Free MFA’s in the US

The art world has become increasingly global and transnational, with artists participating in residencies, exhibitions and collaborations in all corners of the globe, and biennale’s and art fairs taking place in cities as diverse as Dhaka, Venice and São Paulo. Yet in spite of this, for artists in the UK it might feel like opportunities to work, live, and study abroad are only shrinking, both as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns, and with the long-term effects of Brexit on the arts and the end of the Erasmus exchange programme.

An installation of rubbings and laser-cut engravings as part of Sam van Strien’s MFA thesis exhibition

Studying in the US, or abroad at all for that matter, wasn’t on my radar when I was applying for art schools in my last year of Sixth Form College. I assumed it was unfeasible, an option only reserved for those with the financial means to spend over $100,000 on an arts education, which to begin with isn’t a path that is known for economic stability or financial reward. Instead, I applied to art schools in the UK and was offered a place to study Fine Art at Central Saint Martins; luckily the year before the government tripled tuition fees.

In my final year at Central Saint Martins I began researching and applying to MFA programmes. A year on from a stint as an Erasmus exchange student at the National Academy of the Arts in Oslo, I had decided I wanted to live and study abroad again and I was adamant that I would only apply to MFA programmes that were free. Initially, I was looking at art schools in Scandinavia, where they – particularly in Norway – offer tuition-free education for all, regardless of nationality.


A workshop organised at Knowlton School of Architecture with artist Sarah Oppenheimer

During this time one of my tutors at Central Saint Martins had just recently returned from a spell as a Visiting Professor at Ohio State University (OSU), and had taken part in a group exhibition organised by faculty at the university. My tutor advised me to think about applying to MFA programmes in the US, and mentioned that the programme at OSU was tuition free and came with a monthly living stipend, along with opportunities to teach in the art department. This came as a surprise to me, as I assumed that the US would be the last place where you could study for free. After further research, I saw that other MFA programmes in the US were also funded, especially at state universities (a university funded by or associated with the state government).

Initially, when I began my MFA at OSU, I was surprised at how notably different the educational system was in contrast to the UK. At Central Saint Martins I was used to a high degree of freedom, which although at times may have been a bit unstructured for my liking, offered the resources, space and independence to develop my art practice. In contrast, OSU’s programme was very structured, where students were required to take class in the art department, with offerings such as mould making, experimental drawing, sculpture and video art. Along with this we also took academic courses in departments around the university. This gave me the opportunity to develop my art practice and research interests in ways that were not readily available at an art school in the UK. To give just one example, in my studio practice I am particularly interested in the history of modernist architecture, and during my MFA I had the chance to develop these interests through a range of courses in the history and theory of architecture at the university’s Knowlton School of Architecture, along with a class in cities and culture in the Comparative Studies department.

Visiting downtown Chicago, where Sam van Strien developed new Super-8 films and video work

Additionally, all MFA students taught undergraduate courses in the department, including drawing, painting, sculpture and digital art. In conjunction with teaching, we also assisted in the department’s woodshop, worked in the university’s downtown art gallery or provided administrative assistance in the office. Through these experiences I learnt a lot of skills that, most likely, I wouldn’t have been offered in many other MFA programmes (even if I am critical about the use of MFA students as a source of cheap labour). This work, however, awarded us a monthly stipend throughout our studies, which was enough to cover living expenses, art supplies and rent. The university also had a range of grants to support the production of work in the studio, along with funding towards research trips. In my case I was awarded a grant to take research trips to New York City, where I visited archives of prominent mid-20th-century modernist architects working in America. These funded research trips helped develop new work in the studio, as well as my writing, contributing towards my MFA exhibition and dissertation.

With all these commitments, students in the MFA programme had a full and demanding schedule. It was not uncommon to have a day beginning with teaching at 8:30am and ending with an evening class at 9 pm; with coursework, studio work and other work commitments filling up the rest of day. This at times exhausting schedule challenged us to radically re-examine our practice and thinking along with a fantastic community of artists in the art department, whilst developing hands-on skills working at the university. I particularly appreciated the truly inter-disciplinary nature of the MFA programme at OSU, where art historians, architectural theorists and visiting artists and writers would come visit our studios, organise workshops and give talks, along with the chance to work with and learn from faculty throughout the university community.

A photo of Sam van Strien’s studio the day he moved in

At a time when the world feels like it’s simultaneously expanding and retracting, with governments tightening borders at the same time that culture, art and people increasingly move between nations, it is more important than ever to take up opportunities to live and work in another country. With the widespread demand for free university education, there are still many options out there for people looking to study abroad, sometimes to be found in the most unlikely places.


For further information on free MFA’s in the US visit:



Sam van Strien (Delft, the Netherlands) is an artist based in London. His work is driven by the question of how and where we experience architecture; employing two-dimensional mediums to examine the role three-dimensional spaces have in our lives.

Sam van Strien graduated with an MFA in Painting & Drawing from Ohio State University (2017) and a BA in Fine Art from Central Saint Martins (2014). He has exhibited nationally and internationally, and has completed several residencies, most recently at PADA Studios in Lisbon, Portugal (2019) and USF Arts Centre in Bergen, Norway (2018). In 2021 Sam will be an artist-in-residence at the NARS Foundation in New York City (Covid-19 permitting) with the support of a Netherland-America Foundation Cultural Grant.




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