Friday, November 18, 2005

The New York Times' front page Extension School article

I am happy yet apprehensive about the front-page coverage of the Harvard Extension School in today's New York Times. The article is great publicity for the Extension School and is sure to boost applications, but it may have some negative repurcussions as well.

The article by Pam Belluck mostly explores the ALB (undergraduate) program at the Extension School, and how some students use it as an alternative to a Harvard College degree. It stresses some positive attributes about the ALB program:
Students have access to Harvard faculty, even Nobel laureates like Roy J. Glauber, a physicist who has taught extension classes. At least 52 of the 128 credits required for the extension bachelors degree must come from courses taught by Harvard instructors. And some courses are virtually identical to those at Harvard College, professors say.
But the article also gets into the perception issue -- what does "Harvard Extension School" mean to other members of the Harvard community, outsiders, and potential recruiters?

The New York Times' front page Extension School article - Memorial Hall
Memorial Hall
Of course, an ALB isn't the same as a Harvard College degree (AB). The students who join the ALB program don't go through the same rigorous application process as AB candidates. Furthermore, the ALB academic requirements, while challenging, aren't as tough as Harvard College academic assignments and expectations, even though some Harvard College faculty are teaching Extension students as well.

The article is right in that some ALB students are clearly interested in the Harvard name appearing on their resumes, perhaps more than what the program itself has to offer in terms of a very high-quality education taught by Harvard faculty. I hate to say it, but there are a handful of ALM candidates (Harvard Extension School's graduate degree program) who also have motives for attending which have more to do with the Harvard name than a Harvard education. And some are not as committed as I would hope. One fellow graduate student in my Chinese Emigration in Modern Times class in the Spring asked me what other classes were good for getting an "easy A" -- this student's interest seemed to be more attuned toward finding easy teachers or coursework, rather than classes which fit his academic interests or potential ALM thesis topic.

How will The New York Times' Extension School article change opinions?

I think the New York Times article will reinforce the idea among the rest of the Harvard community that Extension School students are sneaking through Harvard's back door, aren't worthy of being Harvard students, or are not motivated by honest academic goals. This is not good for the majority of Extension School students who take their Harvard studies very seriously. I'll keep an eye peeled for online reaction in this regard -- and feel free to comment below if you want to add your two cents.


The blog reaction has started. Here's a sample of what I've seen so far:

"How to Debase your Brand, and How to Extend It"

... the University has taken things a step too far, marketing the courses as the Harvard experience, and even going so far as to offer a BA degree from the Extension School. Sure enough, people are obtaining their BAs, which they list as being from Harvard University, at a cost far less than they would pay at Harvard College, and with no screening by Admissions. Harvard has spent over 350 years building its brand, and now it has proceeded to dull it through this short-sighted move.
There are lots of interesting questions that might have been asked. Do more than a tiny fraction of HES students really believe that they'll be able to pass themselves off as "regular" Harvard alums when they graduate? If so, is Harvard University nodding and winking at them in order to keep the pure gravy of money and public relations that is the Extension School flowing? What's the difference, other than in name recognition, between HES and nearby Bunker Hill Community College? Between HES and some online curriculum from the University of Phoenix? Between HES and a diploma mill?

Related Links:

Harvard Extended Interview Series: An ALM management concentrator (Note: This interview is with the HES graduate student who left this comment, below)


Anonymous said...

I'm a student of one of the professors quoted in the article.

On balance, I think the article is pretty neutral to positive for HUDCE and the HES. It points out that the school has a mix of students (good and bad) and that the classes are open admissions. It also points out that the classes are being taught by many of the same professors at Harvard College and that they have access to some of the brightest minds in the field.

The interesting thing is that it cites economics as a primary driver for the changing student population at HES. When I tell people that the classes cost, they are shocked to find them so reasonably priced.

There are plenty of people who take classes at Harvard Extension because of the name. I would also point out that there are plenty of students at Harvard College that are there for exactly the same reason. A quick peek at the Unofficial Guide to Life at Harvard will tell you that students at the College look for easy classes as well. With legacy students and the history of Ivy league admissions being tilted to favor one group over another on metrics other than academic achievement and SAT scores, I don't think the charge that the ALB degree is worth less than the AB would hold up to serious scrutiny. There are plenty of students at Harvard that are only there because they are related to someone famous or rich, not because they got a perfect SAT or a 4.0.

As for me, I'm a typical nontraditional student. I had been looking for a way to finish the last year or so of a long-delayed Bachelor's degree. My search for schools that could accomodate my schedule only turned up schools that were thinly-veiled degree mills and extension programs at traditional schools that cost an arm-and-a-leg and didn't really commit to the students the kind of teaching resources I would expect. Extension programs stocked with not-ready-for-prime-time associate professors are the norm at many extension programs.

