Poets & Writers has just released its 2012 rankings of creative writing MFA programs. Year after year, their ranking of Columbia University—my alma mater—has steadily fallen. I can remember when it was in the toppermost tier. Last year, it plummeted to No. 25 (tied with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). This year, it plunged down to No. 47, and is now presumed to rank behind such august institutions as Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg and Texas State University in San Marcos.
This is, of course, risible.
Columbia is one of the top MFA writing programs in the world, and its ranking should be much higher. (In my opinion, it should be at No. 2, behind only the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa.) Columbia has arguably the finest faculty in the world. Pulitzer winners like Richard Howard and Nobel winners like Orhan Pamuk—and many other authors of lofty accomplishment—call it home. It is also located at the center of the book publishing, agenting, and editing universe. The guest speakers and visitors from New York's literary scene offer an unmatched immersion into the world of professional writing. And, perhaps most tellingly, it remains a top choice for applicants. (I should note that while the list from Poets & Writers has become the gold-standard for MFA rankings, there have been minority reports. A few years ago, U.S. News and World Report ranked MFA writing programs, and put Columbia at No. 4.)
How then, does one explain P&W's yearly pummeling of Columbia's program? It's very simple. Columbia has expensive tuition, and Poets & Writers is attempting to shame Columbia into lowering it. Why, you might fairly ask? Why are they doing this? Why is it not OK to charge high tuition if folks seem more than willing to pay it?
Now we arrive at the heart of the matter.
Though Poets & Writers presents itself as an utterly neutral resource for scriveners of all stripes, the magazine is largely written for and by people focused on the teaching of creative writing as a profession. For this cohort, the Columbia model makes no sense. Why would you take out large student loans if you're just going to publish a few chapbooks (with, say, a print run of 500 copies each), settle into a nice teaching residency at the University of Northern South Dakota making $35,000 a year (less, of course, your subscription to Poets & Writers), and achieve tenure based upon your trenchant stewardship of the student literary magazine?
They're right. It wouldn't make sense.
But—now the unspeakable heresy—what if your goal were … something else? What if your goal were to write a successful book that lots of people read? What if your goal were to become a person of letters whose writing was read and appreciated by those outside of MFA and academic circles? What if you even dreamed of securing thousands of dollars for something you had written?
If the Columbia University MFA program would help you do these things, which—guess what?—it totally does, then, as a proposition, Columbia begins to make complete and total sense.
Columbia is a school for people who actually want to become better writers, get books published, and survive—or even thrive—in the rough-and-tumble world of American letters. It is not a holistic weekend retreat. Columbia is a place for people who want to be the best and study with the best. (Or, OK, the best after Iowa.) It's for people whose genitals still work, dammit. For writers who want to be brave and persevere in the real world where people often fail.