Masters in IT at the Harvard Extension School: Too good to be true?
February 2, 2007 11:41 AM   Subscribe

Masters in IT at the Harvard Extension School: Too good to be true?

I'm in the process of choosing and applying to graduate schools for information technology that do not require a bachelors in CS. My degree is in art history, though I've some CS course work under my belt. The only two schools I'm seriously considering at the moment are UPenn and the Harvard Extension School.

The masters at the Extension School is basically a degree program through continuing education at Harvard College. Its taught mostly by Harvard faculty and professionals. Courses are taught at Harvard at what seems to be a Harvard level of excellence. And the overall price is about 1/2 of UPenn for the entire degree.

Obviously, this is a generalization, but is there something I am missing? Is the school well regarded or does it's continuing education roots harm it's reputation? Would a UPenn degree look that much better on a CV? Is the education really as great as it seems?

I would love to hear any first hand experiences if anyone out there has taken classes or a degree from the school. Thanks!
posted by tanglewoodtree to Education (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
A friend of mine took a couple of grad CS classes through the Extension School, with a similar idea in mind, and was very impressed with the quality of the content, instruction, and with the caliber of his classmates.

I also remember reading an article in the NYTimes (abstract here, but you have to pay to view the whole piece) that made it sound like one of the best deals in education and a totally legit way to get the Harvard name on your CV.
posted by tentacle at 11:50 AM on February 2, 2007

I did read that article and it was quite positive. I found a full text version here.
posted by tanglewoodtree at 12:22 PM on February 2, 2007

It is a legit way to get "Harvard Extension School" on one's resume, not "Harvard." I've know people who have tried to pull this trick (like the supposed "Yale backdoor" of applying for a forestry degree at Yale and then switching majors). HES is great as far as continuing education goes, but it doesn't command the same prestige that Harvard proper does, at least to the sophisticated employer.

But, the layperson won't be able to tell the difference and many employers may be unfamiliar with how it works, so you could get a disproportionate Harvard boost. Just don't go around saying you went to Harvard, since the admissions criteria are very different. The "Harvard level of excellence" is also defined by the people they let in, not just the faculty, and when the criteria for admissions are much more lax, there is less "prestige." But you do get excellent teachers, which is a huge bonus for those that are not trying to parlay the name into something bigger.

All that being said, I know a few people who have gotten HES degrees in either education or CS and they all were very, very happy with it. Unless people have comments on UPenn being great, I don't think you can go wrong with HES.

(Disclosure: I have nothing to do with Harvard)
posted by Falconetti at 12:36 PM on February 2, 2007

Off-topic, but related -- Harvard Extension School has posted free podcats on iTunes. There are numerous lectures, etc. from the CS curriculum. Go to iTunes Store -- then to "Podcasts" and search for "Harvard Extension."

Another resource is the Extension School's Distance Education website.
posted by ericb at 12:40 PM on February 2, 2007 [2 favorites]

HES is over 100 years old and has an excellent reputation. I took several courses there, and I have to say it was hit or miss (mostly hit) as far as teachers go. Most of the time I would get regular Harvard profs, but a class or two were led by what I would describe as student-teachers. If you can audit and then sign on for courses I may do that if there is any doubt about the teachers credentials.
posted by Gungho at 12:48 PM on February 2, 2007

HES is very legit and well regarded although there are definitely people who try to abuse it.

As far as I have been able to gather, HES and Harvard College classes are basically the same except that the College classes are harder and that the HES classes sometimes have non-College professors. In one class I took that was offered through both the College and HES, the students attended the same lectures but the College students got harder problem sets and less explicit help. The other class I took through HES was very easy compared to college courses I have taken, but for all I know the Harvard College equivalent was the same. The professor was from Reed, I think, and was pretty good.

A couple people I know taught some introductory programming classes at HES; neither of them were Ph.Ds but they were both very competent in what they taught.
posted by phoenixy at 1:28 PM on February 2, 2007

Falconetti: I should say that I have no desire to pass myself as a straight Harvard University graduate. Although I certainly appreciate any boost from the Harvard name somewhere on my CV, I'm really just looking for a great education from a respectable school.

ericb: Thanks for the tip. I'm definitely going to check that out.

Gungho: I got that impression from the one class I sat in on. It was team taught and one of the instructors was definitely more experienced than the other.
posted by tanglewoodtree at 1:31 PM on February 2, 2007

Harvard Extension is a fine school but unfortunately you have to suffer a bit of the ill-will that they get from the perception that they try to pass themselves off as college graduates, regardless of how often they really do.

