In spring 2011, as Theodore R. Johnson and his classmates walked through Harvard Yard to celebrate their graduation from the Harvard Extension School, an onlooker regarded their HES banner with visible confusion.
“What in the world is the Extension School?” the spectator asked.
“It’s the back door into Harvard,” Johnson’s classmate replied.
The comment stung, but it wasn’t surprising. The “back door” had been a running joke among his peers at HES since day one, Johnson recalls.
For his part, Johnson acknowledged that his college GPA and extracurriculars would likely not have gotten him into the Kennedy School or the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and he was “under no illusion” from the outset that a degree from HES would carry the same prestige as those from Harvard’s other schools. Nor did he need it to — by the time he enrolled in the HES master’s program as an International Relations concentrator, Johnson was a decade out of undergrad and an established officer in the U.S. Navy. He just needed another degree to be competitive for a promotion, and any school would do — HES happened to be the only one nearby that would allow him to take in-person classes while continuing to work full-time.
Even if the name “Harvard” wouldn’t make a difference to the military, Johnson saw it as a personal challenge, a way to prove himself at one of the most prestigious universities in the world.
“It meant something to me,” he says. “To test myself. To see if I had what it took.”
Indeed, the Extension School’s official website practically dares its reader to take up this same challenge. The page is filled with photos of a diverse set of smiling students learning wherever is most convenient — on campus, at home, in a corporate office. “If you have the intellect and determination, you can pursue a Harvard education,” it promises.
With its open-enrollment policy, low tuition costs, catalog of more than 1,000 live and on-demand classes, and, of course, the Veritas crest displayed prominently in its advertising, the Extension School attracts thousands of students from around the world each year. It bills itself as “a Harvard education designed for you,” welcoming learners of all backgrounds into a sphere containing world-class resources, famous academics, and a venerated brand.
Yet a Google search for “harvard extension school” displays — directly below the school’s official website — a telling series of related search suggestions:
“Is Harvard Extension School respected?”
“Is Harvard Extension still Harvard?”
“harvard extension school a joke”
These questions indicate that, to the average person, an “accessible Harvard” sounds oxymoronic. The Extension School’s flashy marketing runs directly counter to the aura of exclusivity that lends the University much of its allure in the first place. If anybody can be a Harvard student, then isn’t nobody a Harvard student?
“It seemed too good to be true, that all I had to do was register for classes and now I’m a Harvard student; I get an ID and I get to go to Widener Library,” Johnson recalls.
And his doubts weren’t unfounded. In interviews and on online forums, many HES students express that, soon after arriving on campus, they begin to feel as though they don’t fully belong; that even as Harvard opens certain doors to its Extension School students, it keeps others firmly closed. The Extension School is carefully delineated as separate from the rest of the University in ways both large and small, ranging from hostile comments online to a diploma that students have called “dehumanizing” and belittling toward the work they’ve put in.
The complex relationship between the Extension School and the rest of the University — between the “back door” and the “real Harvard” it opens up to — highlights a glaring paradox: How can a school that’s famous for the number of students it rejects so boldly advertise a “Harvard education designed for you”? What exactly does a “Harvard education” consist of, and is it even possible to scale? And when the accessibility of an education is at odds with its associated prestige, just how far is Harvard willing to extend itself?
The Harvard Extension School was born out of a progressive spirit to make education more accessible for adults who could not leave the workforce to continue formal schooling. In 1835, businessman John Lowell Jr. laid out in his will his wishes for half of his wealth to be used for “the maintenance and support of Public Lectures […] for the promotion of the moral and intellectual and physical instruction or education of the citizens.” He proposed that half of the courses be offered free of charge and the other half be “not exceeding the value of two bushels of wheat” each semester, the equivalent of less than $300 today.
The Lowell Institute of Boston, founded from this trust in 1839, soared in popularity over the subsequent decades. Crowds would form across multiple streets to obtain tickets to lectures, and as many as 10,000 people applied for a single course.
The lectures attracted a diverse and engaged sector of the Boston public. “At the stroke of eight every lecture evening notebooks were spread and until nine o’clock not a glance wandered to the clock nor was there any sign of wavering interest,” one student wrote of his philosophy course in 1910. “Young and old, black and white, artisans and teachers, men and women — who had questioned the meaning of life, and the universe, were eager to compare their thoughts with the questioners of all time.”
When A. Lawrence Lowell, the third trustee of the Lowell Institute, became president of Harvard in 1909, he set to work transforming the original lecture series into a systematic program for adult education. And thus, in 1910, the Harvard Board of Overseers approved the formation of the Department of University Extension. In 1985, University Extension became the Division of Continuing Education within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, comprising the Extension School, the Summer School, and the Institute for Learning in Retirement.
