Saturday, September 8, 2007

Being a Harvard Extension School Student

It may be obvious if you think of it, but in your life, the most important upgrades you can make is to yourself. That is, to upgrade your capabilities mentally or physically. As a result of this kind of thinking I have begun taking courses at the Harvard Extension School (HES).

One of the most frequent difficulties I have is explaining to others what it means to be a student of HES, compared to a "real Harvard student." I'll try to answer this for students, potential students, parents and anyone who wants a quick overview of how the two schools are different.

As the HES website notes, of all the colleges that make up Harvard University, only two grant undergraduate degrees, HES and the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS).

We can divide the differences between HES and FAS in the following broad categories:
  • Admissions
  • Size
  • Course selection
  • Price
  • Community
  • Props
HES is easy to get into compared to FAS. This is one major reason HES students just don't get the respect. More below. Harvard keeps a severe boundary between admissions to HES and FAS. The only legitimate way to get into FAS is to go through the FAS admissions process. There is no transfer of students between the two schools.

Harvard FAS has approximately 6,000 undergraduate students enrolled in any given year, while HES has about 600. Also, according to my calculations, HES accepts around 120-180 degree applicants per year. So one way to look at it is that HES is a very small college in a huge university. As a student, the relationship you have to the undergraduate office is really intimate. They know you. Your not going to get away with much, so be careful who you flip off while driving or walking through Cambridge, it could have an immediate effect on your academic progress.

Course Selection
Academically, the biggest difference is not in quality, but in quantity. If you look at the picture above you'll see the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences course catalog on the top, with the HES course catalog on the bottom. The difference is HUGE. FAS offers many more courses, and many more degree specialties. While HES offers many areas of "serious" academic study, it offers no practical art class and only 5 music classes, with only one touching on western art music (i.e. classical). If I may launch from the words of Professor Robert Levine, with apologies, who argues that classical music is essential to the educated mind, if not soul, this lack of potential for a classical musical education is a place where I really wish FAS would improve and then promote. It would give the school a richness I think is missing.

As far as academic quality and rigor of study, HES shares many of the professors from other Harvard colleges, including not only FAS but Harvard Medical School as well, and some classes are identical, given by the same teachers, using the same materials and grading. Indeed, in order to get an HES degree, you must complete at least 52 units with Harvard faculty.

There is however a very bright side to all of this. Keep your GPA over 3.33 and you can apply for special student status, allowing you to take courses through FAS (at full FAS prices!) during the day. A major incentive not to ever get an F.

The prices for courses at HES are very reasonable, it's like an expensive community college. Undergraduate, for credit courses are around $700-$900 each.

The other big way in which HES is different than FAS is the sense of community. There are student organizations and student led activities but with the average student working full time and not living on campus it doesn't feel like a college experience to me, and that is a sad thing. I regret not only not having finished my undergrad when I was young but also not having made the lifelong friends people make in college.

What the social standing / pecking order is of HES students compared to FAS students is a huge and real issue. It is too big a topic for this entry but I am going to spend some time researching it and writing on each aspect of it in the future. But, the quick answer is, right now there isn't much consensus even within the university. Students from FAS and HES don't actually know how to act around each other. It's pretty funny sometimes, sometimes it's sad. Do FAS students say they go to Harvard or FAS? Should extension school students say they go to Harvard or HES? Is that discriminatory or honest? See how messy this is? It's like a bad joke that begins:

"Two Harvard students walk into a bar, the bartender looks up and says ......... "

Works Cited
Even though this IS just a blog, Harvard (FAS and HES) takes plagiarism very seriously, so to avoid being accused of not citing sources 50 years from now as I'm about to accept my Ph.D. (hah!) I would like to note my sources. Much of the materials here are from the HES and FAS websites, and catalogs, especially the Harvard Fact Book, and the Harvard at a Glance web page.