Columbia MFA students demand tuition refund


I know this is something of old news…but today’s topic just strikes me as a more important phenomenon for higher ed than anything in the “top 10” of last post. We now have nearly an entire class of students at a good school asking for refunds.

When it comes to student loans, the most painful are for grad school—many students, finding themselves unable to get a job right out of college and deep in debt, double down (more accurately, quadruple down) on education by going to graduate school.

The people most hurt by this? The MFA, Master of Fine Arts, students. They pay a fortune for their degree, then are unleashed into a world where, well, you don’t need a degree to be an artist, and a degree doesn’t confer nearly as much of an advantage as, well, being a skilled artist. Additionally, arts people aren’t necessarily the most financially astute; the time they realize they’ve signed away their future for a piece of paper might not come until after years of payments, possibly with the debt getting even larger. The largest student loan debtors just seem to be art students.

Since accreditation—amazingly!—cares less for grad school education than it does for undergraduate education, even well-established schools can skimp pretty heavily when it comes to teaching these advanced students, even as they charge multiples more.

Art students might not all be financial whizzes, but they know when they’re being cheated:

In April, 51 of the 54 students slated to graduate from Columbia University’s visual-arts M.F.A. program came to the provost with an unusual demand: a full tuition refund for the 2017-18 academic year.

Wow. I’ve seen an entire cohort of MFA students resign rather than indebt themselves, but the concept of nearly a whole class asking for a refund just boggles my mind. I trust they had reasons?

These candidates had reportedly been working in decrepit conditions. Limestone had fallen from studio ceilings and hallways had flooded, damaging works of art. Room temperatures often dropped below 40 degrees… (One year of tuition at Columbia’s fine-arts program is $63,961.)

Can the gentle reader, or any sane person, conceive of paying over $60k a year for an education under these conditions? Every legit business I know of treats customers shelling out this kind of dough as VIPs, to the point that if the VIP was cold, they’d pop down to the store and buy a space heater, blankets, and thermal socks if necessary to make the VIP happy.

But not Columbia, which saw only the opportunity for plunder. The reader should not take this essay as picking on this particular MFA program, as I’ve covered other arts schools with similarly sketchy practices.

At least admin here conceded the students were treated poorly:

The state of Columbia’s highly ranked program — a “disgrace,” the provost acknowledged…

Great! So surely the provost will do the right thing here, it’s not like the school spent the money on heating bills or building maintenance.

…he declined their refund request…

Wow, again. It used to be admin would have the decency (?) to lie about what they’re doing, but administrative control is now so strong that they can literally tell the students they were cheated and their money is not coming back. I’m sure the provost got some nice lakefront property (one of the key life goals of administrators, as near as I can tell) for his work overseeing this program.

It’s not just this one school:

Seven of the 10 most-expensive higher-education institutions in the United States, after financial aid is factored in, are art schools. In 2014, Art Times reported, tuition and expenses for a four-year undergraduate degree at the Rhode Island School of Design cost $253,000. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, at a mere $205,000, it said, begins to seem like a bargain… at freestanding art schools, debt levels are even higher.

What do these students learn, anyway?

Not craft or technique, it turns out. We are a long way from late-19th-century Paris, where “academic painting” signified technically dazzling neoclassical figures, lush but sterile, and where the brutal disruptions of Manet and the Impressionists were consigned to the “Salon des Refusés.”… students take no classes on technique, and most take no art history.

So, these MFA graduates have no technique and no academic knowledge. Much like Math Education majors can teach in a community college without knowing any (if that much) math, it’s clear the MFA graduate can likewise get a job there. The gentle reader should keep this in mind when “saving money” by going to a community college.

“I’m sure we could all make beautiful Monet paintings or Picasso paintings if we wanted to,” one student says brazenly, “but that’s not what we want to do.”

Well, they certainly learn brazen confidence. I certainly was reluctant to talk like that about mathematics, because a professor hearing me might say “Good. Demonstrate.” That would have ended my career before it started.

The M.F.A. programs identify beauty with commercialism and with naïve illustration devoid of ideas…Yet there is a contradiction here, as Fine acknowledges: If beauty is commercial, then why do elite collectors, in step with art-world conventions, clamor after “ugly” art?

This is a rare error in the article. I’m no artist, but my parents were dealers in antiques. Yes, beautiful antiques were valuable, but often the most precious were the most hideous—nobody wanted them at the time because they were so ugly, and thus scarce. I can see something similar for art in general, but there still needs to be a demonstration of skill, right? Even the ugly things were nevertheless made well.

So, again, what skills are they learning?

The M.F.A. trains artists to talk about their work with slickness and flair, in conformity with the lexicon of the art world… Art schools require students to justify and explain their art in highly theoretical terms, but give them no adequate instruction in philosophy, literature, or any other discursive field that prizes subtle distinctions or analytical clarity.

Hey, that’s something, I suppose. But what do these de-skilled and deeply indebted artists create?

“Part of my own narrative,” the student says, “is me painting my shit on the walls, out of my diapers as a kid, and that carrying itself onward.”

I apologize for the language but…with no skill training, no education in this very particular field, I hardly expect a graduate to be any different in his artistry than, well, a completely ignorant Philistine like me.

Except I know better than to put crap on the walls and call it art.

At the risk of being tiresome, I point out the insanely high tuition is only possible because of the student loan scam, a scam which is destroying a generation of our students. End it already.