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.

 

 

A message to Harvard Extension School students who can’t stand this blog

Recently, a current Harvard Extension School student (using an @g.harvard.edu email address, which is available to Extension School students) has been harassing me on Twitter and via email, accusing me of being a bully, ridiculing my career, and demanding that I delete this blog. He further claims HES students hate me.

When challenged to back up this assertion with evidence, he would only state that “a high level person” directed him to read my blog, which he further said is “negatively impacting the HES community.”

I felt it would be a good opportunity to share with him (and others) a little bit of the history behind this blog, and explain why I will never give in to the haters who pop up from time to time.

First, it’s worth noting that the malcontents are in the minority. My two Harvard Extension School blogs (Harvard Extended and Ipso Facto) have been viewed well over 1 million times since 2005. People come to the blogs because they find them informative and helpful. I’ve personally answered hundreds of questions from prospective students. A few have even circled back after graduating to thank me.

Second, a lot of the content on these blogs praises the schools and individual programs. I’ve always made a point of highlighting some of the best aspects of the Harvard Extension School, including access to top-notch Harvard faculty and research opportunities. To see examples, read the final post on the Harvard Extended blog, or What’s the Harvard Extension School post-bacc really like? I also defend the Harvard Extension School on Twitter and in communications with the media and highlight positive aspects of the school that aren’t that well-known:

Harvard Extension School TAP

But along with highlighting the good, I have also called out problems with the Extension School. This is where the haters come in.

Ten years ago, it was for criticizing the Extension School’s aggressive expansion into online education. I got a lot of grief for that.

More recently, it’s been for calling out students and alumni who deliberately obfuscate their association with the Harvard Extension School:

Some graduates don’t want to admit they attended the Harvard Extension School, because of the stigma associated with the part-time program. Other Extension School graduates deliberately take advantage of the “Harvard University” label to mislead people into thinking they attended the highly selective College or GSAS programs. Indeed, every few years in The Crimson there are reports of Extension School students (matriculated or not) insinuated or outright claiming to be College students to other people at Harvard. It happens all the time.

That post alone has scores of comments from Harvard Extension School students and alumni that are critical of my stance. However, most offer reasoned rebuttals. I publish these comments for everyone to see.

Not everyone behaves like an adult, though. They personally insult me, demand that I delete posts they don’t like, and generally behave in an immature manner.

Here’s what the haters don’t get:

  • The blog posts consist of my opinions and observations based on facts.
  • I don’t make stuff up, and I stand by everything I write.
  • I don’t take orders from anyone to delete my blog or stop talking about issues that are important to me. This includes not only posts about the Harvard Extension School, but also other topics including those relating to the Fessenden School and real estate development in Newton.
  • When I make a mistake, or new facts come to light that cause me to change my opinion, that will be acknowledged in the post in question (look for strikethrough text or updates) or in the comments to that post, or sometimes in a follow-up post that is linked to the original.
  • People are welcome to post comments that disagree or question my stance on a particular issues. As long as they don’t contain foul language, personal attacks, hot air, or spam, I generally publish the comments.

In addition, it’s worth noting that, unlike many of the haters, I proudly list my Extension School affiliation on the blog and my LinkedIn profile.

If the haters can’t stomach the idea of publicly stating the fact that they attend or graduated from the Extension School, or are furious that someone would dare to call out those who pretend to be College or HBS students/alumni, then they should seriously consider whether the Harvard Extension School is a good fit for them.

One more thing: At the heart of any good college or grad school experience is exposure to ideas, concepts, and ways of thinking that may be novel or go against existing belief systems. If a student’s first instinct upon reading an opinion or set of facts that he or she doesn’t like/agree with is to harass the author and demand that those opinions or facts be deleted, then that person may not ready for any serious course of study, whether at the Harvard Extension School or elsewhere.

How I responded to The Harvard Crimson’s request for comment on its Extension School degree article

The Harvard Crimson just published an article about the Harvard Extension School degree designations. I’ve been writing about Harvard Extension School ALM and ALB degree designations for more than 10 years on Ipso Facto and the Harvard Extended blog, and know quite a bit about this topic. The Crimson isn’t breaking any new ground with its article, although for many current Harvard College undergraduates it’s probably the first time they’ve ever heard about the issue.

