Why the Harvard Extension School still struggles with reputation

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.




28 thoughts on “Why the Harvard Extension School still struggles with reputation

  1. I think one reason that Harvard Extension School is not seen with the same reverence as the other Harvard University schools is that extension schools and other continuing education outlets are viewed similar to “adult education”. Both were intended for adult learners, especially for those beyond the age of traditional students.

    Admission requirements for HES and other continuing education schools (like UPenn’s LPS) are oftentimes considered less selective, compared to traditional college admissions process.

    Qualifying for admission into HES’ bachelor degree program after getting B or better in 2 to 3 classes cannot be compared to Harvard College’s 4.5% acceptance rate last year.

    Another difference between the bachelor degree programs at Harvard College and HES is Latin honors. When Harvard College students graduate, they can be awarded cum laude, magna cum laude, or the highest distinction, summa cum laude. This is not the case for HES students, who can, at best, get cum laude.

    Another point of note could be accreditation. For example, an MBA from Harvard Business School is AACSB accredited. However, the Master of Liberal Arts in Extension Studies (focus: management or finance) from Harvard Extension School is not AACSB accredited. It does not even have the lesser-regarded ACBSP accreditation.

    Even Harvard University seems to treats the Extension School like its 2nd-class step child. Given this, it is not hard to see why some may view HES’ reputation as not being equal to that of the other degree-granting schools at Harvard.

    Personally, I think HES should be afforded more respect than this…. starting with a renaming of its degrees. Nobody at HES majors in “Extension Studies”.

  2. (edited changes)
    Sure, those who use HES credentials to pose as HC or as being an affiliate from another of Harvard schools contribute to the linear combination of reasons why the Extension School may have a poor reputation, but the major reason for the Extension School’s low status is because of the school’s association with their competitors.

    Well before the current pandemic crisis, Harvard DCE has moved the majority of course offerings to online. Classes that had been taught on campus (some for decades) now are online only. I understand the strategic benefit of making more courses available online. Even, however, online the Harvard brand is not enough to erase the stigma of an online degree education. The subpar quality of for-profit schools/degree mills have ruined whatever goodwill online education had to offer. Harvard HES is expanding — correction, extending into a market that is soiled by the specter of low quality. In response to the pandemic, Harvard moved all summer school courses to online following suit of earlier action taken in Spring term. Among the hundreds of tweets in reaction, one (humorous) tweet stands out because the premise reflects the prevalent reputation of online education, https://twitter.com/ianbremmer/status/1253296442678149122?s=20
    — Sure it is an online degree, but it is from Harvard.
    — Yeah, But is it really?

    First off, have a school that is mostly online and for better or for worst, places that school in the same category as all other online degree granting schools.

    Next, expanding online while shrinking on-campus offerings exacerbates the existing segregation between Extension School students with the rest of Harvard, that was fostered first by HES’s identity crisis. By identity crisis, I mean there is a disconnect between how HES is marketed and what HES offers. (Let’s bracket aside the problematic issue of “Extension Studies” appearing on the diploma instead of the field of concentration.) I think some of the individual ALM programs are on-point, but the overall HES purpose or goal is not well-defined, which has changed, certainly, from its inception.

    I am riding the T and I can read an advert “Sign-up now for Quincy College classes” next to another advert “Register now for classes at Cambridge College” (which to date is no longer in Cambridge); and sandwich between these and “Take classes at Benjamin Franklin College” (a tech-centric school) is Harvard DCE’s “Enroll now in Extension classes” advertisement. Simultaneous to DCE’s competing against the for-profit online schools they are competing in the same market as local community colleges and below-third tier schools. N.B. Harvard’s use of the word ‘enroll’ and not ‘register’ which have different meanings in Harvard context than the words’s ordinary synonymity. Kudos to HES streamline admissions process but there needs to be a better way of either integrating or differentiating between Extension students who are non-degree and degree candidates. Not surprising legitimate HES alumni who may mis-represent themselves by dropping “Extension” on their resumés, although says more about individual low self-esteem, speaks to HES’s identity crisis and the reason why so many can lay valid claim to having attended Harvard without having earned a degree.

    In my opinion in many respects, Columbia’s General Studies program by far does a better job than HES/DCE but I think HES provides better ROI (return on investment, the H-bomb alone gives more bang for the buck) than Columbia’s GS.

