A few years back, I had a discussion with one of the ALM administrators about the graduation rate for the ALM program. He revealed that the all-time graduation rate was just 52% for the liberal arts concentrators (i.e., excluding the IT and professional ALMs such as journalism, biotechnology, management, and museum studies, which are not liberal arts degrees).
There are a couple of issues raised by this figure. First, while the graduation rate may seem unusually low, it's in line with the national average for graduate programs, says the Extension School. Second, it does not include the many people who take lots of graduate-level classes at the Extension School with the intention of officially entering the ALM program, but never matriculate, either because the proseminar is too difficult or they move away/stop classes before they have a chance to matriculate.
Of those students who do matriculate, but still don't graduate, there's an additional factor that comes into play: ABT status. They've completed all of the required coursework, including the proseminar, field courses, writing-intensive classes, and electives, and only have one hurdle to go: The thesis. Until they get that out of the way, they are "A.B.T.", or "all but thesis" (not to be confused with A.B.D., which refers to doctoral candidates who haven't completed their dissertations).
The thesis is what makes the master's program at the Extension School so special. It entails serious research that can take years to complete, and lets students work closely with some of the top academic experts in the world in their respective fields of study -- Harvard professors in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the Law School, the Kennedy School of Government, the Medical School, etc. The thesis goes beyond what many "traditional," full-time masters' programs require, including those at Harvard's other graduate schools (for instance, this Master of Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education only requires eight classes; there is no thesis). Approved ALM theses have been turned into journal articles, have been used as stepping stones for advanced degrees (at Harvard and elsewhere) and careers in academia.
As I've discussed many times on this blog, the ALM thesis is a huge challenge -- not just an intellectual challenge, but also a management challenge that requires tremendous organizational skills and lots of time.
It's also mostly self-directed. Students have to conduct the initial research inquiries, choose topics, and compose thesis proposals on their own, and follow the guidance of the research advisor and thesis director in terms of conducting additional research and developing the thesis itself. If a student procrastinates, fails to complete a certain step, or doesn't hear back from his or her TD in a timely manner, the thesis will die -- no one is going to do the work for the student, or constantly nag the professor on his or her behalf.
It therefore doesn't surprise me that so many ALM candidates fail to receive their degrees. Moving away or stopping classes are possible reasons, but I think the thesis requirement is a tough hurdle for many people. If a student is ABT for too long, his or her ALM candidacy will come to an end. Not only is there a five-year requirement for completing the degree, but also there is a nine-month window to write the thesis itself.
I've known two people who matriculated into the ALM program but never finished. Both were ABTs. The first was a Literature and Creative Writing concentrator who finished all of her coursework, and couldn't decide on a thesis topic. After a few years, she didn't really feel interested anymore. Later, she took another Harvard Extension School class relating to legal issues, and decided that this topic area was more intellectually rewarding. However, she moved away before she could take any more law or government classes, and the five-year limit eventually expired. The other ABT has also fought procrastination, but has an incredibly demanding job that places very real limits on the amount of time and effort that can be devoted to thesis research.
I can relate to both situations. If I had lost my passion for Chinese history, media, and computer-aided research, getting started on my thesis would have been difficult, and completing it would have been nearly impossible. And if I had my current job -- a new position that requires 10-hour workdays and frequent travel -- when I started my thesis research back in 2005, it's highly unlikely I could have completed it, without burning myself out or putting serious strains on my family.