Today, there are 15,000 students enrolled at the Extension School, 4,000 of whom are admitted degree candidates. HES is open-enrollment — anyone can enroll in any course. However, those hoping to pursue a bachelor’s or master’s degree are first required to earn a B or higher in three HES classes, including a writing course. In 2016, 32 percent of applicants to the undergraduate degree program met the requirements. (By comparison, the College had a 5.2 percent acceptance rate that year.) The Extension School serves a diverse population of nontraditional students, who range in age from high schoolers to retirees and the majority of whom (62 percent) are employed full-time.
Nowadays, HES programs cost more than two bushels of wheat, but they remain much less expensive than their counterparts at other Harvard schools. A single undergraduate course at the Extension School costs $1,920, so the undergraduate degree program, which requires 16-32 classes, costs between $30,720 and $61,440 in total. In contrast, tuition for the 2021-2022 school year at Harvard College is $51,143, averaging over $6,000 per course. Graduate degree programs at the Extension School are similarly much more affordable than those at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
The Extension School’s relatively low cost and straightforward, ostensibly meritocratic admissions process puts higher education within the reach of many.
Six years ago, Kody Christiansen was living in homeless shelters in New York City and struggling with addiction. As he recovered, the dreams that had long been suppressed by his cravings for drugs and alcohol returned.
Christiansen applied to NYU, his “original dream school,” and was admitted into its associate’s degree program. He started acting for TV shows and movies like “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” “The Blacklist,” and “A Lover Scorned,” and wrote an award-winning memoir detailing his experiences with substance abuse. Despite realizing his acting and writing dreams, though, there was still one goal that he hadn’t quite achieved.
“I was a straight-A student at NYU, and my dream was Harvard,” Christiansen says. “So I got my associate’s degree at NYU. I applied for Harvard College, and unfortunately, I didn’t get in, but I knew that Harvard was still part of my next phase of life.”
To achieve that long-held dream, Christiansen decided to take classes at the Extension School, starting last summer in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. Christiansen had good friends at HES, and they all encouraged him to attend.
To partially cover the cost of his undergraduate degree program, the Extension School is giving Christiansen financial aid. Several options exist to help students pay for HES tuition, including merit-based scholarships, need-based aid, government grants, and private loans. For University staff, faculty, part-time employees, and retirees, the Harvard University Tuition Assistance Program reduces Extension School costs to only $40 per course.
Taking classes at Harvard Extension School helped Christiansen endure the challenges of the pandemic and provided a supportive community. “I started learning more about the amazing students, the diverse types of students that we have at the Extension School,” he says. “It just made me fall in love with it even more.”
Students’ reasons for enrolling at the Extension School vary: some are auditing courses out of personal interest, some are looking for a particular degree or skill set to advance their careers, and others, like Antjuan R. Finch, are looking for the credibility associated with the Harvard name.
Before being admitted to the Extension School, Finch had attempted to start his own social media company, but after meeting with potential investors, he learned firsthand of the prestige and influence that the Harvard name could carry.
“Verbatim, what I was told was, ‘It’d be a lot easier to trust you and your ideas if you had gone someplace like Harvard or Stanford,’” Finch recalls. He began looking into admissions pathways to these types of schools, and he eventually made his way to HES.
Instructors are also drawn to the Extension School for a variety of reasons.
Comparative Literature professor Martin Puchner was himself a Harvard Summer School student as a high schooler in the ’80s and taught HES courses as a Harvard graduate student. When he returned to the University as a professor, he launched two HES courses taught via recorded videos with additional discussion sections.
“For me, it’s a mission of outreach,” Puchner says. “I mean, I love Harvard, and I love that exclusive atmosphere in many ways, but it also feels somehow morally wrong to focus so many resources on so few people.”
Plenty of instructors come from outside of academia, too, ranging from filmmakers to art theft investigators to pharmaceutical executives. Among the instructors who taught Extension School courses during the 2020-21 school year, only about a third held concurrent teaching positions at other Harvard schools. Of these, 40 percent were professors, while 60 percent were non-tenure-track lecturers or preceptors.
Regardless of their background, instructors report feeling deeply fulfilled by their work at the Extension School. Across the board, those interviewed for this piece found that the remarkable diversity of students in their classrooms translated to clear benefits: a more collaborative atmosphere, broader perspectives on course content, greater intrinsic motivation for learning. Those who teach at Harvard’s other schools also maintain that the quality of education offered at the Extension School is virtually identical (sometimes literally — John T. Hamilton, a professor of German and Comparative Literature, livestreams his College lectures and supplements them with Zoom office hours for Extension School students).