The Crimson reporter also asked me for a phone interview. Here is my response:

Thanks for reaching out. I don’t do voice interviews about the Extension School — it’s a charged topic, and frankly the treatment of the Extension School by the Crimson and other institutions at Harvard has skewed negative over the years, typically focusing on scandal or how we don’t deserve equal treatment, and often leaving out important context.

The serious students, the success stories, the accomplishments, the areas where the school is doing some very innovative things … those are rarely covered by The Crimson. The Harvard Gazette sometimes does, but it also avoids any discussion of the name issue/unequal treatment. This is part of the reason why I have been active on my @harvardextended twitter account and blogging (Ipso Facto and Harvard Extended) where I try to explore both the good and bad aspects of HES.

Regarding your specific question:

Despite years of lobbying by the former Extension School dean, various petitions and letter-writing campaigns, and online activism, the Faculty Council and Mass Hall have consistently blocked or ignored any attempt to change the name of the Extension School or the ridiculous “In Extension Studies” degree designation. The University has further taken steps to exclude Extension School students from housing and open cross-registration with other schools at Harvard. As a graduate student at MIT, it was even possible for me to cross-register for classes at Harvard Business School, the Graduate School of Education, and the Harvard Kennedy School. An MIT classmate even studied at the Divinity School! Yet as a matriculated graduate student at the Extension School, I was forbidden from attending classes for credit at any of these schools.

Taken together, this state of affairs perpetuates the elitist notion that the Extension School isn’t really part of the Harvard community, and students do not deserve the same treatment or respect accorded others at the University.

In the short term, the only hope for change on the naming front would involve sustained demonstrations outside of Faculty Council meetings and Mass Hall. Failing that, there won’t be change until a new generation of faculty, trustee, and University leadership takes office and realizes that the Extension School, far from being an “extension” of Harvard, is in fact a crucible for innovation, accomplishment, and community involvement that the rest of the University should look up to.

You are welcome to use any part of this email in your article.

The reporter did not use any of this material in her story, so I am publishing it here.

Lastly, I give credit to outgoing Dean Huntington Lambert for commenting at length about why “in Extension Studies” is academically incorrect for graduates who concentrated in computer science, history, or biology. That said, there is a lot more that could have been written about the difficulties that students and alumni experience when presenting a resume with a strange “official” designation. People have been negatively impacted, as one ALM software engineering concentrator found out when he attempted to find a job.

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.

What’s the Harvard Extension School post-bacc really like?

In all the years I have been writing about the Extension School, the one program that has remained a bit of a mystery is the Harvard post-bacc, a Post Baccalaureate program designed for people interested in getting into medical school but don’t have the undergraduate grades (or major) to qualify. I knew the Harvard Extension School Premedical Program had a rigorous reputation, with top-notch faculty and coursework in the required fields such as organic chemistry, cellular biology, biochemistry, and physics.

I knew it also had a great placement record, with students attending highly respected medical schools across the country, including Harvard Medical School, Johns Hopkins, Stanford Medical School, and more:

harvard extension postbac placement

What I did not know were the numbers around the program. Now I do, thanks to a post by Christopher Maloney, who shared some details of his experience. He writes:

Out of 345 in my starting postbac class, only forty-something of us graduated. As a Harvard undergraduate, there are fifteen subcategories of B, and the University is seriously invested in keeping every admitted undergraduate student. But at the Extension school they flunked us. Most of my classmates were only doing the program as a last-ditch effort at medical school reapplications, so there were no slackers among us and we dropped like flies.

Obviously, I made it through, and at the time that program had something like an 85% acceptance rate from medical schools. They knew we’d been through the wringer and could cut it. But I also credit a lot of my gray hair to those years.

That works out to about a 12 or 13% completion rate for the Harvard Post-Bacc. By comparison, the overall graduation rate for Extension School degree programs relative to the number of people who register for all courses was 3% in 2009 (source: the former Dean Michael Shinagel), but that includes thousands of casual class-takers who are taking a class or two for enrichment or professional advancement. People going into the post-bacc aren’t doing it casually — they have a very specific goal in mind, usually associated with goals of becoming a doctor.

