Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Harvard Extension School's 88% dilemma

Another ALM history grad (and his wife) have described last year's Harvard and Extension School Commencement ceremonies on their blog. It's a great post. The author explains everything in detail, and provides pictures. Maybe I'll do something similar when I receive my diploma on June 5.

There's something else I would like to highlight from Tim's post:
I was one of only 14 History majors graduating this year. The Dean of the Extension School stated that, in the 97-year history of the program, less than 1% of people who enroll in the Extension School finish their degree requirements and graduate. (and No, there should not be an extra number after the "1" in 1%).
Wait a second, you say. Didn't the Harvard Extended entry on ABTs a few weeks ago state that the completion rate was 52%? What gives?

Well, the 52% figure that I shared with readers refers to the all-time percentage of matriculated students in the liberal ALM programs who had finished their degree requirements and graduated as of 2006. The number that Tim heard from the dean refers to the percentage of *all* students who enroll in Extension School classes who actually end up receiving their degrees.

I am not sure if the 1% figure just applies to the ALM program, or whether the ALB and certificate programs are also included. Regardless, it points to an important fact about the Extension School student body: The overwhelming majority take classes on a casual basis. One DCE administrator recently told me in an email that "88 percent enroll in a course or two for personal enrichment, career advancement, or to test the waters for future graduate work." I regularly find evidence of this in my Google blog search RSS feed -- see recent entries from Free Range Chick and Unpunished Rapture.

This has been the nature of the student body since President Lowell established the program near 100 years ago, and Harvard has benefitted greatly because of it. Hundreds of thousands of people, most of them from nearby communities, have been able to take classes and sample the Harvard experience while bringing in revenue and furthering the University's community outreach goals.

Harvard Extension School critics

However, this has also led to an unfortunate situation for those students who are not taking classes casually. Amongst some members of the Harvard community and the public at large, the Extension School's reputation is associated with the temporary experiences of the majority, as opposed to the serious, long-term academic commitments of the minority. For instance, a press release that was apparently composed by two Harvard officers named Eric Sinoway and John Longbrake makes a point of distinguishing the Extension School from Harvard's "principal academic units," and describes the student body as casual class-takers. This article in the Harvard alumni magazine 02138 portrays the Extension School as an avenue for people or companies that want to "purchase the Harvard brand," and calls Extension School degree programs a "perk." Alexandra Petri, a columnist for The Crimson, thinks even less of Extension School students, judging by a quip in her recent discussion of the Core curriculum.

Never mind the dedication of the ALM and ALB candidates who can matriculate only after proving themselves in EXPO or the ALM proseminar, the contributions of the Extension School students who work closely with Harvard faculty as teaching and research assistants, or the accomplishments of the 1% who complete their coursework and research requirements and graduate. For those who have never bothered to find out about this subset of the Extension School student body or the degree programs they belong to, the HES does not appear to be much different than the typical continuing education program at a local community college, providing casual classes for people who want to satisfy personal interests or give their careers and educational goals a boost. In their eyes, the 88% defines who we are.

Don't get me wrong: Casual, continuing education is a great thing. It helps individuals and benefits society. I've personally benefited from taking classes for personal enrichment and/or career advancement, such as the Mandarin courses I took at the Taipei Language Institute in the 1990s and my very first class at the Extension School -- an introductory short story writing class that I took through the Summer School in 2002, almost on a whim. It was for undergraduate credit and had no impact on my graduate coursework or research, but it was a lot of fun -- it gave me a chance to indulge my interest in fiction and creative writing, and also produced a short story that was later published in the Harvard Summer Review.

A real review of the Harvard Extension School

My ALM journey was a completely different experience. It was academically rigorous and intellectually demanding, and took years to complete. The ALM thesis requirement goes far beyond the writing and research assignments found in many "traditional" masters programs, and can in no way be considered fun. It therefore disappoints me that those of us who have been admitted to the Extension School's degree programs or have earned our diplomas are not taken seriously in some quarters. On a person-to-person level, it's very easy to correct misperceptions. But when 02138, The Crimson, and Harvard's own officers promote the casual Extension School identity and even negative stereotypes, it's very difficult to highlight another perspective of the Extension School experience. This in turn makes it harder for serious Extension School students -- and the programs we belong to -- to get the recognition we deserve.
Harvard Extension School graduates lining up for Commencement
Harvard Extension School graduates lining up for Commencement


Rodney Wilson said...

Ian, This is a great essay. How about submitting it to THE CRIMSON?

Chris said...

Another great post, Ian! I never believed the 52% graduation rate that Extension claims as a true reflection of how many degree candidates finish the program. Just doesn't add up when measured against the situation and what I've experienced in the program with fellow students: most ALM degree candidates have other major commitments (unlike full-time students), including jobs and/or kids, elder care, etc. Dropping out along the way is not uncommon. The few of us who run the whole marathon don't get much attention.

