Comparing Vanderbilt’s MFA Program to other creative writing programs

Vanderbilt’s MFA Program in Creative Writing ranked among the top nine programs in the country in a survey conducted by Poets & Writers magazine and reported in the September/October 2013 issue of the magazine, the last such ranking that magazine has published

“We were pleased to see that our relatively young program, which only graduated its first class in 2007, only 6 years later ranked among the top nine programs in popularity,” said fiction writer Lorraine Lopez. “Moreover, that year,  for the third successive year, Vanderbilt ranked first in the nation for selectivity.  And the program continues to be highly selective today.  The ratio of applicants to accepted students is more than 10 to one. This year, as in every year since the program began, we admitted only six: three in poetry and three in fiction.”

Vanderbilt’s two-year program not only fully funds its MFA students (with an annual stipend of $24,000, full tuition, and health benefits), but, as the Poets and Writers index noted that year, the program’s class size is “extra small” compared to other creative writing programs across the nation.  In fact, Vanderbilt ranked fifth for its faculty-to-student ratio.“If you are accepted into this program, you are going to get attention,” poet Mark Jarman, and founding director of the program, noted.

“We give our students teaching experience but their teaching load is light,” Kate Daniels, director of Creative Writing, has observed. “That’s a real plus for young writers who want to gain experience teaching poetry or fiction but not at the expense of their own writing time.”  First-year students work in the Writing Studio where they tutor undergraduates who need special help with writing; second-year students each teach a beginning undergraduate course in their genre.

“This wonderful program honors and extends Vanderbilt’s lustrous history in creative writing,” Daniels continued.  “I’m proud that we continue to attract some of the nation’s most promising young writers and believe that of all the factors that draw these students, certainly none is more important than the distinction of the talented writers on our faculty.”

Vanderbilt’s prize-winning creative writing faculty includes fiction writers Tony Earley, Lorrie Moore, Lorraine Lopez and Nancy Reisman; poets Mark Jarman, Kate Daniels, Rick Hilles, Beth Bachman and Sandy Solomon; and nonfiction writer Peter Guralnick.  The program offers study in two genres only: fiction and poetry.

Poets and Writers also evaluated cost of living in the programs’ host communities.  At the time the article appeared, Nashville’s cost of living was relatively low, 11 percent less than the national average, and that affordability continues, which gives graduate student stipends more purchasing power than in other parts of the country.  Nashville ranks among American cities with the lowest cost of living in large part because of the cost of its housing.  Students can rent nice apartments within walking distance of campus at affordable prices.

Poets and Writers based its 2014 rankings on seven categories: popularity, selectivity, funding, student-faculty ratio, fellowship placement, job placement, and location.  It based its popularity figures on programs to which surveyed students most applied during the 2012-2013 admissions cycle.

Vanderbilt’s Creative Writing Program has attracted favorable attention since its inception in 2005, and certainly since Poets and Writers has been evaluating creative writing programs.  In the magazine’s 2013 index, Vanderbilt’s MFA program ranked 10th in popularity. In the two previous years–in the 2011 and 2012 index–Poets & Writers, Vanderbilt ranked 14th in the nation.  The magazine was using a slightly different ranking system then–taking into account eight criteria, including size, duration, cost of living, teaching load and curriculum focus.  Stipends available to Vanderbilt MFA students have since increased substantially.

Even in 2009, the first year Poets & Writers compiled this list (only four years after the program’s inception and only a year and a half after it had granted degrees to its first graduating class), Vanderbilt’s Creative Writing program already ranked 18th, among the very best in the country.

“As soon as I arrived in Nashville, the members of the MFA faculty were calling me to invite me out to coffee, to take me out to lunch,” said Matt Baker, a recent MFA graduate in fiction who went on to win a Fulbright Fellowship. “At any program in the country you can study under talented, published professors, but at Vanderbilt they’re also genuinely interested in the lives of their students.  That’s something the Poets & Writers rankings don’t even take into account. Take that into consideration, and I think our program is at least top five.”