 

What employers think about Harvard Extension School degrees

For more than 10 years, I have received questions from prospective Harvard Extension School students (and some current students) about whether or not Harvard Extension School degrees will help them get a job, and what employers think about them. Here’s a typical query:

I am considering the Harvard Extension School for Management. I really want your opinion if this will be worth doing in terms of getting a job. I am an international student and have one year of business experience. Do you get an internship in summer? Does the Harvard brand help?

The short answer is “maybe.” Aside from the Harvard or Harvard Extension School brand, there are a few factors employers typically consider:

  1. It depends on the person and what else he or she brings to the table in terms of job experience, specific technical/work skills, and whether or not he or she will be a good fit for the team.
  2. It depends on the field/location/position. It will matter less in a highly competitive field in a big city compared to a less competitive market in a rural area or overseas.
  3. It depends on the person’s network.

As for the brand: By itself, the Harvard Extension School degree is not an automatic signal to “hire this person because he/she has ‘Harvard’ in his educational background.” But it may help you get noticed. My ALM thesis director (a tenured professor in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences) said the Harvard association and reputation — even for Extension School students — carries a lot of weight, and will help open doors that might otherwise be closed. He actually offered to help me find work related to my research (Chinese foreign policy analysis using computer-based research) if I was interested. I wasn’t — at the time I had a pretty good job in tech media and a young family, and becoming an analyst required moving to Washington, D.C.

Another thing that may help graduates get noticed are automated resume processing programs that search for specific keywords or phrases, which may include the name of famous universities … such as Harvard.

But when the resume gets passed to an HR screener or hiring manager, things start to get tricky for many HES grads. A lot of people do not make it clear that they attended the Extension School, and instead list “Harvard University” on their resumes, either in a misguided justification to hide the Extension School affiliation, or an outright misleading attempt to make it seem as if they graduated from Harvard College, the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), or the Harvard Business School. Here are just a few examples from LinkedIn:

Harvard BiologyHarvard ALB economicsHarvard ALM digital media

Not everyone does this, of course. It’s also possible to find people who proudly list their Extension School degrees on LinkedIn:

Harvard Extension ALM nonprofits

I’ve covered the issue of how to represent your Extension School diploma in the past, and it has been debated by hundreds of people on this blog and elsewhere. You can read more at Harvard Extension School résumé guidelines are bogus.

In short, while a Harvard Extension Degree is issued by Harvard University, it is not the same degree that is issued to graduates of other schools at Harvard such as a Harvard College AB degree, a Harvard Business School MBA degree, or a Harvard GSAS AM degree. The former has a rigorous process that makes students prove they can do the work before they are admitted, but the others are among the most highly selective undergraduate and graduate programs in the United States. Students are in classrooms with other high-achievers, which raises the level of discourse and focus. Yes, HES gets some high achievers as well (including graduates of Ivies and other competitive programs) but the classrooms are also filled with casual class-takers.

The curricula and graduation requirements are also completely different. The most obvious is the Extension School’s use of distance education for course credit and for many of the professional programs,  the fact that there is no requirement to take classes taught by faculty with actual teaching appointments at Harvard.

What this means is McKinsey or Bain won’t regard an HES ALB or ALM in Management grad the same way they will treat a recent Harvard College AB or HBS MBA recipient.

What HR and hiring managers think about Extension School grads

Several people involved in hiring decisions have commented how they regard HES grads compared to their counterparts from other schools. I’ll start with the positive evaluations, followed by some of the negative takes:

Josh:

I’m a hiring manager and I would hire an HES graduate any day of the week.

Paul:

As the president and founder of our company with final say in hiring/firing, the choice is clear. Being only book smart is not nearly enough to cut it as there are already too many book smart people out there to choose from. Candidate B’s qualities along with street smarts are harder to find and what the real world is looking for.

justanotheropinion:

If I had to hire one of two applicants for my accounting firm and one said hire me because I got good grades in high school and was active in the community (real Harvard applicant), and the other said I have years of experience in accounting and will work for three months to prove myself to you and if you don’t like what you see I will leave (HES applicant) I would hire the latter.

Why? Simple, the latter has shown they can complete a course of study, are working to better themselves and have decided to take on a great amount of additional responsibility.

