Petition to change Harvard Extension School diplomas faces an uphill battle

A group of current Harvard Extension School students has created a petition to remove the “In Extension Studies” designation from Harvard Extension School diplomas, and replace it with the actual concentration of the student receiving the degree. It’s a great idea, and has received lots of support (the petition currently has hundreds of digital signatures, including my own). Unfortunately, I don’t think it will result in change, based on some historical context that I will share below.

First, some background. A matriculated HES student needs to meet the requirements for his or her respective program in order to receive an ALB degree (undergraduate) or ALM degree (graduate). The Extension School has concentrations (equivalent to “majors”), ranging from computer science to visual arts. My concentration was history. But, instead of receiving a diploma that identified my degree (ALM) and concentration (history) it instead lists “ALM in Extension Studies.”

This ridiculous and confusing designation has bedeviled Harvard Extension School graduates for decades. It does not correspond to any real concentration or course of study. As I recall, there may have been a class or two in the past 100 years that related to extension schools or continuing education, but there were never enough credits available to form a distinct concentration. Aside from the wording of the diploma, the Harvard Extension School does not use the term “Extension Studies” in its marketing, course descriptions, or communications with students and alumni. It’s basically a historical anachronism, or an attempt by the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences to differentiate (or denigrate) the accomplishments of Harvard Extension School students.

The petition, hosted on Google Docs, sums up the issue as follows:

HES Degree Title Change Initiative

Hello Extension students!This committee has been created to research, reach out and to take action to have the “in Extension Studies” part of our diploma replaced by our actual concentration. We need your support whether you are only taking classes or a degree seeker. If you have no intentions of investing your time and money to end up with a degree in “Extension Studies” which does not reflect your Harvard experience, please sign the following petition and share it with your friends.Check out www.facebook.com/hesdegreechange for updates.

harvard extension school petition to change in extension studies

The petition asks for names and graduation year, and then asks:

  • When you signed up for classes at HES, did you know you were getting a degree in “Extension Studies”?
  • Are you a distance student?
  • Extension School Program?
  • Your personal feedback

Until I read the petition and the associated Facebook page, I regarded the “In Extension Studies” designation as an irritant. After all, the Harvard Extension School allows students to list their concentration on their resume. But then I began to read some of the stories about Extension School alumni who had serious problems, such as this student who told his story on an online Extension School forum:

Want to add my 5 cents to the problem. I graduate with ALB in 2014; currently enrolled in ALM, Software Engineering.

For the last 6 months I’ve been looking for jobs in the US (I’m a remote foreign student). HES doesn’t provide student visas for foreign students, so it was already a challenge to find companies that would even consider interviewing someone with a US degree, but without a temporary permit to work after graduation (so called OPT). I was aware of that from the very beginning, but didn’t expect to that so few companies actually work with foreigners without experience. In case you’re interested, I didn’t get a single offer in Boston even though I tried really hard to move there. Luckily NYC and San Francisco were much more visa-friendly cities.

After I found a couple of companies who were ready to interview despite the required visa sponsorship and almost lack of experience, I had to explain “liberal” part of the degree name (nobody actually paid attention to “Extension School” words). It wasn’t too bad since most HRs and engineers I talked to were more interested in my actual knowledge and whether I can confirm that I know the things I listed in my resume. Liberal/extension “flaw” wasn’t much of a concern for them (including big companies, e.x. Google, Microsoft). And I personally felt fine about that since my program of study really wasn’t that rigorous compared to the college one (I skipped a couple of math classes that I wasn’t interested in).

However, after I got a job offer and started to work with the lawyers the real troubles came into play. The degree officially says “in extension studies” rather than “in Computer Science” whereas the transcripts specify concentration (sciences), field of study (computer science) and a minor (thesis/research). The lawyers immediately saw an inconsistency between transcripts and the diploma. For a couple of days I was explaining to them how HES works, provided links to the web site and even contacts of HES admission office for further inquiries. In the end, my attorney said that they’ll have to send my degree for special evaluation to confirm Computer Science concentration because the transcripts specify one thing and the diploma a different one.

I’m sure it will all work out and I’ll get an additional paper from some evaluation service that will confirm that my degree is a real computer science degree, but Harvard should feel embarrasses that lawyers have to send a degree from Harvard with transcripts to verify the field of study mentioned in the transcripts.

In short, I don’t complain about “liberal” arts or requirement to specify Extension School in my resume and about frankly explaining to employers what school I attended and why. I slightly object the lack of F1 support because that wasn’t the case before 2009. However, I strongly feel that the degree conferred in Harvard Yard in Tercentenary Theatre with all other Harvard diplomats should not be a subject for any additional verification or legal doubts.

