I can think of a variety of answers.
I. Your Students
Or their parents. If you are the kind of MFA student who has to teach writing or other courses to earn your tuition remission, then it’s the tuition money from your students that, for the most part, pays for you to be there. What does it mean when your students pay for you to do whatever you’re doing for 2, 3, or 4 years? What sort of duty or obligation do you have to those people?
There’s lots of private money in the MFA game. Sometimes this is clear. At Alabama there was all kinds of Truman Capote money floating around. Also the McNair Foundation. When foundations pay for your MFA it’s like you’ve got a patron. What is it like to have, in 2014’s job market, a patron?
There are plenty of people who don’t get private money to fund their degree, or who don’t teach courses paid for by their students, and who thus have to either find the money to afford their education, or take out loans and make plans on how to pay it all back. These people pay their own way. What does it mean in a democracy for someone to pay his or her own way?
Despite what they say about lunch there are lots of things to get for free, and more and more these days I’m thinking that an MFA degree might be one of the worst of them. The strings attached, you see, are like spider silk: you don’t even see anything until you walk face-first into them, and then they’re stuck on you.
At stake here, or maybe just at question, is the writer’s obligations. If it should be to anything but the writing itself, to what, then? To whom? If the MFA is understood to be the start of a career, what does it mean to start that career owing it all to yourself?