But there are more than a few managers out there who have been burned by HES grads misrepresenting their degrees:

As somebody who has personally on-boarded somebody claiming an HES degree as a HGSAS degree, I can tell you that this is pure bullwack. What a complete waste of time and energy her fraud was. I wasted a ton of time looking into the issue. Harvard’s own standards have always made it clear to grads that their HES degree is not a Harvard College degree. Period… It’s willful ignorance on the part of HES grads that it will be overlooked. Anyone who doesn’t know how to represent an HES degree on a resume is a liar.

Another example:

It happens every few years where my firm gets an HES grad misrepresenting their degree. The latest “MA Anthropology – Harvard,” which after a little checking (we have learned to ALWAYS be suspicious), ends up being an MLA with a concentration from HES. When confronted they always plead ignorance and make the same BS argument about how they took classes on campus at Harvard taught by faculty and blah, blah, blah. Some are otherwise good candidates, but they are still committing resume fraud. I would take an honest UMass or UConn grad over HES any day. Had they listed their true HES credential on the resume and sold it in the interview, they would be fine.

As I have said many times in the past, 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.

Question: Is the Harvard ALM a good fit for me?

I received an email from a prospective Harvard ALM student who had stumbled upon my Harvard Extension School blog posts describing the program. She lives overseas, and wanted some honest opinions about the ALM in History program, from which I graduated in 2008. Here is what I said:

The most important question to ask yourself: Why are you starting this program? It will take years and there are some drawbacks (described below). The reasons many students cite include low cost, interest in a particular field, interest in being challenged, interest in using an ALM as a stepping stone to a PhD program, etc. All are valid reasons … but note there are alternative programs that may be more convenient or superior (depending on the field of study).

I also think there are a lot of prospective students who focus on getting a Harvard degree and don’t really care so much about the academics. This is unfortunate, because I think that’s what makes the program so good!

Here are some other issues you should be aware of (note that this is based on my own experience and what I have heard/read in over the years, but it may have changed):

  • The ALM History program is good for certain fields (e.g. American history, some Asian-focused studies) but less so for others — there are not many courses available, and few potential thesis advisors. I would take a close look at the course offerings to make sure there are topics that really interest you.
  • HES has rapidly increased its online offerings, but not all have Harvard faculty members, and even for those online courses that do have Harvard faculty instructors, many are based on pre-recorded lectures which means there are few opportunities to interact with them or even ask questions (that is the responsibility of TAs).
  • I advise distance students to make an effort to take as many on-campus classes as possible, not only because I believe the quality is better but also it is chance to get to know other students and take advantage of other activities on campus.
  • I urge all students, whether they are on-campus or distance, to take as many classes with Harvard faculty as possible. The non-Harvard faculty are good, but if most of your credits are with non-Harvard faculty, what’s the point of coming to HES? For the same reason, I think the new professional ALM programs such as digital media are a step in the wrong direction — there are no Harvard faculty who teach digital media, which means that most instructors will have no Harvard academic affiliation.
  • Regardless of whether you are a distance or an on-campus student, HES does not make much of an effort to have a true cohort experience. For instance, at [redacted] you had an opportunity to bond with the students starting at the same time, and everyone had to take certain core classes at the same time. This is not the way HES works. I had one close friend who happened to take some of the same classes that I did, but HES did not make any effort to have students feel like they are part of a group going through the program together. There was also no “departmental” feeling. What this means is students (especially distance students) tend to feel isolated, and you are really on your own when it comes to pushing yourself forward. It’s lonely!

I finished off my response with the message that I did not want to scare this prospective Harvard ALM student away from the Extension School program — I would do it again in a heartbeat. But there are some real drawbacks that prospective students should be aware of, particularly those taking distance courses.

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?

Video: Dean Shinagel addressing 2008 Harvard Extension School graduation ceremony

I just rediscovered this video: the former dean of the Harvard Extension School, Dean Michael Shinagel, addressing the 481 graduating ALM, ALB, and certificate recipients in 2008. He talks about everything from his work in progress (The Gates Unbarred), the profiles of the graduating students, and other topics. There are many statistics and anecdotes that HES alums and current students may find interesting. Enjoy!

Harvard Extension faculty and the Harvard Instructor requirement

So you’re thinking about attending the Harvard Extension School, or you want to know more about the degree programs. A common question that prospective candidates have is whether students are taught by real Harvard faculty. Others are interested in whether Harvard Extension faculty are tenured professors at the University.

