Saturday, April 23, 2011

5 Alternatives...?

Did you all see this article 5 Alternatives To a Creative Writing MFA over at Galley Cat?

Alternative #3: "Join a low-residency creative writing program."

A couple of folks left comments about the cost of low-residency programs - all valid points. My concern is that the author seems to think you can "join" a program (no, you must apply) ... and most (not all, but most) low-residency creative writing programs are MFA programs.

Anyone else wonder how low-residency programs made the 5 Alternatives list?


kathryn said...

I think GalleyCat was more making a point that you don't have to go the traditional rout of quitting your job and going into horrible debt to become a better writer.

Seth Abramson said...


Why would anyone be going into debt to get a full-res MFA? There are 39 fully-funded MFA programs in the U.S.


Writer B Girl said...

Maybe they are under the assumption that getting into low res program is much easier than one of the more competitive and cut-throat fully-funded full-res programs?

Seth Abramson said...


Getting into a low-ranked full-res MFA is just as easy/difficult as getting into a low-ranked low-res MFA. Getting into a high-ranked full-res MFA is much harder than getting into a high-ranked low-res MFA, it's true, but -- and here's the rub -- getting into a mid-ranked, fully-funded full-res MFA is probably exactly as difficult as getting into a high-ranked, unfunded low-res MFA. So, upshot: Why not attend Oregon State full-res and fully-funded than VCFA low-res with no funding at all? Makes no sense.


Writer B Girl said...

I see what you're saying Seth, I'm only interested in full-res anyway so I don't know much about the low res programs. I don't know what that writer was thinking though, not very helpful!

Sheila Lamb said...

The low-res is designed so that students don't have to quit their day jobs and move to another state - important especially if there are family considerations. Yes, you'll have debt if you go to VCFA, but (depending on your situation) you'll still have your job and your home.

The line in the article to "join" a low-res MFA really got to me. The pros and cons of low-res can certainly be debated -- but it is still an application/acceptance/rejection process.

Mike Saye said...

Do you think anyone should settle for less than full funding if money is an issue?

Personally, I'm poor. Have been. I'm totally completely, absolutely freakin sure I'm not brilliant; yet, I wanna get into a full-res mfa program and somehow make the writing community and my work community merge or at least rub up against each other.

I've already gone through one application season (11 schools - no takers). Should I just bide my time, write (2 or 3 or 4 or 5 app seasons) until someone accepts me?

Do you think that's smarter than going into debt for an mfa?

Seth Abramson said...


I do, unless you find a program you love that's not fully funded but will (taking into account all expenses for the entire course of the program) cost 20K or less in federal loans.


jaime said...

It's a shame that one of the commenters called many low-res programs "cash cows". I'm not going to a low-res program, but it seems, from all the reading I've done on them, that the simple fact is that they cannot offer the same things that full-res programs do. The nature of the beast is that they can't offer TAships or research assistantships; the program dynamics aren't the same in this respect. But every academic program has overhead costs, more than many of us probably realize or know about. To call them cash cows is a hasty judgment, imo.

Mike Saye said...

Seth, thanks for the feedback!


liz said...

I know some people think it doesn't make sense to do a low-res program because they can offer very little funding, and I think that Seth is right when he says going into as little debt as possible is the best idea, even if it means it takes a couple years to get accepted to a funded program. But to say that it makes NO sense at all to go into a low-res program is unfair to all the people who are not traditional students. For personal reasons, they may be unable to move or quit their jobs, and in that case, I think low-res programs make perfect sense. Many people are unable to go the full-res route for various reasons, and I don't think it's fair or accurate to imply that their decision to go low-res is a poor one.

Seth Abramson said...


I was -- and am -- a non-traditional student. I started my MFA at 30, and a doctoral program at 32, after seven years in the professional world. So I'm not approaching this from a place of ignorance, bewilderment, or a lack of empathy. I agree that for certain non-traditional students, who don't live close enough to one of the (say) 75 MFA programs one could apply to and have at least a decent shot at full funding, a full-res program isn't an option. For some few, it might be an option at some later time -- they might move their spouse and/or family to make doing a program possible. For others, a move is truly impossible. But the question would still remain, does that automatically make a low-res program worth the money? No. It simply means that a full-res program isn't an option for that person -- not that the low-res MFA has proven itself to be worth (say) the $50,000 one might pay for it. My argument is that it's likely not, unless one is dead set on teaching at the college level (or if one is fabulously wealthy, but we need not consider such rare cases). The MFA is not a necessary degree -- so for all the reasons above, it's not at all unreasonable for some to argue a low-res MFA is not worth the expense in the majority of cases.


Shane said...

Western New Mexico University has an online MA Interdisciplinary Studies, which includes a writing emphasis. If you take 6 credits or less you are charged the in-state tuition rate at $200/credit hour. That's my back up if I don't get into an MFA program.

jaywalke said...

There's no need to go into debt to attend a low-res program if you already have a decent job.

even $50K year - low-res tuition > any stipend

It costs about as much as a nice car.

Louise said...

I feel like this discussion is a little limited, so I'd like to offer my perspective. I'm sure it's not totally unique: my interest in a great low-res program had mostly to do with the program itself.

I have done a ton of research on both low-res and full-res programs and I genuinely felt that I would get the most out of a low-res program (Bennington and Warren Wilson in particular).

This may be because I'm an independent worker, and I love the idea of working in solitude while also having a vibrant, fulfilling residency to go to every six months. I love the one-on-one exchange, the heavy focus on reading. I could go on and on, and most low-res programs work a little differently from one another so it is important to get a good idea of each one and what you may like/dislike.

Also, the faculty at some low-res programs are fantastic.

Yes, a loan is necessary. But you do get to keep your job, your life, etc.

Yet another reason for choosing a low-res program is if you actually do have a professional career as a writer, and leaving your city would simply be bad business. But, yes, I realize that scenario is rare.

Still, just wanted to point out there are many reasons I think a low-res program is much more appealing (to me) than a full-res.

ApplyingGraphite said...

One of the first things a writing teacher told me when I started making noises about getting an MFA was, “Don’t pay for it!” But now I’m questioning that wisdom.

Two people I know who had full rides at a well-respected program that they loved recently had to leave their school. The reason? Even with their stipends and a relatively low cost of living, the financial situation was just too bleak. And the health care package offered was terrible.

You might not be paying tuition in a fully-funded program, but you still need to spend money for a place to live and food to eat. Okay, so they give you a stipend (which you usually do have to work for, by the much for the myth of having two or three years to do nothing but write) of, say, $10,000 a year. Great, but if you’re paying $500 a month in rent, that eats up $6,000 of the stipend right there. And then if your groceries are around $40 a week, that’s another $2,000. You’ll have a whole luxurious $2,000 left to pay for the year’s transportation, utilities, books, clothes, doctors’ visits, Netflix, etc. Meanwhile, you’re saving $0 for retirement and, unless you plan on competing for one of the country’s few English department openings when you graduate, you’ll be no better qualified for a job than you were right out of undergrad. And, of course, you’ll have paid for your moves to and from the school out of your own pocket.

ApplyingGraphite said...

So there’s a chance you will have to get a loan anyway to take care of the necessities of life that the stipend didn’t cover, plus you’ll lose hundreds, if not thousands of (tax-free) dollars that you could have saved towards retirement (and that’s not including any employer matches that might be worth thousands more). And then there are the setbacks in salary that leaving your career for two or three years might cost you. Once you factor those things in, the $15,000 or so a year for a two-year low-residency program doesn’t look so bad (and the cost may be much cheaper than that if you qualify for in-state tuition at the school).

