A Harvard Degree For All
Long before edX began offering Harvard courses online, the Harvard Extension School has provided open-enrollment courses to those seeking an education outside of the typical undergraduate timeframe. The Extension School, which was founded in 1910, opens up the University’s ivy-covered gates to everyone—from professionals, to retirees, to Harvard’s very own employees. Extension School students can take advantage of many courses taught at the College by the same professors, who have found that the range of personal experiences and the more practical goals of these students create a different, but no less stimulating, classroom environment.
While the majority of the 13,000 students enrolled at the Extension School takes courses purely out of intellectual interest, others are enrolled in associate, undergraduate, and master’s degree programs in order to advance in their fields or shift careers. In 2011, 588 students were enrolled in undergraduate degree programs and 1,210 were enrolled in graduate degree programs at the Extension School. To receive a Bachelor in Liberal Arts degree, comparable to a Bachelor of Arts from the College, a student must complete approximately 32 courses, with each class ranging in price from $995 to $1,950.
“Extension school students are paying cash out of pocket to come to class, and so missing a class is actually a big deal for them,” says Daniel G. Donoghue, an English professor who has taught at the Extension School since 1987. “If I should cancel a class for Harvard College students, they’d consider that a holiday,” he says, with a knowing smile.
Perhaps as a result of the visible price tag of each course, many Extension School students are quite dedicated to attending every class. “It’s not just a matter of rolling out of bed in the morning when it’s snowing and raining,” says Jennifer L. Hochschild, a government professor. “I’ve had students fly in from the West Coast, Virginia, Portland, Washington, New York,” she says.
Many of these students have a pragmatic approach to education, perhaps born of the lengths they go to pursue their studies. Hochschild said that her students’ interests in the practical have challenged her to justify her curricula. “Sometimes they need more persuasion that what I’m asking them to read and think about is worth their while. They’ll say quite explicitly, ‘I don’t see why you’ve asked us to read this; what’s the point?’” Hochschild says. “That’s a little startling when someone says that in the classroom. Undergrads don’t usually say that so explicitly—they may think it, but they don’t say it.”
Professors notice another difference in the ways in which Extension School and College students approach their classwork. “[HES students’] life experiences prepare them for reality,” says David C. Bell, who teaches nanotechnology and microfluidics courses at the Extension School. “Harvard College students are very good, but they haven’t had a job; they’ve been in university all the time, and they don’t know how industry works necessarily.”
These differing life experiences challenge professors to accommodate the diverse backgrounds of their students. Cheryl D. Vaughan, Assistant Director of Science Instruction at the Division of Continuing Education, compares her experience teaching Extension School students to teaching the parents of undergraduates. She points out that while many Extension School students have a wealth of experience in their respective fields, others may have gaps in their learning: It may have been decades since they’ve stepped into a science laboratory, for example.
“The challenge of teaching the Extension school population is greater because you don’t know right away what the gaps are and what their experience is,” Vaughan says. “You have to come to the classroom respecting the experience they have.”
While the differences in backgrounds and skills may pose a challenge for instructors, they can enhance the classroom experience for students. “We can end up in a situation where somebody doesn’t know how to do ‘x,’ but someone else in the lab does and can do it better than anyone,” Bell says.
Extension School students frequently bring their life experiences into the classroom and relate them to the discussion at hand. “They are more inclined to use their own careers and life trajectories and they bring those things to bear on the readings more directly,” says Hochschild.
She has had students who have years of experience in political campaigns or who have run for office. “They’ll read an article about a politician’s incentives or the processes of engaging in a political campaign and they’ll say ‘No, I ran for office, and that wasn’t the way I did it.’ Or, ‘In the campaign I was running, that isn’t how it works,’” Hochschild adds.
Donoghue teaches a seminar on Seamus Heaney and “Beowulf” and recalls moments when the broader life experiences of his Extension School students illuminated parts of the epic. “There are a lot of poignant, elegiac moments in ‘Beowulf’ concerning grief, loss, and the passage of civilization and it was a very emotional thing to read these passages,” he says. “It brought us out of the immediate moment of the teaching of that class and made us realize some hard truths in the world.”
By allowing anyone to register for classes and investigate their intellectual pursuits, the Extension School has established itself as a highly democratic institution. “In a way, it’s Harvard’s public face to many people in the Boston area: This is the portal through which they can go and obtain some of the benefits that Harvard has to give,” Donaghue says.
Vaughan, too, points to how the Extension School has unique effects on its students. While she says she loves teaching College students, she knows that “they’re going to be fine” with or without her. “I have a whole packet of thank you notes from adults who are on their way to a better job or to a PhD program,” Vaughan says, pausing for a moment. “It feels like changing lives.”