A recent piece at the Atlantic looks at the future of education through online courses.

As author Theodore Johnson wonders, “Did I Really Go to Harvard if I Got My Degree Taking Online Classes?” Johnson, a working adult who earned a master’s of liberal arts degree from the Harvard Extension School, explains that,

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.

This triggered an interesting discussion of online education and the changing nature of prestigious institutions in the comments section. One reader writes that:

There must be some generational divide here that makes individuals feel that sitting through a lecture in person is superior to online study. These professors regurgitate these lectures year in, year out. So is the prestige in the parking of one’s car in the pay lot. trekking to campus, sitting in a desk? I cannot see how attending school online is any different.

Well perhaps, but online education is changing nothing about Harvard itself. And that’s because the online courses are administered through the Harvard Extension School, which is essentially a community college (that grants master’s degrees) run by Harvard University. And everyone at Harvard kind of knows that. Extension School students are not invited to campus events like other students, and when many events occur on campus Extension School students are not allowed to attend. And that’s not simply academic snobbishness; students are also paying a lot less money to take classes.


The Extension School website is pretty clear about how it’s not that Harvard, which is part of what makes it so interesting: “Harvard Extension School has degrees that allow you to enhance professional skills, prepare for a new career, or pursue intellectual inquiry for personal enrichment.” In addition, “graduates of the Extension School get to participate in the Harvard graduation ceremony, led by President Faust. You can see a video of past graduates getting their degrees conferred on the Harvard campus.”

It seems somewhat obvious that if one of the appeals of the program is that one “gets to” participate in the Harvard graduation, this is something other than a standard Harvard degree.

The truth is that Harvard, like other colleges, runs a lot of programs that aren’t really Harvard. Harvard Business School runs the Executive Education Program, in which “those enrolled attend one three-week session, which… cost $33,000 a pop, per year for three years.” Enrollees don’t earn an MBA but they “still receive alumnus status.” High school students can attend Harvard Summer School and spend $7,000 to live in Harvard dorms and take a class on the Harvard campus. In the unlikely event that one is subsequently admitted to Harvard College, however, such classes cannot be applied to a Harvard degree.

Harvard Extension is not quite the same thing, of course. While it’s arguably not really Harvard, it’s not “fake Harvard,” either. It’s not a scam. It’s not an attempt to earn extra cash by selling the Harvard brand. Indeed, at $1,020 to $2,000 per 4-credit courses, it’s actually donating the Harvard brand, and has been doing so since 1910.

The Harvard Extension School is a descendant of the Lowell Institute, which provided “public lectures to be delivered in… Boston upon philosophy, natural history, and the arts and sciences… for the promotion of the moral and intellectual and physical instruction or education of the citizens of the said city of Boston.” Such lectures were free to the poor and the maximum charge was “no more than the value of two bushells of wheat.”

And that’s a wonderful thing. Many selective institutions of higher learning run schools like this, inexpensive “extension schools” or schools of “continuing education.” That’s because many colleges have it as part of their missions not only to educate the affluent, high-achieving students who are admitted to standard programs, but also to run cheap learning programs for the community and the employees of the institution.

But there’s something very odd about wondering “Did I Really Go to Harvard if I Got My Degree Taking Online Classes?” Well no, of course not. But it’s not the online classes that make it not Harvard. It’s the Extension School part that determines the distinction.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer