A letter from the mailbag from my friend and Seattle-era, Printer's Devil-era theater maker Hilary Ketchum:
I just had to write and tell you how much I've been enjoying your debate re MFA programs.
It's hitting close to home for me because I attended the MFA Acting program at the New School University from 2000-2001 when it was still under the auspices of the Actor's Studio. The tuition was $28,000 a year, which is just under the cost of tuition for much more renown programs such as Yale and NYU. I took it all out in loans and I also took out an additional $10,000 for living expenses, plus I was working a part time job, which they advise against. Can you believe that? I was like, "yes but....how?" So I just worked anyway, most of the students did.
Unlike NYU & Yale, this program was really poorly put together and young. The connection to the Actor's Studio was eronious except that the teachers were all members and they were great. I had a wonderful experience with my acting teacher and my history teacher there but the rest were just, eh. The main problem though, was the other students. They accepted 50 acting students, many of which had little no experience at all. I could go on and on about why the program was not up to snuff with the big leagues but I won't because it's not really my point.
My point is that they had no right to charge the prices they were charging. If it had been say, $6,000 a year (like the wonderful Playwrighting MFA program at Brooklyn College where my husband graduated) or even $10,000 a year, I would have stayed but it quickly became apparent to me that this program was not going to help me become a working actor. Even if it helped me get into the Actor's Studio itself (when you graduate you're allowed to audition at the top tier and many did get in) after observing sessions at the Actor's Studio, which we were allowed to do, I began to realise that getting in there wasn't any great shakes either. It's basically a bunch of geriatrics slapping each other on the back for great yarns like, "I remember once when I did an improv with Brando and he threw me against a WALL!!" A cohort of mine used to sit with me and play a game I made up called "how many minutes will go by before someone mentions Brando." It was a fun game because someone always did.
Anyhoooo, I was really unhappy at the program and after one year I decided to leave. It was a hard decision because I'm not a quitter and I don't give up easily but the main thing for me was that this was costing me SO MUCH MONEY. I saved myself over $70,000 by dropping out and it was the best decision I've ever made. That's more than what my husband and I just put down as a down payment on our house. By the way, I haven't seen even one member of my cohort in so much as a television commercial, let alone a piece of downtown theater and I've been looking.
Now in full disclosure I auditioned for the NYU MFA program twice and didn't get in. I know that I don't really have what it takes to make it as a working actor. If I had gotten in to NYU I may have gotten more work; I may not have. I probably would have had a much better experience and at least gotten an agent but I really agree with you that even these top tier programs are charging way too much, way too much for this experience. Kids believe that it's their ticket in and for a very small few it is. Many people have made the point that it's not just about getting work when you get out, it's about the inner growth, what you learn, becoming a better actor. and I totally agree. I did get quite a lot out of my first and only year in an MFA program, however it was NOT EVEN CLOSE TO BEING WORTH THE MONEY.
If a young talented actor walked up to me and asked me if they should go to graduate school for acting I would say, "If you are rich, then yes. If you are not rich, just go audition, join a theater company, work and learn the hard way. You'll save yourself a shit load of money."
I'll stop here. I just wanted you to know that I agree with everything you're saying. It needs to be talked about and examined. It's total extortion plain and simple.
Very truly yours!