This young man is absolutely right. There should not be any doubt or questioning about the degree he received, yet he was subjected to something that graduates from other Harvard schools would never experience. Three stupid words — “In Extension Studies” — threatened his ability to work at a job that he was otherwise qualified to do.

The three students leading the charge to replace “In Extension Studies” with the name of the concentration are doing all of the right things. Besides the petition, they have met with the Harvard Extension Students Association (HESA) and the Extension School administration. They organize events. They have a solid social media presence.

Unfortunately, they are fighting a stacked deck. They are not the first to protest “In Extension Studies.” As I recall, the HESA administration in the mid-2000s also lobbied the administration. The head of the Harvard Extension School – Dean Shinagel – even told hundreds of new graduates at the 2008 dinner for new graduates that he wanted to get rid of “In Extension Studies.” I was there, and when Shinagel made this announcement, everyone cheered. A proposal was eventually put in front of the FAS faculty committee, and … nothing happened.

So I have to ask: If a very powerful and esteemed dean (Shinagel had led the school since the 70s, and served as a house master for Harvard College, and FAS faculty member) was unable to get anything done 6 or 7 years ago, what has changed in the interim that would encourage the powers that be (the University administration and FAS faculty) to change the diplomas now?

Keep in mind that Harvard Extension School students have been treated as second-class citizens at Harvard for more than 100 years. We put in years of effort to complete our degree requirements, conduct serious research under Harvard faculty, and earn our degrees. Yet Extension School students can’t cross-register. Students can’t live in University housing. Students can’t get proper visas. FAS and the rest of the University have no interest in changing the status quo, and I am afraid that the petition will suffer the same fate as similar efforts have experienced in years past — it will be ignored or rejected.

What are your thoughts about the latest petition? Are things different now? What hope do we have as students and alumni to get a diploma that reflects our accomplishments and concentrations?

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7 thoughts on “Petition to change Harvard Extension School diplomas faces an uphill battle

  1. I think it’s important to look at the History of HES and the root cause of the fear of a growing number of HES degree candidates. In this way we can give some “context” to the problem. Firstly, when the Lowell Institute was created in the 1830’s (later HES in the 1900’s), the goal was to “extend” a tier-1 educational opportunity to those non-traditional students who couldn’t otherwise afford it, or meet the schedule requirements of the traditional classroom. Since Harvard only charged 2 bushels of wheat and didn’t make any money off the deal, it was seen as a charitable outreach program which the school didn’t necessarily need to provide, but at that time Harvard still had strong influences from their original charter as a training seminary for Unitarian clergy so “giving selflessly” was still a big part of the institution. Secondly, nobody has had much of an issue with using “Extention Studies” on a diploma until just recently with the advent of automated processes for pre-screening job applicants. Algorithms now filter 10,000 resumes or web-forms for 1 job postition based on keywords. These algorithms for example expect someone who claims to be an engineer to have graduated with a major or degree in “engineering” or from an “engineering school” (not in extension studies or from an extension school). Just 20 years ago, when job applications were read by human eyes and interviews were conducted in person instead of “Skype’d”, you had enough time to explain the differences. Now, with the advent of automated screening and knee-jerk reactions to resume’ fraud by HR recruiters who just finished attending 1 seminar too many on the topic, the previously assumed “face value” of a Harvard degree is coming into question when “extension studies” is observed. So now, you have an entrenched Harvard Corporation Board who looks back at the +100yr. of wisdom behind running this charity program (HES), and you have real-world prospective degree candidates who are debating the commitment/time/money to invest in what could turn out to be a bit of a foley if the board doesn’t step in and take action. Since the board probably doesn’t think this is a “real” problem just yet, and the degree candidates are just now starting to amass momentum (again), I think we are possibly looking at decades for final resolution (or in the blink of an eye by Harvard’s clock). Not much solace for today’s candidate. However, I think I have a solution (at least for graduate students) which could possibly satisfy both sides. This solution has to do with the way in which Harvard uses Latin on their graduate diplomas. You’ll notice on the HES graduate diploma, the “Master of Liberal Arts” is actually ALM or abbreviated backwards from “magistri in artibus liberalibus”. More details on that here -> http://www.harvard.edu/on-campus/commencement/degree-abbreviations So it turns out that the only schools at Harvard University that produces “Liberal Arts” degrees is HES (containing the word Liberal). This is only fitting since your school is giving you a more liberal way to design your degree plan. So this means you could say something like “Master of Liberal Arts (ALM) in CONCENTRATION NAME, Harvard University” and the “traditional” Harvard community could derive from the required (ALM) parameter and the word “Liberal” that this is an HES degree. Also, wording it in this way would not trip up algorithms and most likely would be overlooked by +98% of clueless HR recruiters. If they asked about the (ALM) you could simply say it comes from how MLA is abbreviated from Latin (without lying). So why can’t the board treat HES students exactly the same as traditional students? A:) because you are not a traditional student. You are participating in a “limited” Harvard experience with different entrance requirement and, most importantly, you wont pay as much for it. What makes up the difference? Well, try to put a price on prestige and you’ll know the answer. Because your an HES student you were never considered prestigious to begin with. Harvard is remaining true to it’s original charter for the Extension School and selflessly serving the poor or disadvantaged. They’re doing something nice for the masses, yet the masses are complaining that the $35K degree isn’t the same as the $400K degree. It’s kind of like when you’re rich brother-in-law pulls up in a new Lamborghini, and you say to him, “Yeah, but my KIA get me there just fine, and It even has a HARVARD bumper sticker on it”……..Just kidding……..

