Once I started telling people that I wanted to pursue a low-residency MFA in creative writing, other working writers were not shy about regaling me with their MFA horror stories. So naturally I had lingering concerns about enrolling in a program. Would the other students accept me as a fellow student, or would I be an outsider? Would the other students resent my presence because I was already published? Would I face tedious lit snobbery from students and faculty who look down on speculative fiction? Would members of the faculty who don’t publish very much view me with hostility? Would I be assigned to well-meaning advisors who didn’t understand genre and therefore didn't understand what I was trying to accomplish with my work? Would I receive less-than-optimal advice as a result?
Furthermore, several people said, “No! Don’t put yourself into that kind of debt!”
This was the real point of worry for me. I'm not wealthy; like many writers, I have a day job and a part-time adjunct faculty job in addition to my freelance work, and despite all that work, I'm driving a 21-year-old car. My side hustles have side hustles. I'm not alone; lots of people have joined the precariat. But while wages have remained flat in a lot of jobs, college tuition costs have rocketed like they're on a mission to Mars. Total tuition costs at low-residency MFA programs in the U.S. currently ranges from $20,000-$40,000, not counting costs of books, travel, wages lost to residencies and study time, etc. That's a lot.
Paying for school these days represents a crushing debt burden for many students. I know people who owe so much on their student loans that they have no expectation of ever being able to pay it all off, in no small part because their degrees have not helped them get the kinds of jobs necessary to make a dent in their debt.
But here, at least, I had a solid plan: I was employed full-time at a not-for-profit private college that participates in the The Council of Independent Colleges' tuition exchange program. And I knew that several schools that participated in that program also offered MFAs in creative writing.
How does the program work? Here's their blurb:
CIC-TEP is a network of CIC member colleges and universities willing to accept, tuition-free, students from families of full-time employees of other participating institutions. Each participating institution in the network agrees to import a limited number of students on the same admission basis as they accept all other students, without regard to the number of students it exports.
CIC-TEP began more than 30 years ago when a small group of member presidents suggested that CIC create a program with minimal rules and low fees that they could offer as a benefit to employees. Today, 436 colleges and universities (roughly two-thirds of all CIC Members) from 48 states and five countries are participating. Over the decades, thousands of employees and their spouses and dependents have been able to attend college tuition-free. This year alone, more than 1,700 students were able to fulfill their educational goals thanks to CIC-TEP.
The basic deal is that if you're an employee at one CIC institution, you and your dependents can get tuition remission for degrees at other member colleges. In some instances, this is a far better deal than the tuition remission that universities offer their staff for study. For instance, Franklin University staff who want to obtain graduate degrees at Franklin only have 50% of their tuition covered. Through the CIC program, assuming the degree is online or low-residency, 100% of full-time graduate tuition could be covered.
Unfortunately, actual details about whether or not I would receive funding were hard to come by. I found out that I had to apply to a participating school, be accepted into the program, and then I would have my employing school fill out a CIC scholarship application for me. But the HR rep who was submitting the paperwork on my behalf had no idea whether I would get funding or not; we had to wait and see.
Regardless, I figured that if I focused on the best-ranked of those schools – in this case it was Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont – and was accepted, it was likely I’d receive a full scholarship to cover the bulk of my costs. I’d still have to pay for my travel, books, and residency room and board, but those costs were maybe 10% of the total cost of the MFA program. The trick, of course, would be to make sure I could graduate in the limited terms the scholarship would cover.