MFA Theater Programs = Ponzi Scheme?

Various reactions have come up in regards to Mike Daisey’s original blog post about MFA theater programs.

I like how Daisey responds and reminds the readers that his focus was on “institutional choice to charge tuition that have no relationship with the craft they are teaching.” and “If a teacher is teaching in an MFA program that charges a tuition its students can never pay through the craft, the onus is on the teacher to justify for his or herself how this can be ethical.”

Does the teacher, that is within the academic system that charges a total sum of money that can not be paid off within the profession they are being trained for, have a responsibility to justify why this is ethical? Or do they turn the blind eye because they are getting a steady pay check? I agree with an additional post by Daisey when he states:

I would argue that perhaps one of the largest pitfall network effects of a capitalist society is the tragedy of the commons—in this case it is possible that a universally needed resource (future artists) is being exploited to ensure economic stability for the system today. By telling theater artists today that they must have training, and then making that training out of context to the industry they will be practicing their craft in we hurt the art form as a whole. I’ve had some fantastic teachers in my life, and I love teaching myself. That doesn’t absolve me or anyone else of the responsibility to call out a broken system for its problems.

The thrust of Daisey’s argument lies in the idea that it is very difficult for future theater artists to create theater when they are racked with debt from MFA programs. Most MFA acting programs pride themselves with the notion they are creating professional artists and not teachers. Yet many MFA actors have to look for teaching jobs when they graduate to pay off the debt from school as well as to sustain a living. We might not see the ramifications now, but like the Ponzi Scheme, this pattern of behavior will soon catch up with us.

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    9 thoughts on “MFA Theater Programs = Ponzi Scheme?

    1. Angela

      Again, I would like to state that this does not apply to all MFA programs. There are many that waive tuition and offer stipends.

    2. Mick Montgomery

      Can. Worms. Everywhere.

      I guess the natural question to Angela’s comment is, how many students in each program get work stipends and free tuition per year? How many institutions offer this as opposed to the ones that do not?

      My big question is… is it worth it?

      I’m sure the MFA student who forked over tuition would argue, yes. It’s hard to criticize the legitimacy of a degree you spent time and money to get.

      MFA’s in and of themselves are a valid pursuit, as any pursuit of knowledge is a personal journey, where the rewards should be measured by the individual on the road not by the financial merits attributed.

      However, I think Daisy and Dennis are stating that so many MFA’s dangle the carrot of successful acting careers in front of students to entice people into their programs. That logic is just a ridiculous fallacy. Therefore there is an ethical question here that should be answered. I notice no actual MFA professors have spoken up in this public dialogue yet.

    3. Angela

      To Mick – My program (Florida State University/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training) currently has 30 students. All of us get our tuition waived and all of us get the same stipend. When I was researching graduate schools, I found others that had similar situations (such as Ohio State University, Indiana University, Wayne State University, and the University of Missouri – Kansas City, if I remember correctly).

      I agree that no MFA can guarantee a successful career in theatre (really, nothing can — this profession is a gamble). But, for me, it is absolutely worth it. I’ve already grown so much as an actor, as an artist, and as a person since I’ve been here. And I know that I’m going to have a more successful and rewarding life as a result of it.

      I’m not saying that an MFA is the right decision for everyone. I’m just saying that I think calling it a Ponzi scheme is a flawed analogy.

    4. Allison

      Hi Dennis:

      I am the person to whom Mike Daisey responded.

      One question: How can you call MFAs Ponzi schemes when you offer audition coaching for prospective graduate theater students? Where is your role in this structure?

      – Allison

    5. Dennis Baker

      Because I feel like Tom Loughlin, I am a teacher who is telling my students the realities of some of the MFA theater programs and the profession. Many people find me after reading my experience with the Rutgers MFA acting program. I am transparent about my process and feel I give my students a well rounded view about MFA programs. I also point them to people that are having positive experiences as well, like Angela. I have never have told anyone not to get an MFA, I am simply asking questions about the current system.

    6. Pingback: MOVING FORWARD WITH YOUR USELESS FINE ARTS DEGREE « Jim Moscater: The Website

    7. MFA survivor


      Thank you for opening up this topic.

      Please enjoy the fact that any success you achieve as an actor will now be on your own terms. Your school will not be able to suddenly waltz back into your life and try to take credit.

      I envy you this. I did what I had to do to graduate from a “top” program that has been one of my less helpful experiences. My ridiculous investment keeps me from taking the degree off my resume. But it adds tension to my auditions, because I dread trying to keep conversations positive if an interviewer decides to make conversation about my school. In one town I started blurting out the truth, and a colleague said, “hasn’t that chip fallen off your shoulder yet?”

      Helen Mirren says in her autobiography that she’s very glad she didn’t go to drama school, where the competition is unhealthily worse than in the professional world.

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