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.