When you applied to college, did you know what the f* you were doing? Not me. I thought I might like to live in New York, where my father grew up; I sent away (ah, I date myself) for Columbia’s fancy paper application. When my parents and I visited a few colleges, I liked the combed green of Swarthmore’s campus and the uncombed hair of the wiry tour guide. Eventually, I had a list of brand-name schools, plus the university where my father taught (I could go there for free) and a school in rural Pennsylvania which would offer me a full scholarship.
Of the fancy schools, I got into one. I went there, turning down full rides at my dad’s university (too close to home) and the rural PA school (too fratty, I told myself). My father allowed me to do this, believing that the connections I would make, not to mention the quality of the education and the overall experience, would be better at the private liberal arts school I attended.
But what does it mean to have a better college experience? Yesterday’s Purdue-Gallup poll of college graduates suggests that most of the things middle- and upper-class parents and kids believe matters about college (how hard it is to get into; public or private; its size) barely matter at all. What matters – and for those of you about to click away because this isn’t about MFAs, hang in there – is how good the student’s experience is. The factors that make up that experience – let’s call them “thrive factors”– are pretty intuitive: inspiring teachers, encouraging mentors, a feeling of being cared about, deep and sustained study, opportunities to apply classroom learning in the real world. And they begin to sound (and this is not lost on the pollsters) a lot like what makes a job satisfying.
Unsurprisingly, students who experienced the greatest number of the factors that make life good in college were most likely to be satisfied and engaged at work, and more likely to report that they were “thriving” in some respect. This is a bitter pill for anyone (is there anyone? oh hello, Race to the Top) who thought that school was just about banging your head against a wall until you memorized some shit that would get you a job.
Here’s the bad news, though: few undergraduates (only 3%) report that they experienced all of the factors that correlate with job satisfaction and “thriving.” What does this say? Here are my guesses. While the biggest “thrive factor” students reported (63%) was “having a professor who made me excited about learning,” only 22% said they’d had a mentor. Why? College teachers who mentor undergraduates have to have time, and they have to stick around; that’s the profile of a tenured or tenure-track professor, who’s an increasingly rare beast on the college green. The “professor who made me excited about learning” is far more likely, except on small liberal arts school campuses, to be an adjunct lecturer or visiting professor. Which means far more likely to suddenly get laid off and disappear.
The stats for experiential factors are more evenly distributed, which is positive: it means that most students have the opportunity either to do some real-world learning, or intern, or know what it’s like to create and pursue a project that lasts longer than three and a half months. But all of those experiential factors are made stronger, the poll shows, by the presence of support in the students’ lives; one could infer that no matter how much experience a college kid racks up, it’s the patience and presence of a supportive mentor that helps them decide what that experience means, how they changed because of it, and what they should do now.
What does this have to do with getting an MFA? For one thing, the whole premise of this blog is that an MFA, even from a top program, is not a degree that guarantees success; it’s the people who pass through those programs who ensure their own good lives. But hardy people, successful people, are made by other people and by experience. I always presume, and often I’m wrong, that most writers who get MFAs do so because someone encouraged them to do so. That’s because this was my experience – several teachers read and encouraged my writing, and one in particular talked extensively with me about the value of the degree, what to look for in a program, and, importantly, allowed me to unload about how my writing life had changed after college. People who have had supportive mentors often seek them again – we know they’re out there – and thus probably facilitate their ability to access the experiences that matter. (Think of how many jobs you’ve applied for, journals you’ve submitted to, new work you’ve read and subjects you’ve become interested in because they came up in conversation with someone who supported you.)
The Purdue-Gallup poll also points to something else, something it’s easy for us tooth-and-nail competitive writers (and those foaming, test-prepping middle schoolers) to forget: that when you are accepted into an elite club, like Harvard or Iowa, it’s easy to feel that that’s the end. To feel you’ve been admitted, and so you can stop driving so goddamned hard. But really – and facing the page in the morning or after a rushed dinner of beer and toast, we know this – the driving, and the being driven, is all that matters.