Harvard Extension School: Is It Really Harvard?

Harvard Extension School: Is It Really Harvard?
portrait of Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.
By Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.

Published on August 18, 2021

Share on Social


What if I told you there's a secret passageway into Harvard allowing you to earn a bachelor's degree on the cheap — and you don't even have to sport stellar grades and standardized test scores to get in? Too good to be true?

It's quite true. Welcome to Harvard Extension School.

But is it really Harvard?

What Is Harvard Extension School?

One of 12 degree-granting institutions at Harvard, Harvard Extension School is part of the university's continuing education division. It offers undergraduate and graduate degrees, along with certificates and a premedical program.

Current students range in age from 18 to 89. The average age of an Extension School undergraduate is 32, and 91% of students work full time. Students can take classes online and on the Cambridge campus in the evening.

Harvard Extension School traces its origins to 1910. Despite its tradition-bound reputation, Harvard was actually a pioneer in continuing and distance education. Extension courses were offered via radio in the late 1940s and on television in the 1950s.

Taking advantage of new online technologies, the Extension School expanded considerably in the 1980s and '90s and is now one of the university's largest schools, enrolling approximately 890 undergraduates and 2,750 graduate students in fall 2020 and serving more than 15,000 students each year.

Not that this makes Harvard unique by any means. Similar continuing education programs exist among Ivy brethren Penn, Columbia, and Brown, while Yale offers the Eli Whitney track for nontraditional undergraduates.

Harvard Extension School expanded considerably in the 1980s and ’90s and is now one of the university’s largest schools, serving more than 15,000 students each year.

Other elite private colleges such as Stanford, the University of Chicago, Duke, NYU, Georgetown, and Northwestern also have continuing education divisions, as do public schools like UC Berkeley, UCLA, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Virginia, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Some of these institutions allow you to earn a bachelor's degree, as Harvard does, while others feature only graduate degrees and professional certificates.

On its website, Harvard makes an obvious effort to legitimize the Extension School. "We are Harvard — extended to the world for every type of adult learner," it states. "We are a fully accredited Harvard school. Our degrees and certificates are adorned with the Harvard University insignia. They carry the weight of that lineage."

Extension students hold Harvard ID cards, get a Harvard email address, study in the university's libraries, and work in its labs. They have access to academic and career services. They attend sporting events and participate in community service activities.

They also march at Harvard's commencement and, after graduating, become members of the Harvard Alumni Association, reaping all the associated benefits.

How Harvard Extension School Differs From Harvard College

So what's the problem? The answer lies in how Harvard Extension School operates compared with the rest of university.

Less Competitive Admission Requirements

Harvard College, the undergraduate school at Harvard University, can be difficult to get into, to say the least, much like Harvard's graduate and professional schools. For this fall's first-year class, Harvard received more than 57,000 applications and accepted just 1,968, or 3.4%.

Admission to the undergraduate Extension program is … less stringent. Anyone can sign up for a course at any time. If you want to enroll in the degree program, however, you must take three courses, including a class on academic writing and critical reading, and earn at least a B in each.

Anyone can sign up for an undergraduate Harvard Extension course at any time. If you want to enroll in the degree program, however, you must take three courses and earn at least a B in each.

That's it — no consideration of high school transcripts or SAT and ACT scores. No essays or teacher recommendations. Three B's and you're in. Think you're Harvard material? Prove it.

A 2016 Harvard Gazette article noted that 32% of those seeking entry into the undergraduate degree program earned sufficient grades for admission. While that might seem like a competitive acceptance rate, it's more a reflection of attrition than selectivity.

What it actually reflects is the percentage of students who took three courses and met the threshold — a minimum of three B's — for admission. So, in theory, the acceptance rate of those who accomplish this task is 100%.

Many Faculty Don't Hold Harvard Appointments

Harvard Extension offers a wide range of courses across the three areas in which students must concentrate: humanities, sciences, and social sciences. Some fields, such as journalism, are exclusive to the Extension School and don't exist elsewhere within Harvard.

That's partly why not all Extension courses are taught by faculty holding a Harvard appointment. Almost half of Extension instructors teach at nearby institutions or are industry professionals offering real-world experience. The bachelor's program mandates that students take only 52 credits of the 128 required with Harvard professors.

"This means that while you do get to carry the Harvard brand, the coursework is not as rigorous," noted one observer.

