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 mixed. 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. Further, it’s hard to argue with the many Extension School success stories, including grads attending highly selective master’s and PhD programs at Oxford, Yale, and Harvard itself. If these trends continue, the reputation of the Extension School will improve.