Did I Really Go to Harvard If I Got My Degree Taking Online Classes?

At extension schools, it's possible to get an Ivy-League education at a fraction of the price, with lower admissions standards.
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About two years ago, my classmates and I gathered in Harvard Yard to receive our graduate degrees alongside more than 7,000 of the university's newest alumni. As the procession made its way to our designated seating area, an onlooker eyed our banner with a puzzled look and asked the guy in front of me, “What in the world is the Extension School?”

My classmate’s reply: “It’s the back door into Harvard.” Ouch.

I often felt the same way – that I’d snuck into one of the world’s premier institutions for higher learning. There is little chance that my slightly-above-average undergraduate GPA and an extra-curricular résumé that only consisted of a part-time job at a music store would’ve secured a spot for me in one of Harvard’s ultra-competitive graduate schools. Yet, with no admission letter in hand and exactly zero hours spent preparing for graduate admissions tests, I became a Harvard student.

And I was not alone. The Extension School – Harvard’s degree-granting continuing education school – has a student population of more than 13,000. In fact, almost all of the Ivy League schools offer courses to “nontraditional students,” which the National Center for Education Statistics considers to be those who are older than typical college graduates, work full-time, or are financially independent and may have family dependents.

These continuing-education programs at Ivy League schools are not new creations; they’ve been around for over a century. They were established to engage the local community, further the education of university staff and their family members, and provide new skills to working adults. Their open enrollment and lower tuition rates have long made them appealing to such students. The reduced cost is in keeping with tradition. In the definitive book on HES, The Gates Unbarred, the former Dean of Harvard’s Division of Continuing Education Michael Shinagel describes the early days when courses were free to the indigent and only cost two bushels of wheat for those who could afford it.

Today, three Ivy schools--Columbia, Harvard, and University of Pennsylvania--offer undergraduate and graduate degrees that are obtained largely through evening, weekend, or online classes, making them more accessible to nontraditional students. Admission, however, is not open to anyone and an application process is required, including the familiar admission rites of essays, recommendation letters, and transcripts.

Though I was officially a Harvard student by simply registering online for classes, I was not yet a candidate for the master’s of liberal arts. To gain admission as a degree candidate to HES, the primary requirement is to complete three courses--including an incredibly difficult “gatekeeper” course--and obtain at least a B grade in each of them. Upon completion and submission of the application, I was officially a graduate-level International Relations concentrator. At about $2,000 a course, the total cost of the degree requirements--36 credit hours and thesis--cost me less than $25,000 total. (The cost of a two-year master's degree at Harvard's Kennedy School, in contrast, would have been more than $90,000.)

At HES, of the 13,000 students, only about 2,000 are admitted degree candidates, and the school confers about 600 bachelor’s and master’s degree every year. Shinagel notes that of all the students that have taken courses at HES since its inception, less than one fifth of 1 percent have graduated with degrees. As it turns out, Harvard is hard.

After earning my undergraduate degree as a traditional student, I went off to the Navy and accepted a commission to become an officer. Ten years into my career, I found myself staring at another promotion board, but not having the graduate degree that many of my peers earned in military colleges. In this regard, HES was a godsend. Twice a week for the next three years, I’d wrap up a full day of work at the naval base and make the 100-mile roundtrip to Cambridge to learn from Harvard’s professors. And when this wasn’t possible, I took the courses online for credit.

The advent of broadband Internet has changed the reach and nature of continuing education. A recent study by the Sloan Consortium found that nearly a third of all higher-education students had taken at least one class online during the 2011 fall semester alone. It also found that 62.4 percent of the colleges in the study offered degrees that could be obtained entirely online, up from 32.5 percent ten years ago.

Perhaps the most surprising finding, however, was that though online enrollment is rapidly increasing, the study surveyed chief academic officers and they report that more and more of their faculty do not accept the value and legitimacy of online education. Certainly an argument can be made about the value of classroom learning over online delivery. But there is no debating the stigma attached to allowing students to earn credits from a university without ever stepping foot on campus. This is something that has not gone unnoticed by HES, which is why it mandates in-person attendance for a certain number of courses for admission and degree-seeking students.

Today, views on online continuing education programs have been commandeered by the rise of for-profit universities. These institutions’ business, academic, and student welfare practices are increasingly being questioned. A Senate report found that though these schools received $32 billion federal student aid, their tuitions are still relatively high and they spend less of those dollars on student instruction. Graduation rates are extremely low and student loan default exceptionally high.

These perceptions of online education contribute to a narrative that says these programs are an easy way to earn to a degree. This is particularly unnerving to Ivy League institutions and an anathema to their prestige. And, unfortunately, sometimes its students walk in with guilty consciences, especially when, like me, they probably would not have gained admission in the more traditional way.

But walking through Harvard Yard on the way to debate issues with some of the best minds in the world does much to strengthen one’s sense of belonging. The miles on my car, train tickets, late nights reading countless academic journals and writing papers, and the nine months working on my thesis with a world-renowned political science professor are proof that there was no shortcut to earning my graduate degree.

All who apply themselves can walk proudly out of the gates with a prestigious diploma in hand. This is exactly what Harvard allowed me to do. The school even provided a few stalks of wheat to carry during the procession as a reminder of HES’s founding mission and as confirmation that I did indeed belong.

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Theodore R. Johnson is a writer and naval officer. He has served as a military professor at the Naval War College and as a 2011 – 2012 White House Fellow. 

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