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Going the Extra Mile: Students Trek to MIT for Alternative Courses

Students leave 77 Massachusetts Avenue, the main address of MIT, yesterday morning. The university is considering increasing its student population.
Students leave 77 Massachusetts Avenue, the main address of MIT, yesterday morning. The university is considering increasing its student population. By Jia J Wu
By Theo C. Lebryk, Crimson Staff Writer

With all the resources available to Harvard students, it can be easy to forget that Harvard is not the only world-class institution in Cambridge. Just a mile down Massachusetts Avenue, or two stops down the Red Line, is MIT, home to some of the world’s most renowned faculty, cutting-edge facilities, and groundbreaking research.

Harvard students cross-registered at MIT account for 96 class seats.
Harvard students cross-registered at MIT account for 96 class seats. By Jia J Wu

When Harvard upperclassmen query for courses, they have not only Harvard’s course catalog at their disposal but also MIT’s. However, while roughly 5,000 Harvard undergraduates are eligible—freshmen are not allowed to cross-register—College students account for only 96 seats in classes at MIT, according to data from Harvard’s Registrar’s Office. Meanwhile, 119 MIT students are taking classes at Harvard, according to MIT’s Office of the Registrar.

Though some see this as a testament to the quality of classes Harvard has to offer, others think it is a missed opportunity to take different types of courses with a different student body.

A CONTRAST TO LIBERAL ARTS

Of the 96 enrollments on the eastern end of Cambridge, 42 are in MIT’s course on Corporate and Financial Accounting. No other MIT course has more than six Harvard undergraduates taking it.

The multitude of students taking corporate and financial accounting exemplifies what some see Harvard to be lacking and MIT has to offer: practicality.

“It’s one of the more practical courses I’ve taken in college,” Ryan C. Pallas ’16 said. “I don’t think a lot of the classes I’ve taken at Harvard will help me directly with my future career and I think this one will.”

Director of undergraduate studies for Harvard’s Economics department Jeffrey A. Miron said his impression is that many Harvard students taking the accounting class to boost their transcript in order to secure a job in the finance industry.

However, Robin Mount, director of the Office of Career Services, said that employers typically do not expect Harvard students to know accounting, given that the College is a liberal arts school.

“It is not necessary for students to have accounting experience to a land junior summer finance position and most firms provide significant training for full-time hires to gain a basic foundation in financial literacy before they begin their full-time job,” she said.

Despite praising MIT’s ability to provide classes with real world applications, many taking the course believe that cross registration offers an adequate replacement to accounting classes at Harvard. Tiffany H. Song ’16, who is enrolled in Corporate and Financial Accounting, said that having an accounting class would seem contrarian to Harvard’s philosophy of providing students with a well-rounded, liberal arts education.

“I think it’s good that we don’t offer those kinds of courses,” she said. “It forces us to think outside the box.”

Still, Miron said that it would be “fruitful” for Harvard to offer a similar course in accounting.

“It’s too bad that we don’t offer more of that here because it would save the students a trek,” he said. “I suspect we could do at least as good a job. I think there’s lots of intellectually interesting and practical material that would be very helpful to students. ”

DIVERSE EXPERIENCES

Outside of Corporate and Financial Accounting, there are 19 cross enrollments across five of MIT’s engineering departments. MIT boasts an engineering program that is much larger than its counterpart at Harvard.

After talking to his advisor, Salathiel Ntakirutimana ’16, an Electrical Engineering concentrator, said he concluded that MIT’s offerings on electrical power systems were more attractive than equivalent courses at Harvard. This fall, MIT’s department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science attracted 13 cross-registrations from Harvard students, according to Registrar data.

“If you are an engineer, [you] get to see some of their labs and work with students there,” Ntakirutimana said. “It’s an amazing opportunity.”

Even though MIT is often thought of as an engineering school, some students opted to take courses there in the arts and humanities.

For Anita K. Y. Lo ’16, the selectivity of Harvard’s creative writing workshops was the chief motivating factor to cross-register. Having been rebuffed by Harvard’s workshops multiple times, Lo turned to MIT’s Advanced Fiction Workshop, which still requires instructor approval but has much more open enrollment, according to Lo.

“I had applied multiple times into Harvard’s creative writing courses and not had a lot of success there,” she said, adding that some of her friends cross-registered into nontraditional MIT classes that have no equivalents at Harvard, such as one on video game making.

MIT’s Media Arts and Sciences department, which was the third most popular department for cross-registration, hosted 10 Harvard students this past fall. Harvard does not have a comparable department, leading some students pursuing an interest in media studies to turn to MIT. Five more cross-registered into MIT’s Humanities department.

Naomi K. Lang ’16 was one such student. After Claire A. Conceison, a former visiting professor at Harvard who specializes in theater studies, moved her class from Harvard to MIT, Lang knew she wanted to follow her there. Currently, Lang is not only taking Conceison’s class, but also considering pursuing independent study with her at MIT next semester.

Maggie Welsh, Harvard’s associate registrar for enrollment services, said that cross-registration is not just about taking a new course, but also about being exposed to different students, faculty, teaching methods, and culture.

Both Lo and Lang said that taking a humanities class in what is traditionally viewed as an engineering school provided for an interesting change of pace from Harvard’s environment.

“It’s a different experience because everyone in the class was doing something like engineering or physics or stuff like that. I think maybe that contributed to a little bit of different perspectives,” Lo said.

For some, venturing into MIT also opens the door to a new social network. For instance, Lang keeps in touch with many of her classmates at MIT and has even gone to watch some of their games.

ROOM FOR GROWTH

Despite the perks cross-registration may yield, MIT cross-registration remains a resource that some say is underutilized.

“I suspect what motivates them not to do it is the travel,” Welsh said. The M2 shuttle provides free transportation to MIT’s campus and students also have the option to take the Red Line. Still, according to some, the 15-minute ride to MIT can be a major deterrent, especially in the winter.

Some students lack knowledge of the full range of transport options that are at their disposal. During the first few weeks the semester, Ntakirutimana was unaware of the free M2 shuttle and instead had to spend money on the train rides each week.

Others say there is simply a lack of awareness on campus about the opportunity to cross-register.

“From my personal experience, when I tell people I’m cross-registered, half of them either say, ‘oh I didn’t realize that was a thing,’ and the other half say, ‘are you taking the accounting class?’” said Alex S. Peed ’18, who is currently cross-registered in Corporate and Financial Accounting.

Welsh also speculates that some students only discover the resource late in their academic careers, at which point they have fewer semesters left and less time to fulfill their various academic requirements.

Though many students who have gone through the process said it was straightforward, there still can be some inconveniences.

“It’s definitely not a thing,” Lang said of the prominence of cross-registration at Harvard. “It did take some time for me to figure out what I needed to do. With this class, I needed to get the professor to sign this special form, I needed to take this form MIT myself, then I needed to bring copy to registrar and then it didn’t show up on study card until weeks later.”

To rid the process of administrative hassles, the Registrar’s Office is looking to automate the process by putting it online, according to Welsh. In doing so, undergraduates will be able directly search MIT courses through the University catalog, much like they currently can with graduate school courses. They will then be able to petition for MIT classes online, reducing the need to travel back forth for physical signatures. Welsh said the office looks to implement these changes by next semester, though it is possible it will be delayed until the fall of 2016.

—Staff writer Theo C. Lebryk can be reached at tlebryk@college.harvard.edu.

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