Harvard MFA graduates end up in massive debt. What about Minnesota programs?

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Harvard and U of M MFA programs are worlds apart. Star Tribune

Harvard University isn't the first name that comes to mind when you think of a predatory college, but last winter a Harvard MFA program made a Department of Education list of programs that burden graduates with crippling debt. The program, called the A.R.T. Institute and run by Harvard's American Repertory Theater, ultimately decided to halt admissions for three years "to work on a strategic plan."

The announcement prompted conversations across the country. When it comes to earning potential, theater isn't medicine or law: Graduates of the Harvard program earn an average of $36,000 a year. For artists, when is an MFA worth the investment?

Four local theater artists with MFAs all say they're satisfied with the choice to obtain a degree, although they acknowledge money is an important consideration. They also emphasize that getting an MFA in Minnesota is very different than doing so at a big-name school on the east coast: the potential rewards may not be as great, but neither are the risks.

Craig Gottschalk, who attended the University of Minnesota's design and technology MFA program, and now works as lighting and video director at the Children's Theatre Company, says he's often asked about the value of an MFA. Should up-and-coming theater artists go to grad school, or just start working?

"That's a tough question to answer," he says, "because I think it's all about your own personal experience, about what you want to get out of a program. There's very nurturing programs, there's programs that are very high-stakes."

Sara Pillatzki-Warzeha is a recent graduate of the MFA program at Minnesota State University, Mankato, which she found valuable. "I loved my experience," she says. "I was ready to come out into the world and knew exactly what I needed to do to get a job."

Further, depending on which program you're in, heavy-duty loans aren't necessarily a grad school necessity.

"All the MFA students we admit on a full-time basis are offered financial support in the form of a Graduate Assistantship for the duration of the three-year program," wrote Margaret Werry, director of graduate studies at the University of Minnesota's Department of Theatre Arts & Dance, in an email.

"This assistantship pays full tuition expenses, health insurance, and a living stipend ($17,500 for a nine-month contract)," she continued, "and requires them to work 20 hours per week in a teaching or production support capacity."

So, why wouldn't everybody come to Minnesota for an MFA? Well, there's one thing programs like Harvard's have that's harder to come by in Mankato or Minneapolis: national prestige and high-level connections.

"If you want to be the next top Broadway designer," says Gottschalk, "you need to start walking down that path of trying to make connections and get into these schools. They have those connections."

Teresa Mock, a theater artist based in Minneapolis, went even further than Massachusetts: She went to England, where she studied physical theater at the London International School of Performing Arts.

"I still regard it as the best two years of my life," she says. "When else in your life, as an artist, do you have the opportunity to go and fully immerse yourself with 50 other people from around the world and learn from them? It was a kind of artist haven."

There's that question of a price tag, though. Mock is benefiting from an Obama-era income-contingent repayment plan that ultimately leads to loan forgiveness, but without that plan she'd be paying nearly $1,000 a month and would be "living in a box," risking bankruptcy.

"I'm not even making a dent in the interest," she says. "My goal is to pay as little of this back as possible. I'm totally fine with that. I have no problem saying that, because in other places in the world you can go and you can get an education and you don't have to pay for it."

Another reason to pursue an MFA is if you want to become an educator yourself, like Siobhan Bremer, who went to Mankato and now teaches at the University of Minnesota, Morris.

While she acknowledged that her alma mater might not be on Broadway's radar, her degree carries weight regionally. "When I interviewed at Morris," she recalls, "and said that I had my MFA from Mankato, there was an audible 'Oh!' in the room. Like, 'Oh, that's an impressive place to get your degree from.'"

For prospective college teachers, though, Bremer says that these days an MFA might not be enough — in Minnesota, or anywhere. When advising students who express interest in teaching at a university, "I would now say, get your Ph.D. If they are saying, 'I want to go out into the performance world,' I say, there are two ways to look at this. One, you can just go out into the performance world and see if you can make it. Two, get more training and experience in an MFA program."

Pillatzki-Warzeha, who's taught theater in a range of capacities, says she wasn't surprised to hear about the Harvard situation. "Anecdotally, across programs we see a decrease in funding for MFAs, and maybe [in student] interest."

You have to think with both your heart and your head when making the MFA decision, agree these local artists. Of course that's true no matter what field you're pursuing, and Mock is wary of treating theater as a special case when it comes to the student loan crisis.

"There might be something dangerous in saying, 'Well, artists never make money, so they shouldn't have to pay for their education,'" she reflects. "You're then devaluing the arts. You're saying you can't make money as an artist, putting that label on somebody — even if that is sort of unspokenly true."


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