    • Columbia GS, along with Brown RUE and Yale Eli Whitney, offer identical classes alongside the normal aged student body at the same tuition and grant the same degree. This, one can actually say they graduated from these schools with all the meaning that implies and with no qualification. HES, unfortunately, does not offer that status and so an extension graduate is left to either hoodwink the public or admit that they did not graduate from “real Harvard.”

      • When you go to a “real Harvard” class and there is a camera in the back, that’s me. I’m taking the same class, just not in the room with you. I took STAT 104 with Parzen. I took Mideast gov with Cammett. What the **** are you talking about?

    • I don’t know where you are getting your information about HES being an online school. How can a school be termed as being “an online school” when its been in existence for over a century?

  3. Great points in the other comments. I am a HES graduate-degree candidate currently, in a field that is not offered by any other of the 12 degree granting schools of Harvard University.

    Definitely one of the main reasons for confusion, is the fact that there have been too many things mixed together under the HES umbrella, by now:
    1. Bachelor degrees in various fields (some of them can be same or similar to those offered by other Harvard schools)
    2. Graduate degrees in various fields (some of them can be same or similar to those offered by other Harvard schools)
    3. Certificates
    4. You can take courses just for fun (non-credit), for undergrad credit or for graduate credit (the very same course)
    5. Many courses can be taken in person (at Harvard), or completely online, or a mix of the two. HES is a pioneer in distance education
    6. Large number of courses are offered, with very diverse scopes, levels of difficulty, and backgrounds of the lecturers. Some are Harvard professors, some are professionals, some might be a recent graduate of HES
    7. To take a course (for most) there are no real limitations, screening or selection of people. So you can just take some courses, freely, if you want, if you are interested in certain topics. Which is great, of course.

    It is clear, that if an institution – under the Harvard umbrella – offers all the above at the same time, there will be controversies of all kinds.

    Then there is the evolution of education. Times are changing. “Adult education” or “studying while working” had a certain meaning 40-60 years ago, but today (and tomorrow) it is becoming a very different thing. In a world that is changing at an accelerated rate, learning, studying needs to be continuous – like building something over time. I feel it to be fundamental. And the same way, “online education” developed bad reputation (because of some bad actors) in the past, but now (especially with the pandemic), distance learning is becoming, well, fundamentally important.

    One possible solution to reduce some of the confusions and controversies around HES could be: separate – in some way – the degree programs/candidates from those that are just taking courses for fun and from the certificates (maybe by bringing the degree programs under one of the other 11 Harvard schools). Of course making sure, that the admission requirements combined with the requirements for staying in the program, are kept at a comparable level to the other Harvard schools, and that the courses/lecturers are also handpicked by Harvard.

    So I don’t see the real difference in when (at what age) you are getting your degree – especially if it is a graduate degree – or whether if you are sitting in a classroom or watching the live video. The difference is between getting in and getting through a degree program at Harvard, or getting a graduate level certificate (which is still great and powerful), or just participating in single courses, because you are interested/passionate about a topic.

    And on a final note: let’s not get lost in the thinking of how school names and brands are important. Forget the name, forget you paper – how you use your acquired knowledge, and how much good you do with it in the world, that should be the real measurement of success.

    • I think you nailed it, we get used to labels, but we shouldn’t lose focus on what it’s really the point, as you said and I quote: “how you use your acquired knowledge” and I add what better that you can get this knowledge from such a long dated institution with high standards of education as Harvard.
      I agree also that education is changing along with the times, and perhaps in the near future current undergraduate and graduate degrees will migrate towards a partial or full online framework where you can pickup a core grid and complement it with others according to skills you wish to develop and so on as a continuous learning.
      I also believe that improving online learning and starting to value it will contribute to achieve democratization of education widely in the world, with the consequent benefits that more people get new skills for their professional CV and for their own nations as they get them into practice

  4. My experience over the last four years of my involvement with the school has been very positive as far as employers and clients are concerned. I haven’t gotten any of those sideways glances or whatever it is people seem to be afraid of experiencing.

    I think apart from pushing the degree name change issue (which doesn’t bother me terribly because I just accept is as stupid institutional bureaucratic miscellany and dismiss it as a cartoon), I would like the school to adopt an explicit policy that the rigor and academic standards of their coursework shall mirror the same of the schools from which their courses are drawn. This is largely already true, of course, but stating it as official policy would be helpful.

    I think HES students need more of a presence on campus to enhance their connection to the university, and I understand some within HESA have been working to get near-campus housing to facilitate the residency requirement, and that there has been progress on this.

