Tonight at the Helen Thomas speech, Q&A, and book signing sponsored by the Writer’s League of Texas (more on that tomorrow) I met a student of the Pacific Lutheran University MFA program. The writing MFA is low-residency at PLU, meaning that four times over the three years of study the students are in residence for a couple weeks in Washington state — in “the shadow of Mount Rainier,” as the Web site says, in Tacoma. The remainder of the three years students spend at home, communicating via e-mail and phone with their faculty and fellow students.

Aside from the residency relief — you don’t have to put your life on hiatus to live in a place like San Marcos or Iowa City with lo-res — there’s not a lot of difference between the PLU program and a full residency MFA. It still requires 60 hours of credits.

Oh, the PLU program doesn’t demand a GRE test, something that can stymie writers when they get to the math part of that brain-buster. (Toughest three hours I’ve spent in study or testing, ever. But it had been 30 years since I’d muscled through a standardized test when I mastered my GRE in 2004).

The PLU program is on the low side of the cost curve for MFA programs, but that doesn’t qualify as inexpensive. The student estimated fees of about $18,000 for her degree, including the residency fees. “Or less than the cost of a new car,” her friend added. Good analogy, if you believe that an MFA can carry your writing further than any portable, hand-crafted MFA. (See The Portable MFA for “the core essentials taught to MFA students.”) Current prices are more like $22,000 for the program.

But I found it interesting that the lead quote on the PLU MFA page celebrates teaching one another in groups — something at the heart of the Amherst Writers & Artists method we practice at the Writer’s Workshop. At PLU, “What happens in groups is that we learn from each other. And in the end, what really happens is that we teach ourselves.”

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