Best Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Online Programs

Learn about the range of Master of Fine Arts online programs available, explore a list of the best schools, and get answers to your key questions.

If you’re ready to advance your career in the fine arts, an online MFA program can give you the skills and confidence you need to achieve your artistic goals and dreams. Earning a master of fine arts online builds a core set of in-demand skills that you can take into the workplace to challenge, engage, and lead others. The MFA is a broad degree that allows you to choose your specialization, including art history, creative writing, theater, animation, or graphic design. With the depth of knowledge you’ll gain, you’ll then be prepared to take a leadership role in the corporate or nonprofit world or start teaching a discipline you love.

This guide can help focus your interest by detailing the different MFA specializations and spotlighting a few of the best online MFA programs out there. It also looks at popular course offerings, outlines potential career paths, and answers key questions on cost, accreditation, admissions, and time to completion. Keep reading to find the best online MFA program for you.

College Spotlights: Best Online MFA Programs in 2021

When you’re comparing online MFA programs, it can be difficult to determine which programs rise above the rest. How do you narrow things down and what criteria do you use? Below we profile three best-in-class online MFA programs to help you get started. We vetted these programs using key indicators such as accreditation, cost, flexibility, and curriculum. These spotlights are a preview of our more comprehensive online MFA program rankings arriving later this year, so stay tuned. For now, find out which programs stand out.

Savannah College of Art and Design

Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) administers online MFA programs in ten areas: animation, fashion, graphic design, interactive design and game development, luxury and fashion management, painting, photography, motion media design, illustration, and writing. Each course of study requires 90 total credits and is designed for working professionals, busy designers, and on-the-go artists. Delivery methods include asynchronous virtual instruction that’s available anytime, anywhere; virtual critiques and discussion boards; and remote access to industry-standard technology tools.

SCAD uses small class sizes that support one-on-one attention in a collaborative learning environment facilitated by award-winning artists, faculty, and practitioners. Students also enjoy access to additional resources like master classes in a virtual lecture hall, digital workshops, remote library tools, and more. Along the way, SCAD provides high-level opportunities for professional networking in which students can establish connections with industry leaders and international organizations. Many of the program areas also offer specializations that help aspiring artists dig further into the topics that meet their needs.

University of Arkansas at Monticello

The University of Arkansas at Monticello’s School of Arts and Humanities offers online MFA programs in creative writing and debate and communication. Neither program includes a residency requirement and both call for 48 credits that students can complete in as few as four terms. The creative writing online MFA develops core skills in critical thinking and literary analysis through instruction in a range of methods and aesthetic approaches. The debate and communication online MFA builds competencies in administration, coaching, and qualitative research. Both programs require a thesis project and comprehensive exam.

These programs stand out from other online master of fine arts options by offering a limited number of graduate assistantships to qualified students. The awards help defray tuition costs and give aspiring professionals the opportunity to teach undergraduate students within their respective disciplines. The school delivers all coursework entirely online and encourages students to pursue their studies at a pace that fits their unique circumstances.

School of Visual Arts

Students at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York City can pursue an online MFA in art practice or visual narrative. Each 60-credit course of study uses a low-residency format, which means intensive, in-person summer sessions supplement coursework delivered online throughout the academic year. SVA implements this hybrid model to accommodate a wide variety of circumstances without sacrificing the hands-on components that form the basis of fine arts education. Both programs also involve an original thesis project that students must conceptualize, craft, and present to the public.

The art practice program provides an interdisciplinary approach to art-making and includes coverage in a range of mediums, disciplines, and genres. The visual narrative program offers an innovative course of study that blends creative writing and visual art. Students in each program use SVA’s technology services tools, advisement center, and career development resources as they hone their skills and look ahead to professional practice after graduation.

Advantages of Earning an Online Master’s in Fine Arts

Hybrid programs and online learning make a fine arts education more accessible than ever. Earning your MFA online means you’ll benefit from the best of both worlds: you’ll learn from the same seasoned experts that lead traditional programs but you won’t have to disrupt your professional commitments or upend your life to take most courses on campus. Here are just a few of the advantages online MFA programs offer.

  1. Affordability

    You’ll delve into the financial side of things in more detail below, but overall online MFA programs are less expensive than the alternatives. Some programs may even have special tuition rates for online students. This means you can pursue your goals without extra debt or financial burdens.

  2. Convenience and Flexibility

    Most online MFA programs still include some in-person components, but on the whole you will be able to study at your own pace. A typical program delivers all core courses entirely online using a combination of synchronous and asynchronous tools. These tools accommodate a wide variety of circumstances and lifestyles.

  3. Critique and Peer Workshopping

    Studying online doesn’t mean going it alone. Art critique and peer-workshopping form the bedrock of fine arts education, and online programs don’t sacrifice those aspects. You can study on your own time while still benefiting from key hands-on learning experiences, either in person or using interactive online tools.