Harvard was suprisingly different in this regard. I chose Harvard Extension not because of the name but because of the program. I was attracted to the long history, the reasonable cost, and the committed faculty. The list of achievements of HES graduates was another plus. A Harvard Extension School degree might not have the same cachet as a Harvard College degree but it would be a great education by any other name. Having a degree with the word "Harvard" on it is just icing on the cake.

I Lamont said...

Anonymous, you hit upon a few very valid points -- too bad the reporter didn't interview you as well!

Anonymous said...

With regard to the "How to debase/extend your brand" comments and link:

Interesting perspective, although I would have to disagree. While the barriers to entry -- the admissions process and cost -- are substantially lower than that of Harvard College, the same high academic standards apply. To quote a caption The Harvard Crimson published in a spring 2006 article beneath a photo of the Extension School's signage on Brattle Street, "Different shield, same high standards." ("Virtual Veritas"

Even on the HES website, the first FAQ under "Admissions" makes clear the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences' official position:

"Is the ALM a real Harvard degree?"

"Yes. ALM graduates are Harvard alumni and alumnae, and the program of study is in every way as challenging as that of graduate degree programs in other Harvard schools."

Anonymous said...

I posed the same question to my HES professor, "Is the Extension School's diploma stigmatized?" My reasons for studying at HES are many. Chief among them is the plethora of classes available for the Master of Management degree. Having no desire for an MBA is another. I was accepted at both Columbia University, my alma mater, and at Wharton. I declined both business schools to study at Harvard Extension School. I am not attending HES because of its open enrollment policy. I am here because of the faculty.

Although I am concerned in how a potential employer may view my HES degree, a Harvard degree is a Harvard degree. HES offers graduate studies not found in other Harvard “non-open enrollment” schools. Or many other schools as well.

I am here because I choose to be, regardless of the open enrollment policy. Although HES students are stigmatized, the education is superior.

I Lamont said...

Interesting perspectives, especially the most recent anonymous comment regarding not wanting an MBA. I am currently conducting an interview series with current and former Extension School students; you can see the first interview with Cynthia Iris here. If you are interested in taking part, please email me at

Anonymous said...

though I nevere finished college. every now and then I think about going back and HES is definitely a great sale. I would love to tell the ladies how I graduated from has sex appeal and we live in a society that likes perception of class. Hell i would be going for the name only as I have no need for a degree accept for bragging rights and of course a back up plan.

Anonymous said...

I am a grad of ext school with an ALB. I am an older student who cares about getting the best university resources at a bargain price. I want to learn from the best as well as have access to the best libraries in the world.

I could care less about the prestige of the degree because when you earn your college degree in your mid 30s it doesn't matter whether you attend Harvard college or Harvard Ext, at least as far as employers are concerned. we (I am also a hiring manager in a software company)look for accomplishment in the real world.

Anonymous said...

I graduated in 2007 from the A.L.M. in History. I previously spent time working at a research center at Harvard, where I met many people going through the so-called "Regional Studies" A.M. programs as well as got to know the faculty and administrators of these programs. I challenge any Harvard "Regional Studies" A.M. graduate to show me his or her thesis and compare it to those any bound A.L.M. Social Science thesis. The academic rigor of the A.L.M. program requirements is much greater, the thesis longer, more thorough, in every way. In fact, due to the pressure put on the students to produce a perfect, to the last sentence and comma thesis, some are in fact equivalent of Ph.D. dissertations in volume and scope, a fact often noted by the faculty thesis directors themselves. This is compounded by the fact that some HES students take several years of research and put them together into a thesis, while daytime students have a year or two to complete their M.A. and many haphazardly put together a work of ten pages for quick approval. This of course, also leads to the famous phenomenon of “all but the thesis” A.L.M. non-graduates, who have enriched Harvard by paying full tuition, but have no degree to show for it. Those who say getting in to the HES is easy are kidding themselves. Those who study at the College and GSAS are few, but those who apply are many. Those who study at the HES are many, but those who graduate are few.

Anonymous said...

I first enrolled in HES to "test the waters" and have decided to pursue a graduate HES degree. I am also a lawyer, working FT (often more than 60 hours a week) while I pursue my degree and maintain a B average. I have never worked so hard in my life. And many of my classmates hold Ivy degrees and are succesfful professionals in their fields.

I happily challenge any Ivy League undergraduate student to match my achievements while working FT.

