If you need to tune up a car in Harvard Yard, Amanda M. Graves is your gal.
Graves started her career as an auto mechanic. Upon leaving the auto shop, she joined the military and traveled the world doing counter-drug and migrant operations for the United States Coast Guard. Six years later, she moved to Australia to enter the music industry. Not one to sit still, Graves then returned to America to work for music promotion company Live Nation, managing acts like deathcore group Suicide Silence and metalcore band Memphis Mayfire.
Eventually, though, Graves elected to hit the books: The music industry “was really fun, but I didn’t see a sustainable future in it, so I decided to go back to school,” she says. She began taking classes at the University of Phoenix, a for-profit school that accepts adult and distance learners.
However, as the University of Phoenix faced degree mill accusations following a series of scandals, Graves began to have second thoughts about her choice of school. In pursuit of a greater challenge and a more reputable degree, she started researching different colleges, but found limited options for nontraditional applicants. “I actually started looking at Harvard kind of jokingly. I was like, ‘Yeah, okay, that’s not going to happen,’” Graves admits.
Then she discovered the Harvard Extension School.
At first, she took a single online course: the notoriously difficult Expository Writing, a requirement for undergraduate degree candidates at both Harvard College and the Extension School. “I thought, ‘There’s no way I’m going to pass this class.’ And then I passed it.”
Elated by her success, Graves moved to Cambridge over the summer, finished several required courses, and enrolled as a candidate for a Bachelor of Liberal Arts, the Extension School’s take on an undergraduate degree.
Compared to the average College student, Graves’s story is unconventional. She has held down long-term full-time jobs. She lives in her own apartment, quite a ways from Harvard Yard. It’s been awhile since she took the SAT.
At the Extension School, on the other hand, Graves’s story is par for the course. In fact, the School is characterized by its inclusion of students like Graves: a diverse mix of high school students and Ph.D. hopefuls, hobbyists and degree seekers, teenagers and retirees. These students tread the Harvard campus and take Harvard classes, but despite their ubiquity, many of their peers are unaware that they exist.
While they are educated here, a sense of belonging can remain elusive.
The Extension’s School’s first priority has been accessibility since 1835, when wealthy Harvard alumnus John Lowell Jr. died and willed $250,000 toward “the maintenance and support of Public Lectures to be delivered in said Boston upon philosophy, natural history, and the arts and sciences … for the promotion of the moral and intellectual and physical instruction or education of the citizens of the said city of Boston.”
Over subsequent decades, these “Public Lectures” grew in range and popularity, and in 1910 they fell under the care of Harvard University. Those lectures have since become the Extension School, a department that has educated roughly half a million students from around the world.
Since its inception, the Extension School has strived to make itself available to every student who expresses interest. “It was an access mission and a community outreach mission from the very beginning,” says Huntington D. Lambert, dean of Harvard’s Division of Continuing Education.
In line with that mission, though in stark contrast to Harvard’s otherwise selective admissions process, Extension enrollment is completely open to the public. It is also more affordable than a typical Harvard education, ranging from $800 to $2,400 per course.
Lowell’s original concept, Lambert says, “was that Harvard and other leading faculties would make their courses available to the common women and men of Boston for the price of no more than the cost of two bushels of wheat.” While the school no longer interprets that restriction literally, it still respects the ideal. “We tend to have more similar tuition to Massachusetts and state tuition than to Harvard.”
But the Extension School strives to make itself accessible in more ways than one: Since 1996, it has embraced web-based education, an area that many other institutions are exploring only sluggishly.
Dr. Paul G. Bamberg, a senior mathematics lecturer at Harvard, was first inspired to make a class available online when he received an email from an American living in Copenhagen, who wrote, “I want to get into a Ph.D. program in economics. As far as I can tell, this is the only appropriate math course with open enrollment anywhere in the world, and it seems unfair that you have to live in Cambridge to take it.”
Stories like this one have encouraged many professors to bring their courses online as well. In the 2013-2014 school year, 14,351 students from 91 countries—54 percent of the school’s total enrollment—paid tuition for 271 Extension courses that were hosted either partially or entirely online.
Lambert contends that increasing the online arm of the Extension School helps the College at large. “I also think a big piece of what online has done for us is teach [our faculty] how to use technology to make teaching and learning better,” he says. “A lot of them bring those techniques back to their Harvard College classroom.”
This trend of Extension innovation is consistent throughout other facets of the School. In terms of institutional change, Bamberg explains, “the Extension School has always been able to move much faster than FAS. If someone has a good idea for the Extension School, it is implemented and in place the next year. If someone has a good idea for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, three years later it may come up for discussion in the Faculty Council.”
Though the Extension School stands out from the rest of Harvard for these reasons, it remains connected as a branch of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. As such, every Extension student who graduates does so alongside the rest of the FAS, although they receive a different, perhaps less prestigious set of degrees: the Bachelor of Liberal Arts in Extension Studies, the Master of Liberal Arts in Extension Studies, the Associate in Arts, and an array of professional certificates.
But the vast majority of Extension students never receive one of these degrees. In fact, while 13,643 students enrolled in courses during the 2013-2014 academic year, only 700 achieved enough credits to receive a degree or certificate at that year’s graduation.
