Buyer Beware: The Case Against Getting an M.F.A.

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Amy Clites

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“I think any system that tells you that you need to spend an enormous amount of money to be legitimized as a creative human being is a racket.” – Elizabeth Gilbert, from Elizabeth Gilbert Works Her Magic, Miami Herald, 10/16/15

I’m going to say something that’s been said many, many, many times before, but still bears repeating: Don’t get an M.F.A. Especially in acting.

I mean it.  Put down that expensive degree in the performing arts and back away slowly so you don’t get hurt.

I’d shout it from the rooftops and then maybe jump, but I doubt anyone in my neighborhood in Gary, Indiana, would much care.  Nothing to see here, folks. Just another working-class lady having a mid-life crisis. She’ll be alright. Just get her a glass of Barefoot white wine with an ice cube in it and maybe an Ambien if you’ve got one to spare.  She just needs to have a little rest.  Her hormones are out of whack.

It’s that time of year when I’m reminded of the burden I’ve been carrying since I got my M.F.A. in Acting in 2002.  It’s time to submit my annual application for my Income-Based Repayment plan for my student loans, and have my monthly payments recalculated based on last year’s taxes.

The process always, always leaves me in tears.  And not just like one of those single-tear-running-down-the-cheek moments you see in a good Lifetime movie.  I mean like sobbing-so-hard-I-can’t-breathe-and-my-husband-has-to-intervene-and-tell-me-everything-is-going-to-be-okay-that-nobody-can-pay-their-loans-and-one-day-either-inflation-will-be-so-bad-the-amount-I-owe-will-be-negligible-or-they’ll-be-forgiven-because-our-collective-student-debt-is-strangling-the-economy kind of tears. I alternate between anger and despair knowing that the $98,000 I owe this year will likely bloom to six figures next year because my payments don’t even cover the interest and my principal continues to grow.

Big, deep, cleansing breaths….

If I were to tally up all the money I’ve made as an actor since getting my M.F.A., my basic calculations total less than half of what I owe for my degree.  This is with an Equity card that I’ve had for 15 years, and booking gigs on TV, in films, in commercials and onstage in a national tour.  Don’t even get me started on the amount of money I’ve spent on headshots, audition clothes, hair and makeup, classes, reels, mailings, websites, union dues and the like.  Being an actor is expensive, and I don’t have the money to spare to pay for all the necessities.  And I don’t want to go further into debt doing it.

I’m exhausted, I’m broke, and my debt is slowly killing my passion for acting.

I’m kind of amazed it’s not already dead yet.

The Reality

I am not the only person out there having this crisis.  Perhaps you’ve heard the hubbub about Harvard’s A.R.T. Institute. They suspended admissions for three years after getting a failing grade from the US Department of Education.  Why?  Because their graduates are saddled with an unmanageable amount of debt.  Just what constitutes an “unmanageable” debt burden?  According to federal rules that dictate which programs qualify for student aid, a graduate’s loan payments can’t be more than 20 percent of their income.  The A.R.T. graduates, on average, earn only $36,000 a year and spend 44 percent of that income on loan repayments.

Here are some more startling figures. In an article published by American Theatre magazine, they shared results of a poll of 500 graduates of theatre programs. 27 percent of them had $16-30K of student loan debt, 22 percent had $31-50K, and 29 percent had $51-100K. In another article, they shared findings from the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) that showed the median annual income for theatre workers was $35,000.

Another harsh reality is that the market is only getting more saturated with actors who have M.F.A.s. The number of master’s degrees awarded in the visual and performing arts in 1971 was 6,675. In 2012, that number was 17,331.

The Ramifications

“When a student makes a personal and financial decision to attend college, the student must feel confident that it is a sound investment in his or her future, not a liability that will further defer his or her dreams.” –former US Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. in a statement.

Here’s a little-known fact that makes me lose sleep at night: Did you know that the government could garnish your Social Security benefits (retirement or disability) if you have outstanding student loans? According to a report from the Government Accountability Office, nearly 114,000 recipients of Social Security have an average of $140 a month taken from their benefits. This represents a 540 percent increase in the last ten years. Not only that, but 70 percent of the money collected goes to interest and fees, meaning that most of those folks still don’t see their principal balance go down.

Keep in mind these garnishments only happen if you’re in default. The best course of action is to be upfront with your lender about your situation, and sign-up for one of the repayment programs based on your income. In some cases, these plans will forgive any remaining balance after a certain number of years, usually 20 or 25.

Except, of course, these programs are subject to the whims of whoever happens to be in charge. In 2007, George W. Bush created a forgiveness program that allows public employees with typically low wages to have their debt wiped away after ten years of payments. However, now that those first applicants are beginning to qualify for that forgiveness, Trump has proposed ending the program.

You never know what’s going to happen down the line, and frankly I’m not terribly optimistic.

Oh, and don’t forget that if you’re on the Income-Based Repayment plan, when your remaining loan is forgiven on some future date, you’ll pay taxes on that amount as though it were income. Try to swallow that one without choking.

What about filing for bankruptcy? Yeah, I’m afraid that’s not going to be much help either. Back in 1998, Congress made it almost impossible to discharge federal student loans with bankruptcy. In 2005, they included private student loans as well.

And what if you want to buy a house? The National Association of Realtors conducted a study in 2017 that shows that 83 percent of those surveyed say their student loan debt is delaying their ability to buy a home. I can speak from personal experience that mortgage lenders don’t look favorably upon that massive debt. The only reason my husband and I have a mortgage is because he recently paid off his student loans. He’s 60. My name had to be taken off the application specifically because of my student loan debt. I wouldn’t have a house if I didn’t have a spouse.

The Teaching Back-up Plan

“Hey,” I can hear you thinking, “I’m getting my M.F.A. so I can teach at the college level. I’ll be fine.”

Not to burst your bubble, but good luck with that. Yes, most institutions of higher learning require a terminal degree like an M.F.A. in order to teach. The reality is, the number of tenure-track positions at colleges and universities is shrinking. If you do happen to land a teaching gig, don’t be surprised if you’re an adjunct. According to the American Association of University Professors, more than 70 percent of all teaching gigs in higher education are non-tenure-track.

The pay for these positions is notoriously low and appointments often come without benefits. In fact, almost a quarter of adjunct professors actually receive public assistance in the form of food stamps or Medicaid. How are you supposed to pay back those loans when you can’t even afford your groceries or health insurance? It’s become so bad that adjunct faculty around the country are beginning to unionize.

Here’s a specific example from my own life. The year after I finished graduate school my alma mater hired me as an adjunct to lead all the B.F.A. Acting students in a one-hour morning warm-up three times a week. I was paid $25 per class. It took me two hours round-trip travel time to get to and from the school, and I paid approximately $10 in gas and tolls each trip that was not reimbursed. So basically for the three hours of my time each morning I was being paid $5/hour. The federal minimum wage that year was $5.15/hour.

As you can see, this is not sustainable in the long term.

The Alternatives

OK, so you’re toying with the idea that maybe getting an M.F.A. in acting is not a great plan for future financial success. So what do you do instead?

Take classes. Here’s a secret – even when you do have an M.F.A. it’s sound advice to always be in some kind of class. It’s where you meet people and it’s how you keep your skills sharp. Because I already have so much debt, it has hindered my ability to afford these kinds of classes where crucial connections are made. You can get the same quality of graduate-level training by taking classes. It’s just spread out over a much longer period of time instead of in a condensed two- to three-year time span like you would get in a graduate program.

Get a day job. It really is OK to get a day job that doesn’t have anything to do with acting. It does not mean you are doomed to failure. Especially if that day job allows you some flexibility and lets you start earning and saving money. Knowing you have money in the bank is freeing, and your work as an actor will benefit from it. Elizabeth Gilbert talks about this in her book about creativity, Big Magic. Don’t put pressure on your creativity to pay the bills. That’s an excellent recipe for stifling it, especially early on.

Start auditioning. You don’t need an agent to start getting seen for auditions. There are plenty of websites that let you set up a profile, search the breakdowns and submit yourself. Start getting some experience on stage or in front of the camera. Experience is hands down the best teacher. And if you’re lucky you might even get paid for it!

The Exceptions

It is worth noting that there are several schools that have fully-funded M.F.A. programs which cover tuition and in some cases living expenses for students. Some of these programs have been doing it for years, showing that it can be done in a sustainable way. They include:

·      Brown University / Trinity Rep  -- The M.F.A. programs in Acting and Directing provide scholarships to cover full tuition for all new and returning students. Additional stipends are also available to eligible students for living expenses.

·      The Old Globe / University of San Diego – The professional actor training program awards full-tuition scholarships to every student in addition to a monthly stipend. The total financial support for each student is upwards of $80,000.

·      The University of Tennessee Knoxville – This school proves you don’t have to be on one of the coasts to be relevant. The Hollywood Reporter recently ranked the program among the top 25 best acting schools to get an M.FA. On top of that, all students receive a full-ride scholarship and a living stipend.

·      Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training / Florida State University – All students in the program receive a full tuition waiver and living stipend.

·      Case Western Reserve University / Cleveland Playhouse – The program provides all graduate students with a full-tuition waiver as well as an annual living stipend.

·      Penn State School of Theatre – Graduate assistantships provide a full-tuition waiver as well as an annual cash stipend.

If you’re one of the lucky souls who manage to apply, audition and get accepted to one of these programs, for the love of all that’s holy -- GO. Do it for me. If you’re not committing yourself to a large financial burden when you graduate and are instead more confident, skilled and well connected than when you began, well, that’s gold. Kudos to you.

Let’s give a round of applause to these schools for recognizing a legitimate problem and taking real steps to address it. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

What programs did I miss? Tell me about them on Facebook – share the wealth!

(On a side note, I’m suddenly really, really jealous of all my friends who graduated from these programs.)

(On another side note, let’s not forget that an earlier version of the House GOP tax bill proposed taxing students on their tuition waivers, treating it as income. We narrowly escaped that one. In that scenario, you still would have paid a hefty price for that supposedly “free” education.)

The Bottom Line

Getting an M.F.A. is like signing yourself up for a lifetime of indentured servitude (unless, of course, you get into one of the programs I mentioned above and graduate without debt, you are already wealthy, or you hit the jackpot and become a ridiculously famous movie star right out of the gate).

The world is changing, and we must change with it. Our current economic landscape combined with the financial realities of working in this business make taking on $100,000 or more in loans for your education an obviously risky and ill-advised move. You are so much better off taking classes a la carte, getting some real-world experience, and establishing a firm financial footing early in your career. If you have the innate talent and the drive to succeed, you’ll find your way. And you’ll be a whole lot less stressed doing it.

So – what do you think? Still think it’s worth it to get that pricey degree? Have a personal story to share and want to commiserate? Think I’m a crybaby? The discussion is at OnStage Blog's Facebook page.

Amy Clites is a writer and actor who relocated to the Third Coast (the shores of Lake Michigan) after 20 years in NYC and LA. Check out her blog or follow her on Twitter.

(Photo by energepic.com from Pexels)