life decision,” but I’m a better person for having stuck it out—in part because it taught me how to play the game of creativity+bureaucracy, and in part because it taught me to share my work with collaborators and bosses and incorporate suggestions without feeling like those changes compromise my “creative vision.” (This is a skill I use every day in my current job.)

But who knows? After all, I’m just an average person. What do you think?

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