This is not to say that students are dropping out or failing to keep up. In fact, professors and administrators consistently report that Extension students tend to perform at a very high level in both Extension-only and cross-listed University courses. According to Lambert, this is the result of a self-selection process. “Even though all the courses are open access, we tend to attract people who are capable of succeeding in the courses,” Lambert says. “We don’t particularly compromise on the integrity of the course just because they’ve been out of school for a long time, or are very young, or are much older.”
Instead, this low graduation rate can be chalked up to the fact that the vast majority of students do not come to the Extension School seeking a degree at all.
According to Lambert, the Extension School has a type.
“Everything the Extension School does is optimized for a student with 10 years of work experience,” Lambert says. “[Someone] who wants to come back and either finish their undergraduate degree or get a Master’s degree.” Many students, like Ramel Racelis, roughly fit this template.
After graduating from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2012, Racelis decided to pursue his Master’s degree. Though he considered both the Extension School and Columbia’s equivalent School of Continuing Education, the Extension School’s affordable tuition and Harvard’s reputation drew Racelis to Cambridge.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Harvard,” he says.
In practice, however, there are a variety of other reasons that learners pay the proverbial two bushels of wheat.
Some students are college graduates who need to take a few required classes before they can apply to graduate schools. After studying physics at Cornell, Sarah Meyers realized that she was barking up the wrong tree.
“I was actually applying to biophysics Ph.D. programs this time a year ago, but I decided it wasn’t what I wanted to do,” she says. “I actually wanted to go to med school.” Short a few pre-med requirements, she packed her bags for Harvard.
Other students attend the Extension School not to fulfill specific requirements, but to explore broader academic interests. A former resident of Quincy House, Katherine L. Penner ’07 concentrated in Government but realized too late that her real passion was economics.
“When you’re 18 and 22, getting a degree, you know what you’re interested in at that moment. Throughout your 20s, that will change. It would be such a shame if you weren’t able to go back and study that,” Penner says. “I think the major value of the Extension School is that you can take these classes, not as a part of the degree program, but as a toe in the water.”
Still other students are ambitious teenagers who have outpaced their high school curricula and crave mental stimulation. By the end of his freshman year at Newton South High School, Daniel Shaar had finished his school’s entire math lineup, so he did what any high schooler would do: He studied multivariable calculus and linear algebra at Harvard.
If a high school sophomore seems a bit young to take Harvard classes, consider that Penner was once the teaching fellow for a homeschooled 11-year-old whiz kid.
“[He] kept up with the coursework and did all of his problem sets. [He was] always on top of everything. He really relished the opportunity to be in a class with so many people because I don’t think he got that opportunity very often at all,” Penner recalls. “Once the other students accepted that he was 11 years old and realized that he was a font of knowledge, it was very fun to watch people welcome him in.”
Believe it or not, the Extension School has even enrolled a few celebrities, including Ann L. Romney and Hilary A. Duff, who in an online journal on Feb. 4, 2005, waxed ecstatic about the School: “I’m taking on-line classes for Harvard University. Really cool! I am really excited about going back to school and the on-line classes are really cool!”
From Harvard to Plymouth State, law firms to newsrooms, Extension faculty have backgrounds as diverse as those of their students. In the 2013-2014 school year, only 56 percent of its 497 professors came from Harvard.
Why do these men and women, already consumed by their day jobs, choose to teach at the Extension School?
Many professors knock on the school’s door when their children are headed to college and their families need extra income. In addition to monetary motivation, many outside faculty are attracted by the Harvard name, which comes with a practical benefit: the use of Harvard resources.
“Widener Library is the largest university library in the world, and having access to that is absolutely vital to my personal research,” says Houchang E. Chehabi, a professor of international relations and history at Boston University who teaches two courses at the Extension School each year.
For Bamberg, the decision to teach Extension mathematics classes is motivated by his appreciation of the students’ unique perspectives on the material.
“I think the Extension students have a much clearer idea of why they are taking the course and what they want to get out of it than the [College] freshmen do,” says Bamberg, noting that adult learners’ increased focus influences the quality of their work. “I found that Extension students do just wonderful programming projects because frequently they can do stuff that’s related to their job and actually use it.”
The Extension School also opens up career avenues for teaching fellows.
After taking one of Bamberg’s courses as an Extension student in 2009, Penner was invited to become a teaching fellow for the class. She has overseen several math department courses ever since.
“I love my job,” Penner says. “Practically speaking, though, there is not another place that I could go without a Master’s degree in education or a Master’s degree in mathematics … So I don’t want to leave. I am extremely impressed with Harvard for allowing me the opportunity to explore this field of teaching.”
From the outside, the red-brick office building at 51 Brattle St. seems exactly like the rest of noisy, collegiate Harvard Square. But inside, it’s another world. The halls are silent. The Grossman Common Room is deserted. The computer labs hold solitary students, working diligently and alone. This is the home of the Division of Continuing Education.
For some Extension students, this silence is representative of a greater isolation.