People need to do the math and look at the true cost of a “free” MFA education for their own situations. It’s more complicated than just saying you save $30,000 by going to a fully funded school instead of a low-residency program. If you’re earning a good salary, it might actually make more sense to go low-res.

Seth Abramson said...


You're presenting a false choice.

The reality is, there's a reason seven times more applicants apply every year to full-residency programs than low-residency programs: it's because, for seven out of every eight aspiring poets and writers, the MFA is more than a piece of paper and a series of e-mail exchanges with a famous writer. It's a real, live, day-to-day community. It's dozens of face-to-face meetings with classmates and mentors month after month after month. It's having a job that requires only ten hours a week of work -- and never takes the literary artist far from his/her passion, writing -- rather than fifty or sixty hours a week of grueling, rat-race labor.

I've been saying for years that even fully-funded MFA students may find themselves taking out a de minimis amount of federal loans -- the best kind in America -- to augment their annual stipend. That's no surprise. What's surprising, actually, is the idea that incoming MFA students -- average age, twenty-seven -- should consider foregoing a full-residency MFA because they should be contributing to a 401K instead. Not many twenty-seven year-olds who live and write in the American literary arts community are contributing to a 401K at that age -- it's a rarity, to be sure. Just so, no one has told these folks (nor do they believe) that their MFA will get them a job upon graduation. It won't. And that's not why they're doing the degree -- they're doing it for two things a low-residency program can't give you, daily time and a daily community.

The low-residency model works well for some -- but it is, and it should remain, a specialty market with a very, very select target audience. It is decidedly not a general-audience model, particularly as one could get all the "benefits" of a low-residency model that you mention (which, oddly, are really just the benefits of full-time employment, not the benefits of an MFA) and save $50,000 or more by simply joining a writing group or taking a community-college course instead. If all one wants is a way to stay connected to writing, there are cheaper ways to do it than by getting an MFA. In fact, ironically, the only real "benefit" of a low-residency program as compared to a local writing group that meets incredibly infrequently is the degree (the diploma) itself -- which only has special value if the low-residency student is seeking precisely the sort of university teaching position you say (more or less rightly) hardly exists anymore for the average MFA-holder.


Screwsan said...

I did a low-res MFA because I didn't want to quit my job at the time. If you want to leave a job for a fully-funded MFA program, you should take into account wages lost (including future promotions and whatnot).

I'm now in a PhD program (which, alternately, I would say one should *only* do if fully funded) and I still have to take out student loans to make ends meet.

It's not as simple as "why would anyone want to pay for an MFA?" Being fully funded in grad school is usually not the same thing as earning a livable wage in a chosen career field.

Screwsan said...

And I should add: since it's getting harder and harder to get teaching jobs in this terrible market, there's also the problem of how to get a new job after completing a traditional MFA to factor into the whole "lost wages" equation.

Screwsan said...

Oh and I'm sorry for so many posts in a row, but this:

"ironically, the only real 'benefit' of a low-residency program as compared to a local writing group that meets incredibly infrequently is the degree (the diploma) itself..."

is just patently untrue. The low-res model is based upon a mentor relationship. In other words, I had four mentors (incredibly talented teacher/writers) in my MFA program who worked very closely with me each semester and who guided me through learning the craft of writing. I learned so much more from those four mentors (for whom I was one of 3-5 students during the semester I spent with them) than I ever have in local writers groups or traditional writing workshops.

Seth Abramson said...


I'm not sure you can disprove the assertion I made with an anecdote. The fact is -- and I'll just speak of poetry here -- the entire history of younger poets' artistic development has been the recurring story of a younger poet meeting a lifelong mentor outside the context of an MFA program. While the low-residency MFA (much like the full-residency MFA) forces the issue re: mentorship, it's not one of the unique benefits of MFA programs (regardless of residency type) that they allow one access to mentors.


Screwsan said...

