By Kim Winternheimer
Deciding between a low-residency program and a more traditional course of study to pursue your MFA can be difficult. Low-residency programs are fairly new to the scene, offering writers who can’t commit to a program that requires living on campus the opportunity to pursue their creative writing goals. Aside from a few residencies each year (two sessions a year on the campus where the program is offered is typical) writers in low-residency programs live as they normally would. Many of them have fulltime jobs, kids, and attend to the 20-30 hours a week their MFA program demands of them when time allows.
The pros and cons associated with pursuing an MFA in creative writing vary greatly, and the dialogue about whether low-residency programs are worth their salt is a source of discussion among MFA applicants who are faced with the difficult decision as to which program is right for them. As an editor for The Masters Review, I see stories from MFA students pursuing both forms of study. While The Masters Review showcases all new and emerging writers, our flagship publication is an anthology of ten stories written by students currently pursuing their MFA, MA, or PhD in creative writing. While we do see stories from students in the latter two categories, the majority of our submissions are from students enrolled in MFA programs. Last year, The Masters Review published four stories written by students in low-residency programs. Four stories we claimed were among the best in the country. Four stories that were screened and chosen by New York Times bestselling author, Lauren Groff. While we had submissions from many highly ranked fulltime MFA programs — stories from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the Michener Center for Writers, and UC Irvine, just to name a few — it does make a strong case for those pursuing an MFA remotely: that although the programs differ in structure, there is absolutely no difference in terms of the quality of writing.
Now, this isn’t a case against the schools and programs that offer full-residency. Those programs have proven time and again to churn out writers of extremely high merit. My only point is that our publication is a very clear testament to the quality of stories being produced from writers who are able to pursue their degrees remotely. That improving your craft through a program which allows you to live a very real writer’s life is just as valuable as some of the more traditional options. In fact to me, the very definition of a low-residency program mimics the life of an aspiring writer. You write when you can, you carve out minutes, hours, and nights to tend to your craft . . . then you get up in the morning and you go to your real job. I don’t mean that to be cruel. I simply mean that most emerging authors aren’t sustaining their lives with fiction, and one of the clear pros I see to a low-residency program is the ebb and flow of developing that sort of balance to your life.
Of course there are cons to choosing a low-residency program, just as there are cons to pursing a graduate degree on campus. One such criticism is that low-residency programs don’t provide the focus on teaching necessary for graduates to land a job. While most remote programs don’t require students to teach in order to receive funding, and therefore don’t focus as tightly on aspects of teaching, there are many excellent schools that do provide this concentration. I would tell someone who really wants to teach to look into those programs. He won’t have a hard time finding one. However, this does bring to light one of the greatest differences between the two programs, which is the issue of funding.
Many fulltime courses of study provide students with funding in order to offset tuition. Usually students are required to teach undergraduate classes and engage in a certain number of work hours for the university in exchange for this reduced tuition. This is a fantastic way to reduce the cost of pursuing a graduate degree and give students a working example of what life is like for the creative-writing teacher. It’s a win-win for the universities as well as for the students.
Unfortunately for low-residency programs, logistics get in the way. Because students aren’t on campus and are generally unavailable for work study, they aren’t able to ‘earn’ a reduced tuition. There are an increasing number of low-residency programs that will allow students the opportunity to work for the university, however this isn’t a common construction and it isn’t as widely available as most students would like. The bottom line is, pursuing your MFA remotely does tend to cost more. However, total tuition costs are less than many traditional graduate programs and low-residency students have the added benefit of continuing to work for their current employer while they pursue a degree.
One can go into a lengthy discussion about what works best and what doesn’t, the fact of the matter being that both programs produce truly wonderful writers. Talented writing can and is being nurtured through remote programs and I am continually amazed at the quality, ingenuity, and sensibility behind that writing. Anyone considering a low-residency program who is nervous about the quality of their degree should look carefully at the many highly qualified low-residency schools. Take into consideration that from our perspective, in comparing the two programs, the end product – your writing – is the same.
One thing to bear in mind is that not all full residency programs provide funding and some only provide funding for a small number of students. I live in Chicago and although I was admitted to a couple of local full-residency programs, they either weren’t as strong as the low-residency programs that admitted me or they were substantially more expensive and didn’t offer funding. For example, School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s tuition exceeds 30k a year and they have a limited amount of funding. Even if you do get a teaching position, it doesn’t come with a tuition remission. The MFA program at Roosevelt University (also in Chicago) provides teaching experience as an internship, but not as a paid position. If you don’t have any teaching experience whatsoever I suppose those might still be good opportunities. if , like me, you’re already entering with an MA from another discipline and have a teaching background, a low-residency program may actually be better for teaching since it gives you greater flexibility to pick up adjunct spots from local colleges.