What You’ll Learn in Online MFA Programs

Program requirements and curriculum vary widely and often depend on your discipline or focus area (writing, visual art, etc.). Despite these differences, most programs use a similar structure that begins with core courses that introduce you to both the broad spectrum of fine arts and your specific subject. Once that sequence is complete, you move to electives and discipline-specific offerings.

Most online MFA programs culminate with a capstone component that synthesizes your studies and offers the public a glimpse into your artistic approach (usually a thesis project). Depending on your discipline, this component may be accompanied by studio experiences, comprehensive exams, or interactive workshops.

Popular Courses

  • Art History Survey

    This course offers a broad survey of art history beginning with the ancient world, moving through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and up to the present. Students learn about different approaches to art and aesthetics, how those approaches interact with culture, and how they develop alongside other disciplines in the humanities.

  • Principles of Graphic Design

    This course introduces students to the main techniques and methods of graphic design practice. It looks at typography, design theory, and the emergence of new media. Students develop proficiency in key software packages specific to their interests and learn to conceptualize, research, and execute different design projects.

  • Approaches to Literary Theory and Art Criticism

    A core course in most writing programs, this class cultivates a broad knowledge base in theoretical methods of criticism in literature and the arts. It looks at the development of literary interpretation along with other analytical frameworks specific to the modern period. Students develop clear critical and communication skills through presentations and analysis of written texts.

  • Computer-Generated Modeling and Design

    Students in this class receive instruction in the modeling tools and surface techniques used in the animation industry. They develop key skills in modeling living forms and use insights from recent media theory to enhance expressive gestures, figurative motion, and fluid representation. The class also looks at storyboarding and previsualization.

  • Fashion Structures and Materials

    This course develops familiarity with fashion materials, related technologies, and the creative processes involved in each. It helps students develop their own style and approach to fashion, informed by contemporary art and realization techniques in the fashion industry. Students experiment with three-dimensional development and work to build a representative portfolio.

Specialization Options

A key part of any online MFA program, specialization is paramount due to the broad nature of the fine arts. Most online MFA programs require you to pick a concentration area up-front so you can develop expert-level skills in your preferred medium. Specializations depend on individual schools. Below we detail some of the more prominent offerings; each correlates with different career paths.

  • Creative Writing

    Earning an online MFA in creative writing like the one at Southern New Hampshire University prepares you to work in publishing, authorship, criticism, and editing. Depending on the program, this specialization may focus more on fiction, nonfiction, translation, or poetry. Some programs let you choose one of those subfields when you enroll. Along the way you will cultivate key skills in genre analysis, literary theory, and written communication.

  • Theater and Drama

    This specialization builds broad-based competency in the fine arts applicable in a range of professional contexts. It looks at how different approaches to design help address complex domestic and international problems. Instruction in this interdisciplinary area begins with art history and design methodology and works to combine that knowledge base with organizational analysis. Radford University is an example of a top school that offers this MFA online.

  • Graphic Design

    An online graphic design master’s like the MFA program at SCAD builds the key skills you need for professional success in advertising and user experience. It focuses on the intersection between visual art, modern technology, and entrepreneurship. Students learn to tell visually compelling stories using innovative and intuitive tools and to manage brand voices across an industry.

  • Game Development and Interactive Design

    Earning an online MFA in game development and interactive design like the one at SCAD cultivates proficiency with cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence and virtual reality. Aspiring professionals learn to create models and simulations in responsive environments using motion media and animation tools. Additional topics include the methodology of play (also called ludic methodology), immersive design, and human experience prototypes.

Accreditation for Online MFA Programs

Any school you consider for your online MFA should have proper institutional accreditation. The U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation establish guidelines for this quality-assurance process. They also recognize the independent agencies that administer accreditation.

Those agencies grant regional or national accreditation to schools that meet standards of quality and excellence. Potential online MFA programs should be housed within a school that holds one of these forms of institutional accreditation.

Some programs may have additional credentials like programmatic or specialized accreditation. This credential isn’t always necessary and does not replace institutional accreditation, but it does offer additional, discipline-specific backing. In the fine arts, programs typically receive accreditation from the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. .

What You Can Do with a Master’s in Fine Arts

Where will your online MFA take you, and what can you expect to do when you graduate? In addition to building individual expertise (the specializations mentioned above), these programs develop broad-based proficiency in the arts and art history. Employers across many industries often rely on creative individuals with good design sense to fulfill key roles in development, management, content creation, and strategic thinking.

Earning a master of fine arts online sets you apart by verifying the skills and qualifications needed to make a creative impact. Below are just a few of the positions available to online MFA graduates.

