Sunday, October 22, 2006

Harvard Extended Interview Series: An ALM management concentrator

The second person featured in the Harvard Extended Interview Series is a student who wishes to remain anonymous. This student already has an undergraduate degree from Columbia, but is taking graduate-level Extension School classes with the purpose of entering the ALM in Management program. I've never met him in person, but he left a very interesting comment on an earlier post ("The New York Times' front page Extension School article"), discussing the value of a degree from the Harvard Extension School:
... 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 was able to follow up with him by email and phone. In his first message, he noted that despite the fact that an HES degree is not considered a "real" degree in some quarters, he chose the ALM in Management program over high-profile MBA programs at Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania:
... Although I had in inkling the HES Diploma would not be considered a real Ivy League education, I did not care since I already have an Ivy League degree. In addition, I had already gone through the rigorous graduate school application process with both Columbia and Wharton, so open enrollment posed little concern for me. Why I selected HES, and how can I compare Harvard's ALM in Management against both CU and UPenn? I have two reasons.

First it's simple economics - cost of education. Tuition for both MBA degrees hover over the $105,000 mark. I do not work for a company that will sponsor my education, so all educational expenses must come from an already strained household budget. I made the last payment in my CU undergraduate tuition several months ago, so the prospect of having to pay a new educational loan gives me nightmares. In contrast, HES classes are around $1500 per graduate class. An ALM in Management degree will cost me approximately $21,000. For the cost of one class at CU or UPenn, I can take five classes at HES.

Second reason is the curriculum. As stated previously in the blog comment, HES has a ridiculous number of classes available for the ALM in Management -- over 70 classes!! I've done comparisons of both CU and UPenn MBA curriculums, and have found the same classes available at HES -- for the most part. I can "mimic" the MBA curriculum at HES. I know the quality of teaching at CU and UPenn cannot be compared with HES's. CU and UPenn MBA programs are highly rated, but HES is still Harvard.

I want a graduate degree to advance in my field. I have over 16 years of Information Technology experience, so I do not need an MBA to become a CIO. I can well do that with an HES degree. I do feel having both an undergraduate and graduate degree from HES can be a detriment. An already heavily stigmatized degree must be validated with a degree from another top notch institution. An HSE undergraduate degree coupled with a Cornell graduate education solidifies a resume -- for example. Here HES can be used as a launching platform.

HES is a great option and opportunity. But as with any viable solution, we must first know what problem we are trying to solve. As for the stigma from others, only time will prove how great an education HES is.
I asked several follow-up questions, which he graciously answered. Here are his replies:

Ian Lamont/Harvard Extended: How many classes have you taken so far, and when do you hope to complete the degree?
This is my first semester. I am taking two classes.
You suggest that you are interested in becoming a CIO. My understanding of IT career paths is that many CIOs rise to that position by virtue of their management and technology skills learned over many years of real-world experience. Some have advanced degrees, but not always MBAs -- I've seen presentations by CIOs who have [computer science] or liberal arts graduate degrees. There is no "CIO school" that I am aware of, but I have noticed Northeastern has created an MBA in IT program that targets people interested in IT management careers.
That may be true in smaller companies, but an advance degree is required in larger companies. My interest and need for a graduate degree is to learn the financial language. I have a BS in Comp. Sci. And although I have over 16 years of IT experience, I still lack the financial side of business .
My questions are: Why bother with a graduate degree at all? Is it to speed up the process, or make your resume more marketable? Are there specific classes or exercises at HES (e.g., team tasks) that you think will be useful, that you can't duplicate with on-the-job experience?
I need a graduate degree for several reasons. First and foremost I am doing it for my kids. Research has shown that parents with higher degrees have a better chance of their sons and daugthers graduating from college.

I too, of course, will be more markatable. IT as an industry has changed dramatically over the years - at least since the late 80's. Products have become more complex. IT has become too ubiquitous, and as such it is no longer a competitive advantage. On the other hand, a company without IT will not survive for long. IT is an enabler of business. I have project management experience. I know how to take a product from inception to deployment, with planning and coding along the way, but as a CIO the task is different. It is about IT and operational effectiveness.
What types of interactions have you had with other people in your ALM program?
As an HES student, I have had Zero interaction with other students. It seems the students in my Information System Management class are just like me - programers and project managers.
A few other things to note: He is commuting from New Jersey every Monday to take classes, and goes with his brother, who is in the ALB program. I would like to thank him for taking the time to share his thoughts on this blog. Any other readers of this blog -- especially students in the ALM in Management program, or the ALM in IT program -- are welcome to comment below. Additionally, if you are a student or former student interested in being interviewed about your Harvard Extension School experiences and having the transcript posted on this blog, please email Ian Lamont.

The first interview in the series, with ALM in Government candidate Cynthia Iris, can be read here.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interview. I'm in my first class at HES thinking about an ALM and the interviews are very helpful. It seems to me that HES students tend to have an inferiority complex. I am a lawyer with 15 years practice under my belt, and I have worked with lawyers from Harvard and lawyers from BFE U. The truth is that it doesn't really matter where you go to school; it matters whether you have learned to think critically during your studies. HES teaches critical thinking with as much rigor as any school in the country. You should be proud, not because your are affiliated with Harvard but because HES is, by its own right, an exceptional school.

I Lamont said...

I appreciate the comment, anonymous. In my conversations with the ALM concentrator in this interview, we discussed why HES degrees are stigmatized. Certainly, it's a question of perception -- as anyone who has completed an HES degree program will tell you, it's a very difficult academic challenge. I believe some outsiders do not appreciate this -- they see "open enrollment" and assume that the degree is free to anyone who takes enough classes. That is false. Unlike most degree programs at other schools, which involve vetting students before they can register and attend classes, the winnowing process for the HES degree programs takes place later, and eliminates large numbers of students. In my program (ALM history) you cannot matriculate until you have taken three classes. One of these classes, the proseminar, requires strong critical thinking, research, and writing skills, and if you get below a B you will not be accepted into the program. Further, the thesis requirement is a major research endevaor and thins the herd even more. My thesis has taken me 18 months to get this far, and I'm not done yet. Lots of people never start the thesis, or never finish. The assistant director of the Master of Liberal Arts Program at HES told me that the all-time graduation rate is 52% of those *admitted* to the liberal arts ALM program (not including ALM in IT, Management, etc.) which is in turn a subset of students who have taken HES classes for graduate credit.

Bottom line: The ALM program is selective, rigorous, and a high-quality education. Students are taught by leading Harvard faculty, who in many cases are the leaders in their respective fields.