    I have also heard recently that there is a new Ambassadors program designed to build a better sense of community. I think that’s just great.

    So… nothing happens fast in this space, but I see signs of improvement. Let’s see what the new Dean does to improve things further!

    • I would like the school to adopt an explicit policy that the rigor and academic standards of their coursework shall mirror the same of the schools from which their courses are drawn.

      I agree with the sentiment, but I don’t think this is possible. Too many courses and degree programs don’t have Harvard College/GSAS/HBS/SEAS equivalents.

      For instance, the last time I checked, the ALM, Management program is running a completely different curriculum and course offerings than the Harvard Business School MBA program. Most ALM, Management classes are taught by faculty with no Harvard faculty affiliation, and each school has its own approach to curriculum structure and requirements. From what I understand, current HBS faculty are forbidden from teaching HES classes either live or prerecorded.

      Programs like Digital Media Arts, Journalism, and Museum Studies have no equivalents anywhere at Harvard. HES saw an opportunity to offer these programs, but unfortunately didn’t think through issues related to standards or the Extension School’s original mission, which was to offer local residents access to Harvard faculty.

  5. I like to assume positive intent and feel like most don’t purposefully misrepresent their resume. The confusion for many comes from the fact that Extension School is part of Harvard University, the same way the Business School is, or Harvard Law School is.
    It’s been a while since I looked it up, but when I enrolled in Harvard Extension School, the rule was that you could list Harvard University on your resume, as long as you specified that your degree was in “Extension Studies.” So, for example, if I graduate, I will list “Master Liberal Arts in Media Design through Extension Studies, Harvard University.” That way it would align with the formatting of my under grad, which in my case, doesn’t list the school, just the degree and university.

    I think a lot of the reason Extension School lacks the reputation is because of the SIGNIFICANTLY lower admission standards. Having terrible test anxiety for large tests like SAT etc, my GRE scores failed to get me into state school. But at Extension School, as long as you take two classes and get an A or B in both, you can apply for consideration. Two years later, I have 4.0, but even I know I wouldn’t have made it into consideration under traditional circumstances.

    But also, I have to believe that the quality of instructors is less than they’re getting in real Harvard, because I have had some doozies.

    • Thanks for sharing your story. Regarding your last comment about the quality of instructors, could you elaborate? Were these ALM Management classes?

      As of a few years ago, current HBS faculty were forbidden from teaching HES courses, although I heard some retired HBS professors were teaching HES classes. When I looked at the list of other ALM Management faculty, almost all were professors from other schools (UMass, Tufts, Northeastern, etc.) or “Harvard Instructors” who had professional or research affiliations.

  6. As a current ALM (Management) student who has education through a PhD in another discipline, the rigor is HES has been exceptional but the greatest benefit is the interaction with my peers. Thankfully in this age we have the benefit of Zoom and other social media platforms (WhatsApp, LinkedIn, etc) to bring us much closer. I agree with much in the post; it is unfortunate that the Extension School isn’t a higher profile.

    That said, I will make one observation, not living the in Boston area, the perception that the “Extension School” is of lesser quality by employers doesn’t bear out. Almost no employer I know in major cities west of the Mississippi (where I live) is put off by the Extension School identification. They see Harvard University on a resume or CV and that carries the weight. Part of this is perhaps because few people outside Boston have conversations about the varying schools at Harvard and because HES isn’t well known. I’ve made this statement before to groups of peers in classes and those outside Boston tend to agree and those near Boston are a bit reticent.

    Getting out of the regional bubble always seems to help.

    Thanks for the post.

    • DrGRob,
      As a recent ALM Management alum, your posting was very helpful about needing to be geographically west of the Mississippi. I visited one of those major cities back in August 2020 and confirmed the fact that the differences between Extension and the other schools is relatively unknown. All that matters to most hiring managers is, what school is at the very top of the diploma or transcript. I plan on moving my family soon to this major city. Pertaining to a similar matter, what is the goal of pointing out that HBS professors may be prohibited from teaching at HES or having a “doozy” of instructors? Would not this only plant the seed of doubt with hiring managers who comes across this post? (Not all of us can do well enough on the GMAT to get into Sloan.) There is enough negative material out there on the web about HES and a fellow alumna discouraged me from starting my own blog about my own misadventures while taking many on-campus courses and working for Harvard.