  2. I don’t care what’s on my diploma, but I do care about how I list it on my resume!

    I graduated from HES in 2004. The requirements for how I list my degree on my resume have changed FOUR TIMES in the past 12 years.

    In 2004 we were told we could list our degree as Harvard University, Bachelor of Liberal Arts (ALB) in History

    In 2008 we were told to list our degree as Harvard University, Bachelor of Liberal Arts, concentration in history (note the “concentration in history,” little nuanced change)

    In 2009 we were told to list our degree as Harvard University, Bachelor of Liberal Arts in Extension Studies, concentration in history

    In 2011 it became Bachelor of Liberal Arts, Harvard University Extension School

    Concentration: History (Must be on separate line)

    They recently added this alternate which isn’t any better: “Bachelor of Liberal Arts, Harvard University, Extension Studies.”

    I’m proud that I went to HES, and I’m happy to list the extension school as part of the credentials of where I went, but I’m really tired of having to check the HES website every year to make sure the way I list my degree is in compliance with whatever new regulations have been created. If you look at the way the degree listing requirements have changed over the past 12 years it’s clearly an effort to erode the value of Extension in comparison to the rest of Harvard University.

  3. The ‘perfect passive participle’ in the full wording of the Latin degree names was, and is, a horrible choice, apparently chosen because of it’s similarity to a noun reflecting a decisive elitist background. There would have been other Latin words with the same meaning, but without this negative connotation.

  4. I had considered pursuing a master’s degree from HES, but ultimately decided against it. I had no problem with the “Master of Liberal Arts” portion of the degree name, but the “Extension Studies” portion makes no sense.

    I found Johns Hopkins to be a much better choice on that regard. They have a couple of programs designed for working professionals to pursue their degrees non-traditionally, where they can pursue their studies part-time if they wish, and via on-site or online delivery methodologies.

    For example, one could pursue an MS in Computer Science, or an MS in Data Science, or an Master of Engineering Management, or over a dozen other choices via the “Engineering for Professionals” program offered by JHU’s Whiting School of Engineering.  ep.jhu.edu).

    One could alternatively pursue an MS in Applied Economics, an MA in Communication, a Master of Liberal Arts, an MA in Government, or over a dozen other choices from the “Advanced Academic Program” offered by JHU’s Krieger School of Arts & Sciences.  advanced.jhu.edu)

    Rather than getting a degree in “Extension Studies”, JHU offers degrees in your actual field of study. Also, the schools within JHU offering said degrees are the same ones that offer the traditional degrees. Hence, you don’t have to deal with having to denote you received your degree in extension studies from the Extension School.

    For the most part, there is little distinguishing between JHU degrees offered to traditional students versus non-traditional.

    I recently finished my MS in Computer Science via JHU, and am considering pursuing another master’s there… either an MS in Data Science, or maybe a Master of Engineering Management.

    I would never consider pursuing multiple master’s from HES, given that it seems pointless getting the exact same degree (a Master of Liberal Arts in Extension Studies) multiple times.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Shizuka. More evidence that the “in Extension Studies” is not a harmless relic of Harvard’s history, but an actual barrier to students and potential students.

      Good luck with your studies!

      Ian

  5. I received an invitation to HES through the PTK honors society. PTK has a huge number of students. I wonder if it would be more effective to have prospective students petition the change, rather than former students?

    • Perhaps, but I think even the threat of losing potential students means little to the group that holds power over naming — Mass Hall and the FAS faculty.

      I would advise leaving this suggestion on the petitioners’ Facebook page.

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