Extension Students Seek Ivy Degrees

With lower costs, Extension School education appeals to a broad crowd

Rachel L. Weiss

Jeanne Margaret Nurse ALB '07 is currently in the Extension School Bachelor of Liberal Arts program, while also holding a job at the Faculty Club.

On a typical day at Harvard, 6,500 undergraduates fill the hallowed lecture halls and classrooms of Harvard Yard in pursuit of their Bachelors of Arts and Sciences degrees. When the sun sets and the students return to their dorms and dining halls, they are replaced by another set of Harvard undergraduates. But with an average age of 36, these nighttime seekers of an Ivy League education are not your typically college students.

The majority of candidates in the Bachelor of Liberal Arts (ALB) program, the four year undergraduate program of the Harvard Extension School, are working adults. But, according to Mark Ouchida, assistant director of the ALB program, a small but growing number of ALB candidates are coming directly out of high school. This growing population also faces new challenges, having to establish an non-traditional identity at a university where tradition reigns.


Currently, less than 10 percent of the roughly 150 students accepted into the ALB program each year are of “traditional” college age, defined as between 18 and 22 years old. While students have diverse reasons for enrolling in the ALB program, the rising cost of college tuition can be one of them.

According to Linda A. Cross, director of communications and marketing for the extension school, the mission of the Harvard Extension School is to offer the resources of Harvard University at a price that is affordable to members of the community. Undergraduate courses at the extension school cost between $550 and $825 each while comparable courses at Harvard College carry a price tag of $3,594.

As one of 12 children, Jeanne Margaret Nurse’s decision to enroll in the ALB program was motivated by financial considerations. Although she received a scholarship offer to attend the University of Denver, the scholarship would not have been enough to cover all of her expenses, she said.

“My parents were not going to pay for my college at all, so with the extension school I knew I could put myself through school without having to rely on their financial assistance,” says Nurse, who holds a day job at the Harvard Faculty Club and plans to graduated in 2007 with an ALB degree in environmental studies.

The smaller cost of the extension school does not necessarily mean students are shortchanged when it comes to the quantity or quality of their course offerings. According to Ouchida, 60 percent of the extension school’s almost 600 course offerings are taught by Harvard instructors. Even Nobel Laureate and Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics Roy J. Glauber has taught extension classes in the past.

While most classes are held in the evenings in various classrooms around the Yard, extension students also have access to over 75 classes via the internet. In the fall, Nurse enrolled in Government E-1045: “Justice” taught by Bass Professor of Government Michael J. Sandel. According to Cross, “Justice” is one of 11 FAS courses that are videotaped and made available to extension students online.


The extension school’s liberal arts course offerings are complemented by a wide range of business and professional courses. Aspiring journalists can take E-140: “News Reporting” taught by an assistant managing editor of The Boston Globe while future investment bankers can enroll in the graduate-level Accounting E-120: “Managerial Accounting” class. ALB candidates also have the option of earning a professional citation in areas including entrepreneurship, journalism, and legal studies. Nurse, who is planning to take the LSAT this summers, polished her writing skills this fall by taking a class on the Principles of Legal Writing.

ALB candidates constitute a small percentage of the extension school’s total enrollment and the extension school’s open admissions policy means that classes are not limited to degree seeking individuals.

Nurse says she often finds herself taking classes alongside Cambridge residents and Harvard employees on the tuition assistance plan.


Laura E. Shortill, ALB ’07, who like Nurse, enrolled in the program directly after high school, says she benefits from the different perspectives offered by her older classmates who “approach the academic material in a different way from someone who is just out of high school.”

However, Shortill, whose performance in the ALB program qualified her for a special student program that allows her to enroll in two FAS classes per semester during the day for the regular per-class Harvard tuition, notices a difference between the dynamics of her classes at the College and extension school.

“There is a difference between deep and broad. The extension school has a very wide range of’s less intense, when you get in a conversation it’s very chatty and informal,” she says. “In the College, there’s less dillydallying. It’s more, tell me your brilliant thought and I’ll tell you mine, then I have another class or extracurricular to go to so off I go.”