I don't feel that the open admissions policy is a valid argument for stigmatizing HES students or devaluing HES degrees. First, Harvard College students are admitted largely based upon arbitrary criteria (i.e., standardized test scores, family wealth and/or connections or, as we call it in Texas, "The George Bush Plan"). Second, how can anyone argue an HES education is inferior when most HES instructors or profs also teach at Harvard College or, in my case (Biology classes), Harvard Medical School?

HES offers both undergraduate and graduate degrees for a fraction of the cost of a "traditional" Harvard degree. Same profs., same syllabus, same books, same exams, but no post-graduate debt in the tens of thousands of dollars that will take decades to repay. Now you tell me, who is the smarter student?

Anonymous said...

I am a graduate student at HES. Anyone who thinks the HES curriculum is an easy ride or the HES faculty are less demanding, I have news for you: you are in for a very rude awakening!

Many HES professors are also tenured faculty at Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard Divinity School, and Harvard College. For example, my current class, Neurobiology (a true gut course), is taught by a Harvard Medical School professor with dual MD and Ph.D. degrees.

Is it easy to enroll in HES to take a class here or there but not pursue a degree? Yes.

However, if you wish to apply for admission to the graduate degree program, you must have earned at least a B in three previously-taken HES classes in your chosen concentration. Then, once admitted to the ALM degree program, if you fail to maintain a B average, you are toast, no exceptions.

On the other hand, I know many Harvard College alums who graduated with C averages.

Anonymous said...

To all of you that think that HUDCE is an easy ride; give it a try and get back to me. One more thing, while most of the young students pursuing a degree can do so full time; HUDCE students do work, and have families to care for. In addition, we go to school at night and work on our assignments at night or during week-end. To me this sounds as determination, so in the end, I can say, not only I graduated form Harvard, I have done so while working at full time. For all that want to look down on HUDCE students please do so, that attitude alone shows how very little your education has done for you.

Anonymous said...

Harvard Extension School is part of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University. I am graduating in June with an ALB degree with a Concentration in Social Sciences and a Field of Study in Government. The Harvard University Extension School is very much a part of the Harvard Community and as such they teach an excellent education. In every class I took ( and I took some pretty great classes among them a myriad of classes on International Relations and Government, Law, as well as Biology, Psychology, and Anthropology as well as many others) I was getting a far better education than I would have gotten at Framingham State College or at UMASS Boston (both which are two other similarly priced options in the area and I know this because I was at both of those schools before I decided to transfer my studies to the Extension School) The faculty is world-class and many of my professors were among the top scholars in their field . The staff really has a commitment to teach us about every angle of their respective disciplines. As an Extension School student, I am proud to say that I studied at Harvard, and this is a conclusion I have come to after much debate. The Harvard Extension School is wonderful place to earn a degree if you are looking for a thorough academic experience. Anyone that goes there knows it after the first 5 minutes in any class. I would say that the professors are almost tougher on us because they know more than anyone that people do look at the school with some skeptism. Let me assure you, the Harvard Staff and the other professors (who, might I add, are only from other top universities like Tufts University and Wellesley College) are unbelievably dedicated and wonderful people who do not give anyone an easy A. You have to work for it. I know this because I studied my ass off my while I was there and didn’t get very many A’s. There are a lot of people out there who like to hate extension students and talk a lot of nonsense about the quality of education. The quality of education is superb as is the staff as well as the students who, are after all people that often hold down full-time jobs as well as studying on their free time during evenings and weekends. If you want to talk about excellence and dedication to excellence, then we can talk about the Harvard University Extension School. What most people don't know is that only 1% of the people who go to the school graduate, which yes could have something to do with the fact that some people just take courses without a pursuit for a degree, but still that is a pretty low percentage when you consider that there are a few thousand degree candidates that are studying at the school in one specific year. Guess why? Because the Harvard Extension School is a very tough and rigorous program and they expect nothing but the best from their students.

Anonymous said...

This Blog has been extremely helpfull. Thanks to all who posted. I am thinking about attending the school and it has nothign to do with the Harvard name. I had a close friend who attended Harvard University and through him I was exposed to their way of teaching and found it to be challenging and exciting. I am interested in the Extension School because of the opportunity to be exposed to this type of learning with a flexible schedule.

Anonymous said...