Creative Director

These professionals provide creative direction and leadership for their organization. They plan, coordinate, and implement a range of projects informed by the fine arts. These projects may include graphic design, media, and advertising, among others. Many creative directors work in-house for individual companies; others work in a design agency.

10th Percentile Median Annual Pay 90th Percentile

$49,000

$88,849

$155,000

Source: PayScale, 2021

Graphic Designer

Graphic designers create visually compelling media for their employers (drawings, designs, graphics, storyboards, etc.). Some lead a team of designers, while others work on individual projects in their area of expertise. They determine the scope and parameters of design projects in collaboration with other organizational leaders.

10th Percentile Median Annual Pay 90th Percentile

$45,000

$62,645

$87,000

Source: PayScale, 2021

Product Designer

Product designers use their skills in aesthetics and the fine arts to develop consumer goods. They usually work on an interdisciplinary team that includes engineers, executives, salespeople, and marketers. They are responsible for establishing and implementing the creative vision behind a set of products.

10th Percentile Median Annual Pay 90th Percentile

$51,000

$84,004

$130,000

Source: PayScale, 2021

Editorial Director

An ideal career path for degree-holders with a background in creative writing, editorial directors oversee messaging and communication. They work in various industries including advertising, media, and publishing. They usually manage a team of qualified writers and work to maintain both oversight and uniformity in voice, tone, and style.

10th Percentile Median Annual Pay 90th Percentile

$62,000

$94,079

$139,000

Source: PayScale, 2021

Animation Designer

Animation designers use graphics tools and other technologies to create animations and visual effects. They design storyboards and work with other team members to craft prototypes and fine-tune moving images in video games, movies, and other visual media. They may also brainstorm with clients and conduct research based on customers’ needs.

10th Percentile Median Annual Pay 90th Percentile

$38,000

$58,128

$100,000

Source: PayScale, 2020

Costs and Financial Aid for Online MFA Programs

Cost is a big factor for any course of study, and online MFA programs are no different. Securing financial aid and understanding the expenses before you enroll can help lessen the burden once the program begins. Many programs offer their own financial aid opportunities through scholarships, fellowships, and other awards. Private organizations and key stakeholders in the arts often do the same.

Tuition rates for these programs often fluctuate and depend on factors such as the type of school (public or private), your enrollment status, and where you plan to live during your online MFA program. Use the handy table below to gain a fuller understanding of the range of costs involved.

What Your Online Master’s in Fine Arts Could Cost

School Name No. of Credits Cost/Credit Est. Total Tuition Cost

Lesley University

MFA in Visual Arts

60

$1,050/credit

$63,000

University of Nebraska Omaha

Master of Fine Arts in Writing

60

$514/credit

$30,840

University of Houston-Victoria

Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing

60

$359/credit
(in-state resident)

$768/credit
(out-of-state resident)

$21,540
(in-state resident)

$46,080
(out-of-state resident)

FAQs About Earning Your Master of Fine Arts Online

What are the admissions requirements for an online master of fine arts?

Admission specifics, criteria, and deadlines can vary quite a bit depending on the school and your chosen area of specialization. Contact program administrators in advance to make sure you are clear on the details. Nevertheless, online MFA programs use a similar process and will likely ask for items such as the following:

  • An accredited bachelor’s degree in a relevant field
  • Official transcripts with a minimum GPA
  • Several recommendation letters from individuals who can speak to your artistic abilities and potential for success
  • A professional resume detailing relevant work experience
  • A written statement of purpose that discusses your background, career goals, and fit within the program
  • A portfolio or creative sample representative of your work and approach (specifics on this vary widely depending on the program and specialization)

Some programs may also ask for an admissions interview. This can be completed remotely in most cases.

How long will it take to finish my master of fine arts online?

In most cases, you’ll be able to set your own pace within the parameters of the school you attend. In-person elements may follow a set schedule, but when it comes to online coursework, you’ll have a lot of freedom to take as few or as many credits as you’d like each term.

A typical program requires around 60 credits, which means full-time students can graduate with an online MFA in two years. For example, see the offerings at Radford University, Lesley University, and the University of Georgia. Most programs can also accommodate part-time enrollment, but this will likely extend your timetable by a year or two.

Can I earn my MFA 100% online or do I need to visit campus?

Most schools with an online master of fine arts use a low-residency model. This typically means you will take your core coursework entirely online and will participate in several intensive, immersive experiences on campus throughout the program. These sessions usually occur during the summer and give you the opportunity to engage with faculty and peers. They provide the type of hands-on engagement characteristic of the fine arts and usually involve a public presentation of work.

Specifics on this differ and depend on both the individual program and your area of study. Some programs may forgo these components (writing-focused programs, for example). In those cases, you can complete all program requirements online without visiting campus.