You compared getting a low-res MFA to taking a course at a community college and/or participating in local writer's groups. Those things aren't the same and I pointed out how. Mentorships aren't for everyone, but neither are traditional, workshop-based MFA programs. I'm not talking about the history or tradition of poetry mentorships, I'm pointing out things that people might want to keep in mind when they are looking into MFA programs.

B said...

Haha that article's pretty funny. Basically, they're saying, "There's a recession, so don't get a free writing degree. Pay for writing classes instead!"

I mean, I get that it's written for the lucky few young writers who have good jobs to give up--aka not for me--but the logic is still pretty convoluted.

I'm doing an MFA because it's the best choice I have, financially. Free tuition, a stipend for ten hours of work, health insurance, and the chance to move to a university town where the cost of living is low--that is everything I need! No way to beat that. And absolutely no way that continuing my 60+ hour a week job that barely pays the bills and what, putting a Mediabistro class on my credit card, would be a smarter move.

cindy said...

I live too far from every full-res program except UMass Amherst, and am unable to move. I applied to Umass and did not get in, and am not inclined to apply there again (if they didn't like the first time around, why would they now?).
I have an agent, but despite the fact that my novel got close (in-house), it hasn't sold. I am starting a new novel this fall (I've been focusing on publishing shorts), and know I don't need an MFA push to write it.
My only option for an MFA is low-res, which I can't afford. I'm considering applying for the few low-res that offer fellowships, which is a long shot. I figure even if I publish a novel, the chances of making money at it are slim, so I'd like to teach. But I'm thinking the whole application process for these few fellowships will just be a time suck. And there is little guarantee of a teaching job afterward, especially because I can't move. I'm thinking of quitting this whole process!

Sarah Allen said...

I'm with you on this one. I think they're right that its "non traditional" I guess, but I still think it could be very beneficial.

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

Juan Carlos said...

Part 1 of my comment:
As someone who's been in the writing field for 20 years, who's been close to professors at traditional MFA programs and is the son of an English professor, who has taken writing classes at community colleges, has researched MFA programs for five years until I found the right one for me, has been a part of a writing group, and is about to finish a low-res MFA, I must say you are not particularly well-informed about the realities of a low-res program.
A comment of yours like this one, "I'm not sure you can disprove the assertion I made with an anecdote," is pretty presumptuous, considering that the rankings you compile are basically all anecdotes of less than 500 people, with many different factors motivating someone to seek this degree...

Juan Carlos said...

Comment part 2:
But back to the low-res issue. You advocate that people apply only to fully-funded programs, many of which have a very small ratio of spots vs. number of applicants. Hundreds of people are left out every year while maybe four get into a dept., and not always for the most objective reasons, because a lot in this field is subjective. Low-res programs will ask for the same requirements as the fully-funded programs, but have a larger number of spaces available precisely because they are not funded (even though some now are giving aid and more are doing so each year). Your assertion that one does not need an MFA and thus should not pay for it, is rather odd coming from someone who has an MFA and devotes a good chunk of his time writing about MFAs for this blog and on "The Huffington Post".
Besides, who decided that only writers in this country should not have to pay for such a degree? In a perfect America, our education would be free, but that's not reality. People go into debt to study law or medicine because that's what they want to study and that's what they love. It should be no different with writing. To think otherwise, is naive. Now, re mentors: Low-res programs do emphasize much more than fully-funded programs the relationship with the mentor, since that is precisely the cornerstone of this format. The traditional programs, as you know well, are based on the still debatable workshop model, and even if there were some professors working as mentors, the one-on-one contact is never the same because the logistics with students' work and the nature of the format in class don't allow for it.
If there are a lot of good students in a class, then the workshop model can function; if not, it is a major bore and, many would say, a real waste of time. Then yes, by all means, join a writing group, because between that and many college writing workshops that I have attended, there's hardly any difference. I would rather do a few workshops during residency and spend the rest of the semester writing, rather than spend all the semester reading other people's work and critiquing it while not having the time to work on my own.
And the sense of community: who says there is no community formed at a low-res program? And since when do writers work in groups? In real life, it is a very solitary endeavor. Again, the low-res program reflects this.
The number of low-res programs increases every year, as more prospective students discover the advantages of not having to move, working closely with a mentor every week and then sharing in the workshop experience during residency, and having the opportunity to continue at a job while studying. And I won't even get much into how much more varied the students are in a low-res program, of all ages, backgrounds and countries, whereas in the traditional programs you get a lot of college students of more or less the same age and, in general, pretty homogenous.
Both fully-funded programs and low-res programs have their merits and flaws; both cater to specific groups, not just low-res; and both should be considered valuable and serious tools in showing that writing can be a profession. That is not the same as taking a course on Mediabistro.
With some critics of low-res programs, there seem to be these arrogant stigmas that, as someone mentioned here, they are cash cows, and the equivalent to correspondence schools. Nothing could be further from the truth. I'll put my workload against any traditional workload at any time.

