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.




10 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.

    • Columbia GS, along with Brown RUE and Yale Eli Whitney, offer identical classes alongside the normal aged student body at the same tuition and grant the same degree. This, one can actually say they graduated from these schools with all the meaning that implies and with no qualification. HES, unfortunately, does not offer that status and so an extension graduate is left to either hoodwink the public or admit that they did not graduate from “real Harvard.”

  3. Great points in the other comments. I am a HES graduate-degree candidate currently, in a field that is not offered by any other of the 12 degree granting schools of Harvard University.

    Definitely one of the main reasons for confusion, is the fact that there have been too many things mixed together under the HES umbrella, by now:
    1. Bachelor degrees in various fields (some of them can be same or similar to those offered by other Harvard schools)
    2. Graduate degrees in various fields (some of them can be same or similar to those offered by other Harvard schools)
    3. Certificates
    4. You can take courses just for fun (non-credit), for undergrad credit or for graduate credit (the very same course)
    5. Many courses can be taken in person (at Harvard), or completely online, or a mix of the two. HES is a pioneer in distance education
    6. Large number of courses are offered, with very diverse scopes, levels of difficulty, and backgrounds of the lecturers. Some are Harvard professors, some are professionals, some might be a recent graduate of HES
    7. To take a course (for most) there are no real limitations, screening or selection of people. So you can just take some courses, freely, if you want, if you are interested in certain topics. Which is great, of course.

    It is clear, that if an institution – under the Harvard umbrella – offers all the above at the same time, there will be controversies of all kinds.

    Then there is the evolution of education. Times are changing. “Adult education” or “studying while working” had a certain meaning 40-60 years ago, but today (and tomorrow) it is becoming a very different thing. In a world that is changing at an accelerated rate, learning, studying needs to be continuous – like building something over time. I feel it to be fundamental. And the same way, “online education” developed bad reputation (because of some bad actors) in the past, but now (especially with the pandemic), distance learning is becoming, well, fundamentally important.

    One possible solution to reduce some of the confusions and controversies around HES could be: separate – in some way – the degree programs/candidates from those that are just taking courses for fun and from the certificates (maybe by bringing the degree programs under one of the other 11 Harvard schools). Of course making sure, that the admission requirements combined with the requirements for staying in the program, are kept at a comparable level to the other Harvard schools, and that the courses/lecturers are also handpicked by Harvard.

    So I don’t see the real difference in when (at what age) you are getting your degree – especially if it is a graduate degree – or whether if you are sitting in a classroom or watching the live video. The difference is between getting in and getting through a degree program at Harvard, or getting a graduate level certificate (which is still great and powerful), or just participating in single courses, because you are interested/passionate about a topic.

    And on a final note: let’s not get lost in the thinking of how school names and brands are important. Forget the name, forget you paper – how you use your acquired knowledge, and how much good you do with it in the world, that should be the real measurement of success.

  4. My experience over the last four years of my involvement with the school has been very positive as far as employers and clients are concerned. I haven’t gotten any of those sideways glances or whatever it is people seem to be afraid of experiencing.

    I think apart from pushing the degree name change issue (which doesn’t bother me terribly because I just accept is as stupid institutional bureaucratic miscellany and dismiss it as a cartoon), I would like the school to adopt an explicit policy that the rigor and academic standards of their coursework shall mirror the same of the schools from which their courses are drawn. This is largely already true, of course, but stating it as official policy would be helpful.

    I think HES students need more of a presence on campus to enhance their connection to the university, and I understand some within HESA have been working to get near-campus housing to facilitate the residency requirement, and that there has been progress on this.

    I have also heard recently that there is a new Ambassadors program designed to build a better sense of community. I think that’s just great.

    So… nothing happens fast in this space, but I see signs of improvement. Let’s see what the new Dean does to improve things further!

    • I would like the school to adopt an explicit policy that the rigor and academic standards of their coursework shall mirror the same of the schools from which their courses are drawn.