The short answer: It depends on the concentration and the classes being taken.

Instructors with appointments at Harvard Widener Library
Harvard Widener Library

Looking at the Harvard Extension Faculty Directory, the first page of results contains numerous associate and assistant professors, lecturers, and preceptors from FAS, the Harvard Medical School, the Harvard School of Public Health, Widener Library, and other units. The page also lists faculty from other area universities (Boston College, Suffolk, Northeastern, UMass, etc). There are many non-academic-affiliated instructors, too, who teach in the Extension School’s professional programs.

Generally speaking, the liberal arts and science classes are more likely to have Harvard faculty, including tenured professors. The Extension School has a “Harvard Instructor” requirement for the liberal arts masters degrees, requiring 7 out of 9 courses to be “a faculty member with a teaching appointment” at Harvard.

Harvard Extension faculty and Harvard Summer School classes

However, the school bends the rules for Summer School classes. All Harvard Summer School instructors are regarded as Harvard Instructors, even if they don’t have a teaching appointment. That’s not just for Extension School students taking Summer School classes; the rules are bent for Harvard College students attending the same classes — most on-campus Summer School coursework counts for credit for attending Harvard College students, with some conditions. Online classes offered by the Summer School cannot be taken for credit by Harvard College students, though.

I was a history concentrator in the Extension School’s Master of Liberal Arts program from 2003-2008, taking all of my classes on campus. Here’s the Harvard/non-Harvard faculty breakdown:

  • 2 classes taught by tenured Harvard faculty members
  • Thesis project directed by a tenured Harvard faculty member
  • 1 class taught by a non-tenured Harvard lecturer
  • 2 classes taught by Harvard post-docs/research affiliates
  • 1 class taught by a visiting professor from Boston College
  • 1 class taught by a visiting professor from Northwestern
  • 1 class taught by a visiting professor from Western Michigan University
  • 1 class taught by Museum of Fine Arts research affiliate

The 3 or 4 courses I took during the summer generally had non-Harvard instructors, but counted toward the Harvard Instructor requirement based on the Summer School exception described above. The Northwestern and Western Michigan lecturers had received AB/JD and PhD degrees from Harvard and had visiting scholar affiliations at Harvard, while the late Professor Thomas H. O’Connor of Boston College was considered the leading scholar in his field.

For other liberal arts concentrations, it’s possible to choose classes so most or even all instructors are tenured Harvard faculty or tenure-track professors. I know students who have done this, or even applied for (and received) Special Student status to take GSAS/College classes taught by Harvard faculty.

As for the professional programs (Finance, Digital media arts, etc.) there are no longer any Harvard Instructor requirements. This is not surprising, considering many of the topics being taught have no equivalent in Harvard College or any of the professional schools. Practically speaking, this means it’s possible to receive a degree from Harvard without ever taking a class with Harvard faculty. It’s ridiculous, and reflects very poorly on the Extension School, as I noted in another post several years ago:

… The professional degree programs have failed to fit the model established by the Extension School to offer a Harvard academic experience led by Harvard faculty members to students. It further sets a precedent for launching new professional degree programs that have no connection to the University’s existing areas of study, and opens the door to criticism that Harvard Extension School degrees aren’t “real” degrees because they no longer represent study under Harvard’s top-notch faculty.

I advise students considering these programs to make every effort to take actual classes with real Harvard faculty. For some fields, it’s impossible because there are no Harvard instructors available or willing to teach in these areas. But for others, there may be course offerings from time to time.

For online courses, there is an additional dimension to Harvard Extension faculty participation: Whether the classes are “live” with a participating professor, or whether they are prerecorded lectures with no opportunity to interact with faculty. In such classes, online discussion and assignments are handled by non-faculty TAs. Many students don’t know this before they sign up, and are disappointed by the experience, as one student discovered:

… Most of my distance classes were recorded lectures of College classes from the current semester. I had problems in both of my prerecorded classes that were related to the fact they were prerecorded and the professors were not involved. In one class, I had an outstanding TF and she made a huge difference; in the other things went badly and students complained. The professor was not accessible and this was not explained prior to the start of the class. …

In summary: If you are looking for a real Harvard experience, take as many classes on campus with real Harvard instructors as you can.