Jennifer Cary Diers said...

I'm not trying to continue a debate that is clearly volatile, but I just wanted to point out that not every full-res MFA in the country offers every genre specialization. I write middle-grade and young adult fiction. I live in Chicago and so although I cannot move, I do have access to many excellent full-res programs. I just don't have access to a school which supports my specialty. A representative from Northwestern University actually told me that they "don't do" young adult lit. SAIC will let you "build your own program", but I need more structure than that. I do want to teach at the college level, and that requires a Masters, and many Masters programs won't accept young adult writers (apparently on principle).

If you want to write for children or teens, and/or you can't move across the country, a low-res program probably is the best possible option. Yes, you'll have to pay for it. I guess that's what we get for not writing "literary" fiction (read: fiction for adults). Most schools do have scholarships available. I'm not saying every genre author should get a degree, only that low-res can be a good option if you want one. And anyway, some of the best Writing for Children and Young Adult programs in the country ARE low-res programs... including VCFA, which has been much maligned in this thread. We should be careful not to undermine our peers' educational accomplishments by bashing particular schools or types of study.

Just some thoughts from the writing-for-juveniles camp. Thanks for keeping up this excellent blog.

Biographical Note said...

Many excellent writers hold their MFA degree from low-residency programs, and also have tenure-track teaching positions, or are in doctoral programs. Their accomplishments speak for themselves, I would humbly argue.

Vince said...

I think it bears mentioning that if you're working full-time, supporting a family, and still don't have time for either a low res or two year program, there are other resources out there. You may be getting creative writing done at the rate of a slow trickle instead of a instead of a flash flood but it's still working on the craft.

Remember that there's also the UCLA Extension Writers' Program



Vince said...

By-the-way the links and resources mentioned above can also be a way of reintroducing yourself to an actual creative writing course environment if you've been out in the workforce for sometime. If you need an reference from an actual writing professor...the instructors of these "online" writing courses might be the most convenient way to go.

writerguy said...

I would never enter an MFA program to learn how to write, although that may work for some people.

Here's what I don't understand. I have taught 5-6 years as part time faculty at a community college.

I have a critically reviewed/acclaimed novel published with a major publisher.

The **only** reason I am looking at MFA programs is that I can't teach full time college level writing courses without it. Although I am more than qualified to do so.

Jim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
WordsComeEasy said...

I have just been accepted to a high-ranked low-res program and have been reading the comments sessions looking for clarifying information. I have to salute Juan Carlos for his very insightful comments.
If you are in your twenties, a full time funded MFA sounds great. Go for it. But people like me, in my early forties, do you really want to be stuck for 2 years in a small town with a very homgenous group in terms of age/race/class? I love my city (and family and friends and career) to sacrifice all that. An MFA is not the only way to become a better writer. But a low-res is for sure a good compromise, something feasible, still challenging and motivating, but not as painful or dramatic as the questionable workshop format that the classic full-time programs offer.