If the assumption is that a “Harvard education” means learning solely from Harvard faculty, then the Extension experience falls somewhat short.

Whether or not courses taught by faculty from Boston University, Boston College, and Northeastern University are as challenging or valuable as those taught by Harvard faculty is a matter of opinion.

Many institutions offer courses taught by adjuncts and faculty from other colleges, so the situation at the Extension School is not that unusual. Still, if the assumption is that a "Harvard education" means learning solely from Harvard faculty, then the Extension experience falls somewhat short.

"If you are looking for a real Harvard experience," an Extension graduate suggests, "take as many classes on campus with real Harvard instructors as you can."

That experience can include up to two courses at Harvard College, learning alongside traditional undergraduates.

A Peculiar Degree Designation

Students who complete the baccalaureate program earn a bachelor of liberal arts in extension studies. Harvard stipulates that resumes must show the degree as "Bachelor of Liberal Arts, Harvard University Extension School" or "Bachelor of Liberal Arts, Extension Studies, Harvard University."

Only recently did Harvard suggest graduates could list their field of study as well. Presumably, one does not major in "extension studies."

Harvard makes this distinction to signal the difference between a bachelor's degree from Harvard Extension and one from Harvard College. Evidently, some Extension graduates exclude "extension" from their resumes to try to suggest their bachelor's degree is from the college. That's tantamount to fraud in the minds of many employers.

Harvard stipulates that resumes must show the degree as “Bachelor of Liberal Arts, Harvard University Extension School” or “Bachelor of Liberal Arts, Extension Studies, Harvard University.

"Keep this important point in mind as when you present your resume to a potential employer listing Harvard University," recommended one writer, "as your alma mater will be easily understood by employers who have actual Harvard University graduates there."

Nonetheless, Extension students have petitioned the university to remove "extension studies" from their diplomas.

"When the name of a degree does not state the subject in which a student has specialized, it diminishes the academic work that the student successfully completed while at Harvard," opined a Harvard Crimson editorial.

Other Differences Between Harvard Extension and Harvard College

Harvard Extension School students can also expect the following when it comes to variations from the college:

Perceptions Vary on Harvard Extension School's Quality

So is Harvard Extension School truly Harvard? Opinions vary.

A few years ago, a Boston.com article referred to a particular Extension School student with questionable judgment as a "Harvard student," which drew criticism from readers who called the term "misleading and sensationalist."

The article summarized the prevailing opinion as "The Extension School = not the real Harvard."

Others agree.

"While it is associated with the Harvard 'brand,'" wrote one critic, "the coursework is designed primarily for people who are more casual in their pursuit of a formal education. This gives a certain number of 'regular' Harvard privileges to enrolled students, but you are definitely not a regular Harvard student."

A current Harvard Extension School student confirmed this belief. "I've had a sense that I don't really belong at Harvard sometimes," he said in a YouTube video, "and I'm sure there are lots of other students at the Extension School who would feel the same way."

While Harvard Extension School might offer access to quality, prestige is another matter. The elusive concept of prestige is closely associated with exclusivity, which is not the Extension School's mission.

Yet another student held a different opinion. "This is Harvard's best-kept secret," he said. "As a kid on the steps of Widener Library, I dreamed of going in one day. And when that day finally came … I knew I finally belonged. Harvard is possible."

While the Extension School might offer access to quality, prestige is another matter. The elusive concept of prestige is closely associated with exclusivity, which is not the Extension School's mission.

"Just about anybody who has the money to spare can buy entry into the Extension School," noted a Harvard alum, "but the undergrad and grad schools at Harvard are highly selective, which is entirely the point of an Ivy League name."

On a podcast, Huntington Lambert offered his own unique summation. Lambert was dean of the Extension School until 2019, and his mother attended Extension classes when he was a child.

"Most people who know our students and our alumni know that they did the same courses that are just as hard as Harvard courses," Lambert said. "They just can't take the time or don't have the money to enjoy a full-time residential experience. And so the credential is not the same as Harvard College or Harvard Law School or Harvard Business School, but it is Harvard."


Feature Image: Bloomberg / Contributor / Getty Images

Many students experience food and housing insecurity. Learn how these insecurities affect students. Get tips for overcoming common barriers. Learn about the financial challenges of AAPI students and find scholarships for Asian American and Pacific Islander college students. Learn how to use personal pronouns to increase inclusivity and create welcoming spaces for trans, nonbinary, and LGBQ+ communities.