I am a graduate of the University in Washington in Seattle and have decided to pursue a ALM in Government from HES. I am 23 years and have worked in U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Senate, U.S. Department of Commerce, Office of the Governor of Washington State and Executive Office of the President. I spent each summer over the past few years pursuing a career in Washington DC and working my butt off in school. Furthermore, after considering several options to pursue a graduate degree (Columbia,Georgetown,Northwestern) I have chosen HES. There appears to be nothing easy about earning a ALM from HES. I have obtained entry to other ivy league schools (as cited before) and HES has the program that will satisfy my educational and professional goals. Other schools in my field don't emphasize the thesis as part of the offered curriculum and yet HES will give me the opportunity to not only write a thesis but create a body of work to market Phd programs around the country. I will actually leave my program with connections, experience and something to show for it! The people who down on HES are the same insecure people who believe that continuing education programs are inferior to traditional programs. This is obviously false and close-minded. I am excited to attend HES and as the other amazingly accomplished posters said earlier, I am no less qualified or deserving of recognition than anyone else. My family is not connected and yet I have earned recognition from four national honors societies and public service awards. People who are successful don't spend time de-legitimizing others. Those are people who have too much time on their hands.

Anonymous said...

To say Harvard Extension students are "there" simply because of "the name" is ludicrous. I can also say that some wealthy kids attend Harvard because of the reputation and status of their Dads and as long as they pass the admission process, it'll be ok.
Let's not forget that many Harvard college students were not "brilliant" and merely passed and graduated. Does that means as long as you are admmitted you will eventually graduate?
Stop speculating. The ALM program for example is hard to accomplish with the 3 courses for admission and THEN the thesis...that can take up to 15 months to complete.
Let's get real. All levels require a lot of work and brains; just different ways to accomplish your goal.

Anonymous said...

It has been interesting to revisit this 5 year old thread.

Things seem to have changed over the past few years with regard to the Extension School's reputation. More people recognize that it has a different mission, as you would expect of a separate University school serving mostly mid-career or older students. It's true that some casual course-takers raise the noise level in some classes, but I am quite impressed with the degree candidates, also with the rigor of the courses and the quality of the instructors.

Anonymous said...

I am planning on attending Harvard Extension for the ALB. I have looked at other schools and I decided to go to Extension based on three things and this is as honest an answer you will ever get. 1. I am older and working full time and when I decided to go back to school Harvard was not in the cards. I did well enough in community College to get into Tulane. but Tulane is more expensive than Harvard!2. HES meets a good bit of the criteria I was looking for. It fits me. It suits my budget, and delivers a top notch education.3 I always wanted to go to Harvard. I love the school, I love the history, I love the opportunity. Many professors have looked at my high school transcripts, the work I did in the community, working for Clinton's campaign. Those professors have said to me "You could've gotten into Harvard." Yes I could have but I would have missed out on a huge chunk of my life! my experiences make me the man I am. I met my wife because I wasn't at I get a 2nd chance to go and some twenty somethings are going to tell me Im not a real Harvard student when the school says I am and the diploma says I am and if I took a lie detector test and it asked me where do you go to school and I reply Harvard...Its not a lie...then the answer to the question is there and then some.

Anonymous said...

I confess there is no argument against the history and reputation Harvard University, and the traditional classroom is a difficult concept to duplicate. that being said, there are many means of entry into this historic institution: yes, the Extension school, but also familial or individual wealth, influential ties or good old fashioned honors marks.
9-11 impacted my family tremendously. Job loss and difficulty to find work caused my husband to opt for a six figure position abroad. We've been expatriated for over a decade and I'm grateful the fruits of my studious labor, which earned me a 3.9 gpa and access to Harvard.
Negative perspective upon HUES is unfortunate, because there are 'cheaters' in every academic arena, i suspect Harvard College is no exception.
I work hard and I study hard and I'm driven by my own personal compass to propel my studies and drive to academic success and excellence.
The opportunity afforded me by the Harvard U Extension School is a blessing.
Thanks but no thanks to those who fault the Extension School and students. Yes, name is prestigious but it's my academic performance that has opened this and other options for my degree.

Anonymous said...

" Harvard has spent over 350 years building its brand, and now it has proceeded to dull it through this short-sighted move."

This is a remarkably uninformed comment. Harvard's Extension School is over a hundred years old and has been conferring degrees longer than many of Harvard's other schools. The very small number (< 10 percent of the number of Harvard College graduates) who actually complete and receive these degrees attests to the difficulty and quality of the program.

Elizabeth said...

I would like to pursue a phD in history but have failed to get into my university of choice. I have taken extension classes at UCLA for years now but UCLA extension does not give a bachelors' degree. If I completed my history degree at Harvard extension (ALB) do you think I could get into a competitive PhD program?

Elizabeth said...

I would like to pursue a phD in history but have failed to get into my university of choice. I have taken extension classes at UCLA for years now but UCLA extension does not give a bachelors' degree. If I completed my history degree at Harvard extension (ALB) do you think I could get into a competitive PhD program?