Or, as Puchner puts it, “Some of the best Harvard College students are as good as my Extension students.”
During the two-and-a-half years he attended HES, Johnson, the Navy officer, found the coursework rigorous and his instructors deeply invested in his success. Alongside school, he was balancing a full-time job in the armed forces and raising a family. He’d have to be at work by 7:30 a.m., drive from his station in Newport, R.I. to Cambridge to attend HES in the evenings, then rush back home after class ended. But the “magic” of being on Harvard’s campus never faded, whether he was studying in Widener or getting drinks with friends at Grendel’s. The (sometimes dauntingly) high expectations for original scholarship set by his professors gave him opportunities to challenge established beliefs that he never received in college or the military.
“Classes like that helped me see I didn’t need permission to question scholars,” Johnson says, reflecting on a course which required him to write a 40-page final paper. “I didn’t need permission to read the works of people who are well-respected in the field and say I disagree. I can’t underscore [enough] how important that’s been to my professional trajectory.”
Despite students’ and instructors’ unanimous attestations to the rigor of the Extension School, the legitimacy of an HES education remains a subject of doubt — and evokes plenty of debate on the internet, where anonymous posts reveal more questions and insecurities than are usually expressed aloud.
“Can I tell my friends I go to Harvard if it’s HES?” one Reddit user asks r/Harvard.
“Sometimes I feel like if I’d known my inevitable uneasiness about whether or not I’m actually a student of the university I’m attending, I may have chosen somewhere else,” another divulges.
The commenters on these posts are overwhelmingly supportive, reassuring the OP that imposter syndrome is common at all of Harvard’s schools and that the vast majority of other Harvard students are respectful, or at the very least neutral, towards HES students.
Still, it’s hard to turn a blind eye to posts such as “Can’t wait to see all the Summer Extension School students decked out in Harvard swag! Brace yourselves, academic pretenders are coming,” on the same subreddit.
Or this post on Harvard Confessions, a Facebook page primarily used as a forum for Harvard College students, from a few months ago: “People [at HES] getting degrees or claiming they go to Harvard is 1. Fraud 2. Devaluing our Harvard educations 3. Diluting the name brand and I could go on. It takes 0 skills to get into Harvard [E]xtension.”
As Johnson points out, “from a social reputation standpoint […] it’s the admission into Harvard that is the thing that matters, more than graduating from Harvard.” This is why, in the public imagination, Mark Zuckerberg is perpetually intertwined with the University despite dropping out halfway through his education there, while Jared Kushner ’03, whose father pledged $2.5 million to the school leading up to his admission, is not. And it’s why most of the controversy surrounding Harvard centers around the perceived legitimacy of its admissions process: legacies, student athletes, affirmative action.
For many other schools, it’s the reverse. Johnson says that at historically Black colleges and universities like his undergraduate alma mater, Hampton University, where acceptance rates are usually higher and graduation rates lower, the social capital lies in getting the diploma at the end.
But “the Extension School kind of sits in that middle ground,” Johnson says. “You don’t get the benefit of the prestige attached to the admission process at Harvard, nor the prestige attached to finishing the degree.”
Harvard College students, perhaps feeling threatened by the possible “dilution” of the brand on their own degrees, perpetuate a large portion of the HES stigma. In 2005, following actress Hilary Duff’s announcement that she was taking classes at HES, The Crimson Editorial Board published an editorial titled “Duff at Harvard (extension).”
“Hilary Duff is a loser and a chicken,” the piece began. “For all her supposed ‘fame,’ our new (extension) freshman princess refuses to join thefacebook(forextensionschools).com and compete with all the other (extension) students out there for the most (extension) friends. Man-up (extension) Duff. It’s one thing to say you go to Harvard (extension), but it’s another to live la vida Harvard (extension).”
The board caught flak for its comments shortly thereafter, but a few years later, a levity in this very magazine still stuck Extension School students at the top of its list of people to avoid around campus: “Taking classes at the Extension School does not make you a Harvard student. These faux-students linger in the Barker Center or the Garage Starbucks, pensively writing (not typing) away in their notebooks in hopes of fitting in with the rest of the undergrad population.”
Though hyperbolic and satirical, these articles nonetheless reflect an underlying prejudice towards the Extension School that has not fully dissipated in the years since their publication — a prejudice, some HES students argue, that is solidified and bolstered on the very diplomas that the University awards.
