The Pros and Cons of Alternative, Self-Directed, and Low Residency MFA Programs

Low Residency vs. Traditional Education

There’s a chasm between traditional and non-traditional education. It’s possible to leap across the divide, but it’s easier if you start on the side that’s right for you. Below are some pros and cons to help you choose.

CON: If you attend a low residency MFA program at a college that previously did not offer low residency education, it’s possible that the administration is flying by the seat of their pants. When schools start new programs, the first few students through the door become guinea pigs who help shape the program’s future. That can be very frustrating if you like solid and established programs, rules, and expectations.

CON: A student from a new, low residency program at a well-known California art school told me that the her program stands in the shadow of a very traditional, long established studio art MFA program. As a result, the traditional administration didn’t know what to do with her and her classmates. Low residency programs can be seen as the ‘punk rock’ of academia, and thus not everyone will take low-res programs seriously.

PRO: If your program is very new, then there are lots of opportunities for you to create interesting possibilities within the program. For instance, if nobody has done an internship in your low residency program then you can shape one to suit your needs. You can also initiate clubs, programs, traditions, and systems that will benefit you, your classmates, and future students. That can be fun, and you can have a lasting positive effect.

CON: Some schools that have established educational models tend to also have an “if it isn’t broke don’t fix it” mentality. Maybe that’s because they have accreditation, and they want to keep it. For example, a program might still use a paper communication system where a digital system would be more efficient. Established programs might have students jumping through academic hoops that were valuable twenty years ago, but are not as relevant today. It could also be an old mindset.

CON: If you attend a program that issues narrative transcripts, beware that it could negatively impact your job applications, and further complicate college admissions processes (unless you apply to places that understand and value narrative transcripts).

PRO: Once you graduate, your education becomes a memory to you, and a record for the rest of the world. If you attend a recognizably-named school with a positive reputation, it almost doesn’t matter what happened during the years you spent studying there. Even if you attend a school that nobody has ever heard about, the lessons you learn in a self-directed MFA program will stick with you for a lifetime.