  7. Do you think the misconceptions and bad rap associated with Harvard Extension School will ever go away?

    It’s such a shame because I do believe HES is an excellent institution in its own right; it is THE “continuing education” school of Harvard University, with an egalitarian admissions policy and a unconventional way of selection (you want a Harvard-quality education? Fine, prove you can do the work) that doesn’t throw dignity away — it’s no University of Phoenix. It offers a true hybrid style mode of teaching; you can be part-time or full-time, you can take all* your courses online or all on-campus, though* there is an on-campus requirement for all, which ensures every single graduate steps foot on campus at least once which I think is a good thing and protects the degree’s value. I don’t know of any other programme out there that’s as flexible/hybrid as this; for example, UPenn equivalent, The LPS Online is now completely…online. HES students also have tons of privileges like formalized programs that let you conduct research with Harvard faculty, that let you take Harvard College classes, etc. that you as of now just don’t get at peer institutions like UPenn’s LPS. While there will always be elitists out there who judge HES as a “bastard child” of Harvard College, I don’t think HES students need to be ashamed. HES is not meant to be HC and doesn’t try to be; HES has a clear conscience and is meant for nontraditional students who have unique experiences HC students at their age couldn’t possibly have, and is perfectly-respectable in its own right no matter what stuck-up people say. HES students work hard for their courses, many of which are taught by Harvard faculty. Even for those that are not, I trust Harvard’s judgement and believe they are highly-qualified.

    I honestly have no problem with the naming of HES degrees and would not misrepresent my ALB or ALM degree or other HES credentials if I had one. It’s just such a shame that so many people out there do. While this really speaks more of their character and of the appeal of The Harvard brand (“imitation is the highest form of flattery”) than the quality of education one gets at HES itself, the end result is that HES’s name is tarnished and misconceptions about it (eg. That it’s 100% online, that ANY PERSON can IMMEDIATELY GET ACCEPTED INTO THEIR DEGREE PROGRAMMES) spread, and that’s just sad. People who make YouTube videos like “How to get into Harvard THE EASY WAY” (the guy who made this also misrepresents his ALM on his LinkedIn…sigh) irritate me to no end – I really wonder what they were thinking… do they realize they are hurting the value of their own degree? Even celebrities overseas (yes, the bad rap is international sadly eg. In Taiwan, Singapore) have been caught lying about going to HC when they went to HES. HES students should be proud of their achievements.

    I wish the administration would do something about this; HES deserves way better than this. I’m actually really really interested in a HES programme but the bad rap (because of dishonest alumni; the judgement of elitists doesn’t bother me) really really bugs me.

    What do you think can be done? An interview during the admissions process to weed out those who are just after the Harvard brand? The administration giving compulsory pep talks? Will this ever be fixed?

    Thank you for reading.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It’s not possible for HES to screen out people from degree programs for any reason other than academic qualifications, nor should it – the Harvard Extension School was created as a program to bring Harvard to the wider community, and the degree programs are meant to be an option for anyone who is able to complete the coursework and other requirements. At the end of the day, it is the responsibility of graduates of any university to accurately describe their academic credentials, not the schools to enforce the standards. If they choose to lie or exaggerate, they should expect that they will be exposed or called out, sometimes with a very negative impact on their public image and career.

      However, your suggestion to give pep talks (not compulsory) is a good one. Anything, really, to convince students and grads that graduating from the Extension School is something to be proud of.

  8. I’ve been an ALM degree candidate in a social science field for the last two years while simultaneously pursuing a professional “brick and mortar” master’s degree full time at another ivy league school. My intent is to get a research/thesis based master’s at HES and a professional degree in my traditional school. Until COVID, my full time traditional master’s was entirely in person and my department/school had a noticeable bias and condescension towards online degrees, courses, schools, etc… Since March, my traditional master’s has been entirely online just like my ALM, and I’ve seen a shift in attitudes among both students and faculty in my department. There’s still a lot of skepticism about the quality of learning in the era of Zoom and Blackboard/Canvas, but now that the traditional full time degree programs at Harvard, Yale, etc., are almost entirely online, I’ve noticed less of an attitude when I mention I’m also taking HES courses for a second master’s degree.

    COVID has been a game changer for higher education in general, and I think this is already having an affect on how HES and its degree programs are viewed in the future. Yes, there is still the stigma of it having the word “Extension” in it and the negative or mediocre connotation that anything with the word “extension” in it brings because it is synonymous with some sub-par “extension” programs at other schools. With that said, I think that the segment of people who discounted HES degrees simply because they are often times majority-online (for those of us not in the Boston area) has declined precisely because almost everything is now online everywhere and even in a post-COVID world (if that ever happens), attitudes towards online education will probably stay more accepting long-term because of this.

