If you have read my about page you can probably predict that I tend to answer this question with an enthusiastic yes. Here’s why:
student writers have to write a lot
they have to read a lot
get to talk with someone about writing at least four times a week
meet established writers
go to readings all the time
get exposure (and perhaps funding) to go to writing conferences
get really good at reading other people’s work
if they teach or tutor, get really good at line editing and spotting errors
All of that said, I followed some advice coming out of undergrad that I should take some years off before applying to an MFA program. I took four years; I spent two in Detroit and two in Bangkok. This decision worked out really well for me because I was exposed to tons of communities in a short amount of time. I worked as a nanny, an actor, a musician, a research assistant, a tutor. I stocked a department store, directed radio-performances for the blind with a cast of senior citizen actors, traveled to South Africa, India, Vietnam, and to every region in Thailand. I picked up a lot of cool anecdotes on the way and I am curious about a lot more things than I was before I met all the people from those experiences.
In both of my graduate programs for creative writing, I’ve had friends and colleagues who have come straight out of undergrad. Some of them probably could have benefitted from exposure to life experiences outside of the academy but some are spectacular writers and write about cool stuff. It really depends on the person.
In my experience, street-cred made me a more rounded writer, but school made me a better writer. I think anyone can get tons of life experience and still be a terrible writer because, if they are anything like I was, they weren’t sure how to send their stuff out, what to read, who to talk to. There are ways to find this stuff out but, if they are anything like I was, will have a much harder time outside of academia. Whatever the case may be, I have a hard time believing someone could go to graduate school, work hard (this is key), and come out at the same level they went in.
I will end this post by saying that I initially wanted to go to grad school so I could work in the academy and be a writer. I’m more skeptical about this now–about my ability to land an academic job with an MFA. The market for the writer academics who inspired me to write in the first place is totally different than the market will be for me. I still don’t regret spending all this time in school. Writing is the only thing I know I’ll be doing three years from now. Regardless of what I do–whether it’s getting more street cred or adjuncting or whatever, I’ll be able to write better than if I hadn’t been a student.