Why the Harvard Extension School still struggles with reputation

Someone posed an interesting question on an earlier blog post about Harvard Extension School degrees. JJ asked:

I found out that the Extension has been more than 100 years since 1910. Here comes to a question: Is that enough to build the reputation? How come people are still having the same arguments? Why there are still employers who think it’s fraud when someone leaves out “Extension” on their resume?

Here’s my answer to the first question about building a good Harvard Extension School reputation.

Until about 30 years ago, there were relatively few Extension School degrees granted – maybe a few dozen every year, including the now-defunct associates degree. The focus of the degree programs was far more limited, particularly for the graduate degrees. There were almost no students from outside the Boston area. This was before the World Wide Web, so you had to come to campus to attend class, which limited the student body to those living within driving range or using public transportation.

If there aren’t many graduates from a university, it’s very hard to build a reputation. That’s not just a Harvard Extension School issue, it’s true for many small colleges or small programs within larger university settings.

Things started to change in the 1980s and 1990s when Dean Michael Shinagel took over the program and implemented major updates and launched new programs. Collectively, these efforts changed the Extension School from a sleepy continuing education program to one of the larger degree-granting schools within Harvard University.

He expanded online education and degree options for the ALM program beyond traditional liberal arts and science concentrations, including areas that Harvard faculty had never taught, such as journalism and digital media. (The ALM Management and IT programs have been particularly successful, graduating thousands of people in the past 10 years.)

Shinagel also ramped up the ability for non-Harvard faculty to teach for credit, added prerecorded Harvard College classes for credit online, and increased the number of online classes allowed for the degree programs. The result has been an explosion of students and graduates, particularly since 2000. (If you’re interested in learning more about the history of the Extension School and the changes he led, I recommend his book The Gates Unbarred.)

The reputation of the school among students and alumni is fantastic. Here’s what I wrote 12 years ago, after finishing my ALM History degree:

The course offerings in a few liberal arts fields are superb. Harvard has a large number of extremely talented faculty who are used to working with very bright colleagues and students, and the university has world-class libraries and other facilities. The rich Extension School course catalog reflects these factors. It is a wonderful feeling to browse through the course offerings before the semester starts, seeing what’s available and who’s teaching certain sections. …

The quality and rigor of the ALM/Liberal Arts program attracts high achievers. In my graduating class, there were successful professionals as well as students who had completed their undergraduate and earlier graduate degrees at Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Georgetown, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Those who are unprepared for serious study won’t get very far. Some prospective degree candidates assume that the experience will be akin to a typical continuing education program. They quickly learn otherwise. While anyone can take a class at the Extension School, students who want to study for a degree have to prove they can walk the walk before they are admitted.

Unfortunately, the reputation of the Harvard Extension School in the eyes of the public is not as good. This is partly because of a large number of HES grads who don’t acknowledge they went to the Extension School. If successful grads don’t publicly state they attended Harvard Extension School, how can the public know their educational background includes years of study at the Extension School?

A related issue: people who deliberately misrepresent themselves as Harvard College or Harvard Business School students and get caught, as well as high-profile graduates who tout “Harvard University” on their resumes and then are identified as HES grads, which to many outsiders looks like misrepresentation or fraud. These cases bring down the reputation of the school. I’ve written about the misrepresentation issue extensively on “What employers think about Harvard Extension School degrees,” and I’ll end this post the same way:

HES grads should be proud of what they have accomplished and be proud to list “Harvard Extension School” on their resumes. If enough people do so and do as well in their careers as they did while at HES, the reputation of the Harvard Extension School will grow … making it easier for all Extension School grads to leverage ALB and ALM degrees to advance their careers.

Fortunately, the tide is starting to turn. I see more and more people willing to emphasize their Harvard Extension School degree or teaching credentials, and there is definitely more student pride. If these trends continue, the reputation of the Extension School will improve.




2 thoughts on “Why the Harvard Extension School still struggles with reputation

  1. I think one reason that Harvard Extension School is not seen with the same reverence as the other Harvard University schools is that extension schools and other continuing education outlets are viewed similar to “adult education”. Both were intended for adult learners, especially for those beyond the age of traditional students.