When Christiansen first learned what would be printed on the diploma he was already working toward, he felt tricked and discouraged, thinking, “I didn’t want to put that on my wall, ‘Bachelor of Liberal Arts in Extension Studies,’ because I didn’t study ‘extensions.’”
All HES graduates leave with either a Bachelor or Master of Liberal Arts (ALB or ALM) in Extension Studies. Their diplomas make no reference to their specific fields of study; they are identical regardless of whether the student completed degree requirements in English or biology or software engineering.
Andrea A. Stull, who is studying for her master’s in psychology, is tired of having to continually explain her degree name to people who don’t understand what it means.
“We fought so hard to overcome adversity and obstacles, and now for the remainder of us having this diploma, we have to over-explain it to prove ourselves, over and over and over,” she says. “We already proved ourselves at the school.”
Furthermore, Stull has been told that she would need to redo some of her HES classes at a different institution in order to qualify for the Navy psychology Ph.D. program she is hoping to enter after earning her master’s. Although it may be the course content that misaligns with the Navy program’s requirements, Stull feels that her degree’s contrived name works against her.
“My diploma doesn’t necessarily reflect their expectations of what a psych student should have,” Stull says. “The Harvard name helps me seem like I’m capable and prestigious enough to be a good asset to that particular school, but my accreditation, when it comes to the courses I’ve already taken, is questioned — the integrity of it is questioned.”
The students’ case for the degree name change has garnered sympathy from faculty, former HES deans, and experts in higher education. Barmak Nassirian, former associate executive director of the Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, says that although degree names are not officially regulated, there are norms associated with them that, if violated, raise red flags.
“When you name things in unconventional ways, you really have an obligation to justify why,” Nassirian says. “The field of study should be identifiable from the name of the degree. It’s perfectly fine if a different division of the university [is] the granting authority, but you don’t put the name of the division in lieu of what the person studied.”
To advocate for changing HES degree titles to represent students’ fields of study, Christiansen founded the Extension Studies Removal Initiative in 2020. Meanwhile, another HES student campaign, VERITAS, is also questioning the “liberal arts” part of the HES degree name. The Extension School is the only Harvard school that confers liberal arts degrees. Harvard College students receive a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degree; GSAS students can earn a Master of Arts, Master of Science, or Master of Engineering. Yet the term “liberal arts” is applied to all HES students, regardless of their concentration.
“Not all studies in Extension School, where one receives a degree, qualify for the liberal arts,” says Ryan G. Kramer, the founder of VERITAS. “Biology is not the liberal arts. Information technology, IMS, what I’m studying, is by no means liberal arts. So why is it an ALM?”
Nassirian shakes his head emphatically when he hears about the Extension School’s Master of Liberal Arts offering for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology.
“No, no. You can’t get a Master of Liberal Arts in Engineering, as far as I’m concerned,” he says. “I mean, that just doesn’t make any sense.”
Kramer also suggested new names for the Extension School itself, such as the Harvard School of Liberal Arts and Executive Studies or the Harvard School of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies — a proposal which garnered overwhelming support from HES students in a survey he administered in 2020.
HES’s current name “needlessly separates it from the other schools,” says Finch, who enrolled at HES seeking the credibility associated with the Harvard name. “They’re all extensions of Harvard and yet only one of us is called Harvard Extension.”
Christiansen’s and Kramer’s initiatives are not the first of their kind. HES students have been campaigning to change their degree names for over a decade without success. In an emailed statement, Dean of the Division of Continuing Education Nancy Coleman wrote that she and other administrators have engaged in conversations with students and alumni about the issue. She denied the characterization of this topic as a “controversy,” maintaining that the DCE is not “necessarily in disagreement” about the proposed degree name change.
“We understand that the naming of degrees awarded through Harvard Extension School may appear unconventional to some,” Coleman wrote. “However, these are major decisions, and there is a structured governance process, both at Harvard and across academia, to address them. We are exploring the question of degree naming in appropriate governance venues at Harvard.”
Across academia, however, none of Harvard’s peer schools have continuing education programs embroiled in a degree name dispute. The University of Pennsylvania, University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins University, and Columbia University all have online and/or part-time degree programs that award program-specific degrees such as “Master of Chemical Sciences” or “Master of Arts in Government.” UPenn, UChicago, and Johns Hopkins, as well as Stanford, do offer Master of Liberal Arts degrees, but, unlike HES, their curriculums only encompass traditionally liberal arts subjects such as history, philosophy, and literature.
Why, then, doesn’t Harvard follow suit?
“The only reason I can think of,” Nassirian says, “is to protect the very brand that is the hook to the whole thing” — that is, to distinguish the HES degrees from those offered by the College and GSAS.
