LOS ANGELES — The Master of Fine Arts, known as MFA, has long been considered an advantageous if not indispensable step on the path to becoming a full-fledged artist. Over the past several decades, Los Angeles has been recognized as a hotbed of artistic education, with a handful of art schools turning out waves of newly minted MFAs each spring. But as the cost of living and attending art school in the city has ballooned alongside the growth of these programs, are art students still flocking to them in the same numbers they once were?
Based on figures from LA-area art schools shared with Hyperallergic, the answer, for the most part, is more nuanced than one might expect: Yes, MFA enrollments are still high, but some schools have experienced a modest though not insignificant decline. The California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), the largest graduate-level art school in the area, had 1,372 applicants in 2014, 242 of whom attended that year. In 2023, those figures dropped slightly to 1,191 applicants, with 196 attending — a 19% dip in enrollment. Otis College of Art & Design had 32 MFA Fine Arts students enrolled in 2018 and 25 in 2022. Figures for other schools, including the University of Southern California Roski School of Art and Design (USC), University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and University of California, Irvine (UCI) were more consistent, though it should be noted that they have far fewer students than CalArts, some with as few as seven or eight per cohort, like USC.
Notably, applications to USC’s MFA program dropped from a high of 398 in 2014 to 90 in 2016, though presumably this is related to the program’s near-collapse in 2015. In 2023, the program received 106 applications. UC Irvine received 173 MFA applications in 2019, which dropped to 149 in 2020 and 126 in 2021. Presumably, the COVID-19 pandemic is partly responsible for these declines as well.
Speaking more broadly about MFA programs nationwide, Deborah Obalil, president and executive director of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art & Design (AICAD), told Hyperallergic that there was a peak in MFA enrollment in 2011, with a slight decline since then — in keeping with higher education overall, which has experienced a 15% drop.
“It’s not surprising that graduate enrollment in the arts has mirrored this larger trend,” she says. She suggests that a decreasing birth rate and increasing cost of higher education are partly to blame, adding that “overall, folks are understandably making different choices.”
In light of the Supreme Court’s recent rulings striking down affirmative action in college admissions and President Biden’s student-loan forgiveness program, it is conceivable that the intersection of race and class will become even more fraught as challenges mount for economically underprivileged art students and applicants of color.
“I think it’s likely to lead to more international POC students who pay full ride and fewer subsidized or domestic POC students, which means students overall will be more removed from the political realities of race in the United States,” Anuradha Vikram, a curator, writer, and part-time lecturer who has taught at UCLA, USC, CalArts, and Otis told Hyperallergic.
Amelia Jones, a writer and professor at the USC Roski School of Art & Design who is currently writing a book about the phenomenon of the neoliberal university, doesn’t think the ruling would directly impact MFA applicants, but could still affect MFA programs.
“Graduate programs in general and certainly not MFA programs in particular are not using affirmative action guidelines such as those rejected by the Supreme Court … There is, however, potential for universities overreacting to the ruling and proactively applying the anti-diversity idea to broad areas of the university, which very unfortunately would affect upper level staff hires as well as faculty hires and graduate programs,” Jones told Hyperallergic.
“The ruling on overturning Biden’s attempt to cancel student debt will have much more immediate effect on MFA students, no question,” Jones added. “The absurdity of running educational institutions by putting people in debt is now clear and this whole system should be wiped out and reorganized so that this doesn’t happen in the future.”
Despite the declines that some schools have experienced, many art students clearly still see the benefits of an MFA. “Mostly what they do is twofold — they offer space and time to artists to develop a self-sustaining practice, and they connect artists with the industry networks that will sustain them,” said Vikram.
The rising costs of MFA programs, however — paired with a parallel climb in the cost of living in LA — raises serious questions, not just for students but for the schools themselves. MFA tuition rates vary, from about $21,000 per year for California residents at UCLA to between $50,000–$58,000 at ArtCenter, CalArts, and Otis and about $66,000 a year at USC.
“My concern is that the rise in tuition costs is leading to a situation where many MFA programs are accepting students who aren’t sufficiently experienced in the field, who neither have art practices that they have been developing consistently nor awareness of what the expectations of the field are, and aren’t prepared to absorb new information that’s practical and relevant because they are highly anxious about the high cost of tuition they are taking on,” Vikram added.
Jones added that the problem of rising tuition costs for MFA degrees is part of a larger development of a capitalist growth model being applied to the university.
“You have universities growing, but without thoughtful development of funding models,” she told Hyperallergic. “The state in this case demands that universities have measurable ‘outcomes’ (students) and that students do as well (‘jobs’). This distorts everything that a liberal arts or art education was formerly assumed to be about.”
It’s worth noting that programs dedicated to design have become more prominent at some of these schools, especially considering the difficulty in applying traditional models of “success” or “accountability” to the fine arts. A total of 11 students were enrolled in Otis’s MFA in Graphic Design program in 2018, which grew to 19 by 2022. USC had 10 students enrolled in its Design MFA in 2018, the year it launched, with 18 enrolled last year. Notably, applications to the program swelled from 26 in 2018 to 132 this year — perhaps signaling a shift in interest toward art-oriented programs with perceived real-world applications.
To make themselves rate higher on rankings charts, schools must appear more selective, attracting and then rejecting larger numbers of applicants.
“Universities had to start competing for applicants — raising funds from millionaires to build fancy buildings they could name after the donor, generating huge marketing and branding campaigns to recruit as many applicants as possible so they could reject a higher percentage — all of which hugely raises the cost of running a university,” Jones explained. “So tuition goes way up.”
Last year, a group of ArtCenter faculty started the Free Grad Art initiative, with the ultimate goal of covering tuition for all MFA students in the program. (MFA tuition was almost $26,000 a semester this year.) They began with a benefit sale of artwork by faculty and alumni through David Zwirner Gallery last July, in hopes of fully covering tuition for one MFA student.
Alternative models have also been emerging, such as the Crenshaw Dairy Mart Fellowship, through which three artists participate in a program of lectures, workshops, and critiques. Fellows also receive a $100,000 grant, provided through an anonymous foundation for the program’s first year. The fellowship was started by USC Roski MFA grads Patrisse Cullors, alexandre ali reza dorriz, and noé olivas.
To this end, Jones notes that the MFA model is fairly new and alternatives have existed in the past and will likely emerge in the future. “Human creativity and hope and joy are impossible to stamp out — very fortunately … As many other cultures have shown us, there are other ways to create and share and build human connectedness. This model is not the only one.”
This article was made possible through the support of the Sam Francis Foundation in honor of the 100th birthday of Sam Francis.