      I agree with the sentiment, but I don’t think this is possible. Too many courses and degree programs don’t have Harvard College/GSAS/HBS/SEAS equivalents.

      For instance, the last time I checked, the ALM, Management program is running a completely different curriculum and course offerings than the Harvard Business School MBA program. Most ALM, Management classes are taught by faculty with no Harvard faculty affiliation, and each school has its own approach to curriculum structure and requirements. From what I understand, current HBS faculty are forbidden from teaching HES classes either live or prerecorded.

      Programs like Digital Media Arts, Journalism, and Museum Studies have no equivalents anywhere at Harvard. HES saw an opportunity to offer these programs, but unfortunately didn’t think through issues related to standards or the Extension School’s original mission, which was to offer local residents access to Harvard faculty.

  5. I like to assume positive intent and feel like most don’t purposefully misrepresent their resume. The confusion for many comes from the fact that Extension School is part of Harvard University, the same way the Business School is, or Harvard Law School is.
    It’s been a while since I looked it up, but when I enrolled in Harvard Extension School, the rule was that you could list Harvard University on your resume, as long as you specified that your degree was in “Extension Studies.” So, for example, if I graduate, I will list “Master Liberal Arts in Media Design through Extension Studies, Harvard University.” That way it would align with the formatting of my under grad, which in my case, doesn’t list the school, just the degree and university.

    I think a lot of the reason Extension School lacks the reputation is because of the SIGNIFICANTLY lower admission standards. Having terrible test anxiety for large tests like SAT etc, my GRE scores failed to get me into state school. But at Extension School, as long as you take two classes and get an A or B in both, you can apply for consideration. Two years later, I have 4.0, but even I know I wouldn’t have made it into consideration under traditional circumstances.

    But also, I have to believe that the quality of instructors is less than they’re getting in real Harvard, because I have had some doozies.

    • Thanks for sharing your story. Regarding your last comment about the quality of instructors, could you elaborate? Were these ALM Management classes?

      As of a few years ago, current HBS faculty were forbidden from teaching HES courses, although I heard some retired HBS professors were teaching HES classes. When I looked at the list of other ALM Management faculty, almost all were professors from other schools (UMass, Tufts, Northeastern, etc.) or “Harvard Instructors” who had professional or research affiliations.

  6. As a current ALM (Management) student who has education through a PhD in another discipline, the rigor is HES has been exceptional but the greatest benefit is the interaction with my peers. Thankfully in this age we have the benefit of Zoom and other social media platforms (WhatsApp, LinkedIn, etc) to bring us much closer. I agree with much in the post; it is unfortunate that the Extension School isn’t a higher profile.

    That said, I will make one observation, not living the in Boston area, the perception that the “Extension School” is of lesser quality by employers doesn’t bear out. Almost no employer I know in major cities west of the Mississippi (where I live) is put off by the Extension School identification. They see Harvard University on a resume or CV and that carries the weight. Part of this is perhaps because few people outside Boston have conversations about the varying schools at Harvard and because HES isn’t well known. I’ve made this statement before to groups of peers in classes and those outside Boston tend to agree and those near Boston are a bit reticent.

    Getting out of the regional bubble always seems to help.

    Thanks for the post.

    • DrGRob,
      As a recent ALM Management alum, your posting was very helpful about needing to be geographically west of the Mississippi. I visited one of those major cities back in August 2020 and confirmed the fact that the differences between Extension and the other schools is relatively unknown. All that matters to most hiring managers is, what school is at the very top of the diploma or transcript. I plan on moving my family soon to this major city. Pertaining to a similar matter, what is the goal of pointing out that HBS professors may be prohibited from teaching at HES or having a “doozy” of instructors? Would not this only plant the seed of doubt with hiring managers who comes across this post? (Not all of us can do well enough on the GMAT to get into Sloan.) There is enough negative material out there on the web about HES and a fellow alumna discouraged me from starting my own blog about my own misadventures while taking many on-campus courses and working for Harvard.

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