Viewing Harvard as akin to a corporation protecting its brand would cast the Extension School’s accessibility in a very different light: as a way for the University to expand its market share while not tarnishing its product’s exclusive aura — to have its cake and eat it, too.
There’s a clear financial incentive for trying to walk this line. While many schools and programs at Harvard draw heavily from the endowment, the Division of Continuing Education, which encompasses the Extension School, pays for itself via tuition revenue and typically brings in a budget surplus for FAS.
Initiatives to expand access to education that are not profitable don’t stick around for long. In 2012, Harvard and MIT launched edX, a platform to deliver free online courses to the general public. The platform lost millions of dollars annually until, earlier this year, the universities sold it to a for-profit online course manager for $800 million.
But for better or for worse, as Nassirian points out, bureaucracies “tend to believe in doing well while doing good.” In other words, the types of actions that expand access to education (doing good) go hand-in-hand with those that would scale an educational business (doing well). The Extension School’s low tuition helps remove financial barriers for many people seeking a degree, but it also opens up a bigger market of potential tuition-payers. Virtual course offerings allow students to learn wherever and whenever suits them best, but it also allows a classroom to grow exponentially with much less additional instructional labor.
The Division of Continuing Education did not comment on these criticisms.
Of course, it’s impossible to disentangle the true intentions behind these actions, which is in large part why there remains so much debate about whether Harvard Extension is “still Harvard.”
To many other Harvard students, the answer is a decided “no.” The College’s Undergraduate Council went so far as to analyze the entire Extension School course catalog and concluded that the classes were extremely similar, in content and quality, to those offered at the College. Yet still, they maintained that this is not the crux of what makes Harvard, Harvard. Online education, they wrote in an op-ed last summer, “deprives us of one of the biggest attractions of a Harvard education: the life-changing relationships we form with our classmates and professors.” And even as Christiansen “fell in love” with the wide array of friends he met through his HES classes on Zoom, a surge of Harvard College students decided to not attend school at all during the pandemic, choosing to defer their admission or take gap years instead.
Extension School students, meanwhile, answer differently. “This whole time, they’re selling a full Harvard experience, which is what I had — I had Harvard professors, I had the classes on campus, I had access to the clubs and resources,” says Stephanie N. Martins, an HES alumna who was actively involved in a previous student-led campaign to change the degree name. “But then at the end of the experience, you receive a diploma that pretty much doesn’t reflect everything that you actually worked for.”
And the University itself is aware of the tension between prestige and access playing out in the Extension School’s mission. The faculty handbook for HES instructors calls the school’s easy accessibility “a wrinkle,” reading: “Open enrollment and reasonable tuitions have long been cornerstones, but they mean that we ask you to provide a Harvard education without the initial screening provided by a Harvard admissions office. Quality control is in your hands.”
After graduating from HES, Johnson has gone on to occupy a number of distinguished positions: Commander in the Navy, White House Fellow in the first Obama administration, speechwriter to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, doctoral candidate in public policy at Northeastern University, and now Senior Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.
He credits the Extension School with giving him the confidence to apply to the White House fellowship; the “Harvard stamp,” as he calls it, made him believe he could be competitive in a cohort dominated by Ivy League degrees.
“[The Extension School] suggested that I was only bound in my accomplishments by what I was willing to go for and what I was willing to work toward,” Johnson says. “I didn’t have the superficial barriers — that those kinds of jobs are for people who can get into places like Harvard, and not for folks like me […] those barriers are socially constructed, and my time at Harvard helped me see that and begin to put myself out there.”
Going into the Extension School, Johnson was unaware that he would walk out with a “Master of Liberal Arts in Extension Studies” degree. Though the strange name has raised a few questions from employers thus far, it hasn’t posed a major barrier, he said. Still, Johnson acknowledges that his established career in the military put him in a unique position, and he could easily imagine a situation where the name would matter much more.
“I took no courses ‘in extension studies,’” he says. “It’s very odd to have a degree in something you never took a course in. I don’t know who in the IT world, who in the medical world, who in the nonprofit sector is going to look at that without a raised eyebrow, to say, ‘Exactly what does this mean?’”
So, what in the world is the Harvard Extension School? How does one determine the extent to which quality of education, prestige, and accessibility constitute — or should constitute — a “Harvard education”? And who gets to make this determination?
Johnson himself is unsure; he’s still ambivalent about whether he entered through Harvard’s “back door.” But, he says, “I left Harvard out of the front door, and that I think is the thing that means more to me now.”
— Associate Magazine Editor Sophia S. Liang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @totalPHIAsco
—Staff writer Ashley R. Masci can be reached at email@example.com.