Harvard Extension School now requires 12 courses for grad degrees, pushing the cost >$30,000

(UPDATED) This week I noticed that many liberal arts-focused graduate degree programs at Harvard Extension School now require 12 courses in order to meet the graduation requirements, compared to 10 previously. I don’t know when this happened, but it was probably in the last year or two (Update: the switch happened in 2018; see details at the bottom of this post).

For instance, the ALM Biology degree now lists the following requirements:

  • Proseminar
  • 5 biology courses
  • 1 biology seminar
  • 1 statistics course
  • 1 elective
    • EXPO 42c is an elective option
  • Crafting the Thesis Proposal
  • Master’s Thesis part one
  • Master’s Thesis part two

My own degree (ALM History) now has the following requirements:

  • Proseminar
  • 5 history courses
  • 1 history seminar
  • 2 general electives
    • EXPO 42b is an elective option

Additional Thesis Track Courses

  • Crafting the Thesis Proposal
  • Master’s Thesis part one
  • Master’s Thesis part two

Additional Capstone Track Courses

  • 1 additional general elective
  • Social Reform Movements in America Precapstone
  • Social Reform Movements in America Capstone

When I went through the ALM program, the thesis counted as a single class, even though no coursework was involved. What seems to have happened is the thesis (or new capstone) for these ALM programs has been turned into a three-“course” process that divides the thesis proposal, research, and review work into separate stages. But the stages themselves look pretty much the same as what was expected under the old single-“course” thesis requirement.

I use “courses” in quotes because they aren’t courses or seminars or lectures in the normal sense. The process is more like a series of one-on-one meetings with research advisors (at the Extension School) and thesis directors (Harvard faculty members) and sending drafts and comments back and forth via email. The thesis takes years to complete, as I documented on my old Harvard Extension blog. Many people get stuck in “A.B.T.” status (“All But Thesis”) and never finish.

Why bump up the number of required ALM courses from 10 to 12? I can only speculate (Update: See insights below from a current ALM student):

  1. Boosting revenue is an obvious incentive (see below).
  2. Setting  parity with the ALM in Management degree is another — the ALMM has been 12 courses since inception, as I recall, but without a thesis requirement.
  3. A third is the introduction of the “capstone” option to the ALM liberal arts degree for people unable or unwilling to do the thesis (see “ABT,” above). Because the capstone requires taking extra courses, maybe the Harvard Extension School thought it necessary to stretch the thesis coursework to 3 classes to make them “equal” from a cost point of view.

The impact on costs is scary. This paragraph on the thesis description page for the ALM History degree actually made me laugh when I first read it:

To ensure affordability, tuition rates for thesis work are the same as our regular 4-credit, graduate-level courses. Master’s Thesis Part One: $2,750 and Master’s Thesis Part Two: $2,750 or Master’s Thesis One and Two: 8 credits/$5,500.

Affordability? There are now three thesis “courses,” so the cost is $2750 x 3, or $8,250 – three times as what the thesis would cost prior to 2018. It also pushes the total cost for ALM degrees that require a thesis up 20%, from $27,500  to $33,000, based on current rates.

That doesn’t count as affordable in my book (despite the claims of “Affordable Tuition” plastered all over the Extension School website, as shown below), but with hundreds of students engaged in thesis work at any given time, it increases Extension School revenues by hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars every year.

Harvard Extension affordable tuition

UPDATE: A current Harvard Extension School grad student explained the switchover on Twitter:

“I find the thesis component being split into three separate courses a bit silly. I began taking the three courses for admission before the change (2017) and became a student after the changes (2018).

They gave students the choice at the time when I was taking classes in 2017 to stick with the old format or change to the new one which lowered admission course criteria by one class. So you only need two for consideration into the program.

As a result, we have to deal with the split thesis course (3 instead of 1) which is more of a pain than beneficial for some degree programs where the the administration isn’t as helpful in guiding students to resources to complete the thesis. Also, students foot the bill.”

Regarding the reasons why the ALM thesis now requires three expensive courses to complete, Simon says:

I think it was mostly to, in theory, give more guidance to students who need help getting through the thesis. Not everyone has written a paper or knows how to. It takes time to vet a proposal and do revisions. So I would imagine they want the research advisors to be compensated.

It’s true the thesis is extremely tough. When I was a student, only 52% of matriculated students were able to complete the ALM program, and a lot of that had to do with the thesis. It works well if you can write and can push yourself to complete the research requirements, but some people definitely need more help, even after the Proseminar, which is supposed to prepare people for advanced research projects.

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2 thoughts on “Harvard Extension School now requires 12 courses for grad degrees, pushing the cost >$30,000

  1. Haha, I appreciate being quoted! Glad to be of service.

    I sincerely still think the decision to split the thesis in two parts was for the greater good, despite that it puts the strain elsewhere and having students foot the bill. Not every adviser is equal and/or helpful in their specific discipline and I can only speak on behalf of the Bioengineering/Nanotech thesis degree track.

    You basically are left hanging to find a suitable adviser to either fund your proposal OR you write grants to fund your own research for the final leg of your studies (on top of paying to get your thesis reviewed/revised/approved). That on top of a full time job just makes it very difficult for many to pursue the thesis track. Many still do and should be commended because it isn’t easy to do so.

    I think the capstone still produces scholarly work but it isn’t offered for every track. For Biotechnology, it seems to be more of developing a sales pitch and refining it which is pretty cool given the field being hot right now. Bioengineering/Nanotech, you have to write a thesis from my understanding or else you have to go for the Biotechnology ALM which has similarities but the focus is different.

    Thank you for writing this piece, Ian! It was beautifully written and your blog has been insightful in helping me choose to continue along pursuing the degree.

    Cheers,
    Simon

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