    Admission requirements for HES and other continuing education schools (like UPenn’s LPS) are oftentimes considered less selective, compared to traditional college admissions process.

    Qualifying for admission into HES’ bachelor degree program after getting B or better in 2 to 3 classes cannot be compared to Harvard College’s 4.5% acceptance rate last year.

    Another difference between the bachelor degree programs at Harvard College and HES is Latin honors. When Harvard College students graduate, they can be awarded cum laude, magna cum laude, or the highest distinction, summa cum laude. This is not the case for HES students, who can, at best, get cum laude.

    Another point of note could be accreditation. For example, an MBA from Harvard Business School is AACSB accredited. However, the Master of Liberal Arts in Extension Studies (focus: management or finance) from Harvard Extension School is not AACSB accredited. It does not even have the lesser-regarded ACBSP accreditation.

    Even Harvard University seems to treats the Extension School like its 2nd-class step child. Given this, it is not hard to see why some may view HES’ reputation as not being equal to that of the other degree-granting schools at Harvard.

    Personally, I think HES should be afforded more respect than this…. starting with a renaming of its degrees. Nobody at HES majors in “Extension Studies”.

  2. (edited changes)
    Sure, those who use HES credentials to pose as HC or as being an affiliate from another of Harvard schools contribute to the linear combination of reasons why the Extension School may have a poor reputation, but the major reason for the Extension School’s low status is because of the school’s association with their competitors.

    Well before the current pandemic crisis, Harvard DCE has moved the majority of course offerings to online. Classes that had been taught on campus (some for decades) now are online only. I understand the strategic benefit of making more courses available online. Even, however, online the Harvard brand is not enough to erase the stigma of an online degree education. The subpar quality of for-profit schools/degree mills have ruined whatever goodwill online education had to offer. Harvard HES is expanding — correction, extending into a market that is soiled by the specter of low quality. In response to the pandemic, Harvard moved all summer school courses to online following suit of earlier action taken in Spring term. Among the hundreds of tweets in reaction, one (humorous) tweet stands out because the premise reflects the prevalent reputation of online education, https://twitter.com/ianbremmer/status/1253296442678149122?s=20
    — Sure it is an online degree, but it is from Harvard.
    — Yeah, But is it really?

    First off, have a school that is mostly online and for better or for worst, places that school in the same category as all other online degree granting schools.

    Next, expanding online while shrinking on-campus offerings exacerbates the existing segregation between Extension School students with the rest of Harvard, that was fostered first by HES’s identity crisis. By identity crisis, I mean there is a disconnect between how HES is marketed and what HES offers. (Let’s bracket aside the problematic issue of “Extension Studies” appearing on the diploma instead of the field of concentration.) I think some of the individual ALM programs are on-point, but the overall HES purpose or goal is not well-defined, which has changed, certainly, from its inception.

    I am riding the T and I can read an advert “Sign-up now for Quincy College classes” next to another advert “Register now for classes at Cambridge College” (which to date is no longer in Cambridge); and sandwich between these and “Take classes at Benjamin Franklin College” (a tech-centric school) is Harvard DCE’s “Enroll now in Extension classes” advertisement. Simultaneous to DCE’s competing against the for-profit online schools they are competing in the same market as local community colleges and below-third tier schools. N.B. Harvard’s use of the word ‘enroll’ and not ‘register’ which have different meanings in Harvard context than the words’s ordinary synonymity. Kudos to HES streamline admissions process but there needs to be a better way of either integrating or differentiating between Extension students who are non-degree and degree candidates. Not surprising legitimate HES alumni who may mis-represent themselves by dropping “Extension” on their resumés, although says more about individual low self-esteem, speaks to HES’s identity crisis and the reason why so many can lay valid claim to having attended Harvard without having earned a degree.

    In my opinion in many respects, Columbia’s General Studies program by far does a better job than HES/DCE but I think HES provides better ROI (return on investment, the H-bomb alone gives more bang for the buck) than Columbia’s GS.

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