However, professors say the more laid back atmosphere of the extension school is not necessarily reflective of the academic rigor of the classes.

Robert H. Neugeboren, a lecturer on Social Studies who has taught Economics 1050: “Strategy, Conflict, and Cooperation” at the College and its extension school counterpart of the same name, Economics E-1040, says that there is very little difference in the structure of his two courses. “I more or less teach the same material,” says Neugeboren. “I use the same problem sets and exams and the same curve overall as well.”

Nor does he notice a significant difference in student performance in those classes.

“The quality of the students overlap substantially,” says Neugeboren.

“There are more exceptional students in the college and [at the extension school] you see more students who are less well prepared to take the class but the general range is the same.” He points out that the real world experience some extension students bring to the classroom can make teaching a more challenging experience at night.

Richard F. Thomas, chair of the department of classics and professor of Greek and Latin, who teaches at the extension school, says the range of students contributes to a rich teaching experience.

“The world is full of people interesting and different in many ways, and that is an interesting combination to teach,” he says.


Inevitably, the Harvard name draws curiosity to undergraduates like Nurse and Shortill. Skeptics of the program question the validity of a Harvard extension degree and whether undergraduates enroll in the ALB program only to capitalize on the Harvard brand, which they otherwise might not have had access to.

For the class of 2010, the admissions rate at the College was 9.3 percent. The extension school has an open admission policy and students meeting certain criteria can enroll in degree programs.

Shortill is aware of the critics. Cutting straight to the heart of their insinuations she says, “there is this fear that we are somehow pretenders.”

Shortill says she has no problem separating the college from the extension school. “We are a part of Harvard, but we are not the same as students at the College,” she says.

She also says she has no desire to misrepresent her status to those who might not know the difference. Coming out of high school, she purposefully down played inquiries about where she was planning to attend college.

“I didn’t really trumpet the fact that I was going to Harvard for undergrad because I didn’t want people to be ‘Oh, you got into Harvard!’ because no, I didn’t really,” says Shortill, who unsuccessfully applied to the College.

Yet there is no denying the lure of the Harvard reputation or the role it plays in student’s decisions to enroll in the extension school. “It is Harvard,” says Shortill of her decision to enroll in the ALB program. “How many opportunities do you have to go to Harvard?”

Nonetheless, both Nurse and Shortill caution that theirs is not an experience for everyone. By choosing to forgo the more traditional college experience of living in dorms and eating in residential dining halls, extension students also give up access to the social community those experiences provide. Nurse admits her transition was made easier because she lives with her two older sisters, both students of the ALB program.

Unlike Nurse, Shortill initially found herself in social limbo. Looking back, Shortill says forming a social network is the hardest part of the extension school experience. “There’s not a huge community you can tap into very easily. There is a student association, but it’s hard for people to meet because everyone has their own life,” she says. “You get a college experience that is completely not coddled in any way, there is no hand holding.”

And the fact that the ALB program was designed with the working adult in mind means that the majority of students have already established their careers.

“Its more common, people already know what their goals are,” says Shortill. “There is less ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’”

According to Ouchida, the ALB program is upfront with younger applicants about what to expect at the extension school.

“We are open and candid with applicants that the student population is going to be considerably older than that of a traditional college,” writes Ouchida. “It is a unique individual who chooses to attend the extension sschool directly out of high school—one who is self-directed, motivated, confident, and not interested in a vast social structure. Their focus is on learning.”

Ultimately though, Shortill says the experience has left her with no regrets. “There were days during my first semester when I didn’t feel happy but all freshmen have difficulties at first,” says Shortill.

In the end, both Nurse and Shortill say the education is what makes the

extension school worth it. Nurse isn’t worried about how others will perceive her bachelor of liberal arts in extension studies from Harvard University when it comes time for her to apply to jobs or law school.

“I don’t know if saying I go to the Harvard Extension School helps me or hurts me but working to put myself through college is impressive,” says

Nurse. “I got an education I could not have matched anywhere else.”

—Staff writer Xianlin Li can be reached at