As you often remark, to do this degree takes a great deal of commitment, time, and dedication (our theme could be 'the lonely long distance runner'). I think Ext. likes to put out a seemingly 'high' graduation rate to look good on the rare occasions when someone inquires. It seems more realistic to me that the much lower rate is more accurate. I totally agree that those of us toiling away as good grad students keeping up with typical Harvard standards get a bum rap because of the perception that most Ext. students aren't up to the work or are just dabbling.

Hard to overcome the bad image. I wish Ext. would make an effort to 'educate' the campus community by highlighting the work of those of us who are 'making the grade'.

the Ordinary Organic said...

I had no idea that the graduation rate of Extension school students is so low! I was also unaware of the "casual" stigma assigned to the Extension school by members of the Harvard community. I entered the ALB program last fall, but even before my acceptance into the program, I found the courses to be rigorous, challenging, and rewarding. I appreciate that many people take classes at the Extension school exclusively for personal enrichment. However, there is no reason this should indicate that those pursuing an undergraduate or graduate degree from the school are doing so casually. I am a full-time mom of two young children living on the South Shore, and for years I have been hoping to one day return to college to finish my undergraduate degree. The day I finally took the plunge and enrolled in EXPO E-25 was the start of what has continued to be a wonderful experience at the Extension School, and I look forward to the day I graduate--sometime in the next decade!

ian said...

Thanks for the comments so far, and I would like to note that Richard, who writes the ALB blog ClueHQ, has posted an interesting response entitled Harvard Extension and Harvard Students. He has a lot to say, but I will share an important observation:

"... If you’re considering completing a degree at HES, remember that you’ll be sitting in front of the same professors and doing the same work as the College students. That’s what counts."

That's not all. Not only are Extension School students studying the same topics, they are also outperforming their College peers in some classes. Don't take my word for it -- check out what the Crimson heard from Harvard faculty who were asked to compare HES students with those from the College.

ian said...

Ordinary: Welcome to Harvard Extended, and it's great to hear that you are finding the ALB program so rewarding.

I would like to note that the "casual" perception is not common. I don't think most people at the University care one way or the other about what's going on at the Extension School's relatively small degree programs. Faculty, staff, and some alumni who are aware of the ALM and ALB programs seem to think that they are the real deal. There are also a fair number of College students taking Summer School classes, which gives them an opportunity to interact with some of the HES undergrads and ALM candidates.

However, I do have to say that the Crimson manages to perpetuate the "casual" stereotype among many College students through occasional articles, editorials and columns, such as the example written by Petri and cited in my blog post. Richard over at ClueHQ has a theory about College students considering themselves members of a "chosen" elite. I agree that some students in the College and on the staff of the Crimson may indeed have this attitude, but I don't believe the sentiment is as widespread as Richard suggests.

Quang said...

good article....the irony is how the school that generates Occupy Wall Street's 1% is well...graduating 1%..

Scott Shorey said...

This is an excellent posting. I just started in the MA in Management program and intend to pursue it to the end.

I didn't know until yesterday how low the graduation rate was but the degree says Harvard University if you receive it and graduates should be accorded the respect that deserves. I guess if I am not a trust fund baby who can afford to go to school without working then I can be considered Harvard material by some people but that is OK. I am 49 and earned what I have instead of inheriting it.

Roger Jaques said...

I began Harvard's ALM degree program in 1992 and completed it in 1998. Approaching retirement when I started this demanding program and not interested in seeking another full-time job upon completion, I became dedicated to extending my knowledge of Art History for the sheer love of this activity. One tool I used in deciding upon Harvard's ALM program was to take a rough measurement of the quantity of Art History books in library resources available to me at a given institution. This, and instructor quality, appears to determine the level of engagement possible in any institution. Harvard has a world-class library system available to all of their student body, and this significant advantage should not be overlooked by potential Extension students. I wouldn't say that seeking an ALM degree is a casual approach to learning. I found that participation in seminars by my classmates at that time demonstrated a high level of competence. I also noticed that most of my Harvard instructors were world-class in standing and background. Hardly a casual experience. So what did I do with all that education? I sell book on Amazon and other sites. Get my nose into piles of good stuff and waste time reading into them. This helps me cover more ground that I once could have imagined. I actually make a little money at this. One could say I use my Harvard education nearly every day.

Bill C said...

This is good info. It has and will continue to save smart people (who do their due diligence) from a potentially wasteful venture. My opinion is this... If the reward is at par or greater than the risk, then it's worth the effort. But the more I weigh Harvard's Extension program, the more I see that it's not a good value for the following reasons: 1. For working professionals, who wants to study for 8 years to attain an Extension degree? 2. Assuming you properly label the degree on your resume/profiles, Extension degrees will always have a different feel & reputation to a regular Harvard degree. 3. Currently, if the previous negatives weren't bad enough, Harvard Extension does not specify the degree major on the diploma. They can say it however they want by changing the wording to "specialization" and making "Extension Studies" the name of the major, but that's like insulting people's intelligence in my opinion. But who knows, maybe their target market is people who dream of Harvard but don't understand how to properly calculate risk vs. reward... I may sound harsh, but I don't like unjust weights and measures. It's a poor and unfair extension of a program to make side revenue without giving a just due.