    Also, my HES master’s degree has been more rigorous and more rewarding than the professional master’s degree I’m getting from my “traditional” ivy league department. Both have been great but 6 out of the 7 HES courses I’ve taken so far (everything but statistics) have been taught by tenured Harvard faculty from either the Faculty of Arts & Sciences or Harvard Kennedy School, although two were summer school rather than HES courses. I’m about to enter the thesis phase and that will also be supervised by Harvard faculty, who I’m paying a fraction of what the “traditional” undergrad and grad students at Harvard pay for the same education. I know the social science ALM’s are different and have a higher proportion of Harvard faculty teaching but I guess I’m just saying that my experience right now is the same as any other Harvard graduate student; we’re all online and I’m getting the same instruction from the same faculty as an HKS MPA/MPP or GSAS AM candidate, for a fraction of the price, which is pretty cool!

  9. Anyone who claims that Harvard Extension School courses are poor quality is making up stories. I have about 15 MOOCs from HES under my belt, some for certificates and others taken free of charge. The instruction and professors are all excellent. I encourage anyone who disagrees to take a few MOOCs, perhaps CS50x and come back with your certificates in hand and then tell everyone how terrible HES is. If your goal is to learn, Harvard Extension School is a great place.

    That said according to Wikipedia more than ~500,000 people have taken at least one course or certificate from The Harvard Extension School, however only ~6000 people completed HES MLA programs since 1980 when the MLA was introduced. On average that works out to 150 degrees granted per year. Most of the degrees granted are not in management. I am not saying they do not exist, but I did not find anyone pretending to have a MBA from HBS on linkedin.com. What about people with an on-campus MLA with management concentration pretending to have MBA? Does anyone have any numbers to back up their remarks?

    Many of the comments on this blog were made without attempting any research. The Following search on linkedin.com “site:linkedin.com Harvard Extension School Masters of Liberal Arts” returns more than 26,000 results. Reading through a few hundred of this sample, the vast majority are high achievers, hold excellent positions, and achieved good promotions, which contradict the argument that employers hold a HES ALM in low esteem. Many people report that they are HES MLA candidates or certificate holders, which in part explains the difference between the actual number of graduates (~6000 vs search results ~26,000). Contrary to many posts on this blog we can conclude that most people are proud to say they completed a “Harvard Extension School Masters of Liberal Arts” and they are not hiding the Harvard school they went to, furthermore it is clear that employers hire and promote HES MLA graduates.

    Which degree is better depends on where you are in life and the ROI for sacrificing two years’ salary to get a full MLA campus experience?

  10. I’m looking into HES for an ALM. But I question if it will hinder my ultimate goal of getting into a brick and mortar PhD program. I want to know if I’ll be able to get letters of recommendation or if I should consider a more traditional route (that is, attending a brick and mortar university, maybe online, due to covid, as a non-degree seeking student and getting letters of recommendation). I’ve been out of school for 25 years and worked in the corporate world, so I’m finding a lot of roadblocks in applying straight into a PhD program.

    • Linda: There are many dedicated ALM students who use their master’s degrees as a stepping stone to a PhD. In fact, for people pursuing the thesis track, the process is designed to follow many of the processes used for PhD dissertations at Harvard and elsewhere. If you make an effort to connect with your professors and let them know your intention to apply to PhD programs, I am sure you will be able to get letters of recommendation. I also strongly suggest that you follow the thesis track (not the capstone) and also take real classes with Harvard professors or academics with Harvard affiliations.

      Good luck, Ian

  11. I have been an HES student for three years, and at nearly every turn I continue to be impressed by the level of instruction and mentorship by faculty and staff. If you take classes for fun or towards a degree, you will learn from some of the most thoughtful minds in academia and in my experience, most of them truly care about their students, HES or otherwise. I have built a very real network through my time and connections at the Extension School and have felt incredibly supported at an institutional level.

    The problem has been not with the faculty or the quality of education, but with some other students. They fall into two general categories: the ones who take classes in earnest to learn (60%), and the ones to who take classes to brag they go to Harvard (40%). The latter group is insufferable, and they consistently clog group learning with tangential, unfocused personal anecdotes to prove that they are worthy of being called a Harvard student.

    There is something about adult/continuing education that makes people feel like they have something to prove, perhaps some past failure or setback they can’t let go of, and in my experience they use the Harvard name to convince themselves and others that “see, I’m worthy.” People who talk in class are good, but people who dominate class with their own insecurities are bad. Students like these exist at every university, yet there seems to be far more at HES because Harvard has such a reputation for brilliance and excellence.

    I know this may read as a generalization–there is truth to the fact that the posturing type is the minority, yet they are significantly louder and forceful than the others. Unfortunately every single one of my ten classes has had multiple, if not many, of these kinds of students. I, too, am excited about my studies at HES, but we all learn a lot less when five rambling students try to be professors in every session. I wouldn’t have such a big problem with them if they didn’t so often hijack with the clear intention that they need to be seen as intelligent, of which they ironically often fail.

    So to anyone reading this: go to HES, learn from brilliant minds, challenge yourself to do purposeful work, and build a network. But please, go for the right reasons. Don’t go to signal boost, to manufacture esteem, or to posture to your classmates and teaching staff. We’re all learning together and the experience is exponentially more more beneficial as a community dialogue instead of a self-given lecture.

    • Thank you so much for this comment. I also remember the posturing types but it didn’t seem to be as bad 15 years ago (in terms of percentages or constant signalling). Maybe the online dynamic is different (my classes were all on campus, in the classroom) or the student body has changed as HES has grown.

  12. The reason why Harvard Ext. struggles with reputation is because Harvard is telling its own graduates to stop falsely telling people that they went to Harvard. If your own parents don’t love you who will?
    What I mean is that Harvard is telling only the Extension grads that they must write “Extension” on their resume. They go so far as to make sure that the major is listed as “Extension Studies”. That is, “Master in Liberal Arts in Extension Studies”.
    Once the University acknowledges that Extension grads are real grads like from the other schools, I think then others would respect the degree as well.
    Here is the other blog on harvard.edu website that backs up my opinion:

  13. The problem of HES reputation is from Harvard itself. Take the management master program for example. Among three required courses (economic, accounting, and behavior), some of instructors are from industry, and some of them are from other universities. For 2020-2021, I can find only one Harvard full-time faculty as the instructor (for accounting class).

    Let me ask in this way, if majority of the instructors are not from Harvard, is the degree really from Harvard?

    • You are absolutely right to raise this concern. I brought it up 13 years ago in my final blog post on the Harvard Extended blog. Here’s what I wrote:

      The professional degree programs have failed to fit the model established by the Extension School to offer a Harvard academic experience led by Harvard faculty members to students. It further sets a precedent for launching new professional degree programs that have no connection to the University’s existing areas of study, and opens the door to criticism that Harvard Extension School degrees aren’t “real” degrees because they no longer represent study under Harvard’s top-notch faculty.

      In another post about the “Harvard Instructor” requirement in 2014 I noted the reason why:

      As for the professional programs (Finance, Digital media arts, etc.) there are no longer any Harvard Instructor requirements. This is not surprising, considering many of the topics being taught have no equivalent in Harvard College or any of the professional schools. Practically speaking, this means it’s possible to receive a degree from Harvard without ever taking a class with Harvard faculty.

      Another issue: Prerecorded lectures with Harvard faculty that don’t allow any opportunity for live interaction. My advice to people in any Harvard Extension School program: If you are looking for a real Harvard experience, take as many classes on campus with real Harvard instructors as you can.

  14. I am thinking about attending the HES for enrichment and stumbled on this conversation. All these concerns seem valid. Frankly, I think a name change would help. The “Extension” in the name turns me off, not sure why. Rename it the Lowell School or after some donor who gave to the school. Lowell started the Extension School so it would wk. Naming is so important, this simple change would help.
    Also, name the concentration:
    Master of Liberal Arts, Government. Harvard University.
    Master of Liberal Arts, Government. Lowell School, Harvard University.
    There are no other “liberal arts” degrees so it designates it for someone who might get upset with a comparison to other Harvard schools/programs.

    • I like the “Lowell School” idea. It’s similar to what BC did with its former evening school, renamed to the “Woods College of Advancing Studies.”

      Regarding naming the concentration: The second option works but not the first that avoids naming the school within Harvard (“Master of Liberal Arts, Government. Harvard University”). There is a government program in GSAS which is also a liberal arts masters, as well as the many government programs in the Kennedy School which are not liberal arts but need to be differentiated to avoid confusion.

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