A sense of separation often rears its head in the classroom, the primary point of contact for an extremely varied group of students. “There was a demographic of people beyond college age who were also taking the class, and I didn’t feel like I had any connection to them whatsoever,” Shaar recalls.
Faculty have noticed this occasional awkwardness. “The way that you learn mathematics, especially when it’s this advanced, and especially when it’s this challenging, is by engaging with other people about it,” Penner says. “For some Extension students, that’s emotionally harder for them. It feels daunting, to approach someone who’s much younger than you.”
Other students identify some advantages to this difficult situation. “Over the summer, I was taking classes with 15-year-old kids. I was like, ‘This is weird,’” Graves recalls. “But it’s good. The integration is nice. I can share experiences with [younger] students and help them out, and they can help me remember things I don’t remember from high school, which is equally as important.”
Though students like Graves are able to find the positives in a tricky classroom dynamic, extracurricular life at the Extension School is by many accounts much bleaker.
Compared to the buzzy social scene of a traditional college, “There is not, at all, in the same sense, a community,” Lambert says. “The learners tend to connect when they’re in a class together … But I would say the greatest complaint of our students is the difficulty of creating the type of community [found at a college].”
For the motivated few, the Extension School does run a handful of student groups, including the Wellness Club, the Pre-Health Society, and the Environmental Club. Students are also permitted to participate in selected University-wide services, such as the Institute of Politics, the Phillip Brooks House Association, and the Office for the Arts.
But this narrow range of extracurriculars leaves many students disengaged. “[Extension students] are scattered around, and you don’t really get to meet them. They’re not really involved at all,” observes Vanessa Cordova, a student at the Extension School.
The administration acknowledges this dearth of social infrastructure, but has no plans for change. “We don’t have any of the rest of the student services, or a campus, or any of the things that Harvard College would have,” says Lambert, going on to add that “the adult learner with a full-time job and a family doesn’t have time for that community anyway.”
As a result of this barren social landscape, some Extension students look further afield, setting their sights on services provided by other schools of the University. In particular, many Extension students have become deeply engaged in sports and clubs within the College, ranging from religious organizations to a capella groups.
Cordova is one such student. Since her arrival on campus this fall, she has joined a Hispanic cultural group and begun working part-time at the Barker Center Café, where she has met students from the College and several graduate schools.
“When I first came here, I thought [the schools] were going to be more separated. I thought there would be a big sticker on my head that said ‘Extension School,’” Cordova recalls. She has found that that has not been the case—perhaps because most University students are oblivious to or confused about the Extension School.
“Every person asks me, ‘What’s the Extension program?’” Cordova says. “They ask, ‘What House are you associated with?’ And I have to explain, ‘No, it’s not a House. It’s an apartment.’”
Despite initial confusion, Cordova has been welcomed by students from other areas of FAS. “They understand that I didn’t do the traditional out-of-high-school admissions process, but they don’t treat me any differently,” she says.
Graves has had a similar experience. In addition to her classes, she works part-time at the Harvard Shop and regularly attends programs hosted by the Office of Career Services. “You can make connections. I have friends from the College; I have friends from the grad schools; I have friends that work at the School,” Graves says. “You have to have the initiative to seek them out.”
But students like Cordova and Graves who successfully integrate themselves into the greater Harvard community are rare. For Extension students, University clubs and services come with significant barriers to entry: Many are available only in select cases and to select types of students, and are often not broadly advertised.
As a result, many Extension students remain reclusive. As Cordova notes, “They’re intimidated to approach or email a club: ‘Is it OK if I’m an Extension student?’”
A Harvard degree is worth a lot. With that fancy sheet of paper comes the likelihood of opportunities and the thrill of prestige. Though a Harvard degree by no means guarantees success, it rarely hurts to have one on hand.
But what is an Extension degree worth? Does it carry the weight of its undergraduate and graduate cousins? Or does the outside world view it as something different or second-rate?
“I think it’s very clear to employers what it means. The Harvard College degree is an intensive, highly selective, four-year residential learning experience. That’s pretty well reputed,” Lambert says. “I think employers understand that the people who come and do the undergraduate program at the Extension School are older … They come back to do that degree because they discovered later in life they have high intellectual capacity, and they desire to get ahead. And I think employers are very clear on what that is as opposed to a Harvard College degree.”
Regardless, current student Hieu Nguyen hopes that the outside world will believe that his Extension education demanded Harvard-level rigor, despite the fact that it did not involve a selective admissions process. “That was the exact thing I wanted to say to potential admission officers at the Ph.D. [programs]: I didn’t get any special treatment. I struggled through the class just as much as a Harvard undergrad would,” he says. “I [went] through the same thing.”
At the end of the day, perhaps an Extension degree has more value as a means to an end than as a destination in and of itself. Unlike many College students, who arrive at Harvard as interested in the all-American college experience as in far-off career prospects, Extension students come with laser-focused goals: to nab a promotion, to apply to graduate school, to beef up a resume, to conclude a college career, to explore an intellectual passion.
The Harvard Extension School gives these learners a chance—often a second chance—to achieve their aims and better their lives. “It is a lifesaver for a lot of people,” says Penner. “I think, for what it is, it’s an extremely good institution.”