For example, here's a guy who runs a weblog called Harvard Extended about being a Harvard Extended school student. He links to his own Linked-In profile which lists his education as "Harvard University." Technically, thats correct. The Extension school is part of Harvard University, just like the College and the Law school and the Medical school etc. but its hard not to believe he is capitalizing on the fine distinction...
posted by vacapinta at 2:24 PM on February 2, 2007

I would be more concerned about "Master's in IT" than I would about HES. With few exceptions, master's degrees are targeted at academics, and the relevant exception to you is probably the MBA. Of positions that require an MBA, I don't know that a Master's in IT would suffice, and of those that don't, I don't know that a Master's in IT would get you in if your skills and experience wouldn't already get you in without it.

What are you planning on doing with the degree?
posted by mendel at 3:10 PM on February 2, 2007

I knew a guy in grad school who put "Harvard University" on his CV when he really just had a Master of Liberal Studies from Harvard Extension School. Somehow, it was obvious that it wasn't the regular Harvard Graduate School.

There are a lot of equivalent backdoors in the Ivy League, aren't there? For example, Columbia has its School of General Studies, which, if I understand correctly, is basically open admission but offers bachelor's and graduate degrees. Certain Ivy League grad schools (I constantly see ads for the Harvard Graduate Program in Design) seem to be begging for people to attend them.

I think that you should be able to attend the program with pride. Even if it doesn't have quite the social cachet as the "real" Harvard experience, it is Harvard, and it's supposedly mostly taught by Harvard faculty, so anyone who wants to deny you the credit of having attended Harvard is just an asshole.
posted by jayder at 4:19 PM on February 2, 2007

"Harvard Extension is a fine school but unfortunately you have to suffer a bit of the ill-will that they get from the perception that they try to pass themselves off as college graduates, regardless of how often they really do." Let me clarify that vacapinta means Harvard College and not just college. Harvard Extension School is without a doubt an actual college.
posted by pwally at 5:48 PM on February 2, 2007

Thanks, vacapinta, for the link. You're absolutely right -- I am capitalizing on my status as a Harvard student. I am proud of the program I belong to (ALM/History), and have been overjoyed with the quality of the education I have received at the Extension School. Most of my instructors have been Harvard professors, and/or leading scholars in their fields of expertise. Through my coursework and independent research I have achieved a very high level of understanding relating to my own research interests -- modern Chinese history, Chinese foreign policy, Chinese mass media, and quantitative research methodologies. I am currently in the midst of writing my thesis (tentative title: "Making A Case For Quantitative Research Methodologies In China Studies: The New China News Agency and Chinese Policy Views of Vietnam, 1977-1993") and my thesis director believes that I am in a pretty good place -- next week we are meeting to discuss how I might restructure the literature review and presentation of data, and I am quite confident I will be able to complete it sometime in the spring. It's a great program, and I make it quite clear on my blog and elsewhere on the 'Net that I am a student at the Extension School -- check out the tagline for my blog ("Tales from the trenches at the Harvard Extension School") and my full LinkedIn profile.

Of course, not everyone has such a positive impression of the Extension School or its students. The Harvard Crimson sometimes publishes news about Extension School students who misrepresent themselves or attempt to take part in exclusive activities limited to Harvard College students, such as Finals Clubs. However, last year the Crimson interviewed several Harvard professors about differences between College and Extension School undergraduates, and found that Extension School students were not only completing the same coursework, but in some cases were doing better than their classmates from the College:

... Senior Lecturer in Mathematics Paul G. Bamberg Jr. ’63, whose class on classical geometry is open to both undergrads and Extension School students, echoes Greenberg’s positive experience with HES. Bamberg emphasizes that everyone is held to the same standards, saying that, “they all sit in the same classroom and take the same exams, and over the past three years the Extension students have done as well as the undergraduates.”

According to Bamberg, the two highest grades last year were earned by Extension students. For the past two years Extension students outperformed their peers on his midterm -- one even earning a perfect score.

As for appraisals of the HES graduate programs, I've conducted several interviews with ALM candidates. One candidate already has a master's degree, the other was a Columbia undergraduate. Both praise the ALM program, although they do bring up some valid criticism, particularly regarding the lack of community sentiment.

I haven't had a chance to interview anyone in the ALM in IT program, but an ALM in IT alum operates a blog about his current academic journey in an MIT graduate program.

Anyone who is interested in the Harvard Extension School is welcome to email me, or visit the Harvard Extended blog, where I frequently discuss issues relating to various HES programs.
posted by Ian Lamont at 8:00 PM on February 2, 2007 [2 favorites]

Great info, Ian Lamont! And I'm glad you didn't take my comment in the wrong way.

In the interests of full disclosure, I'm a Harvard College graduate and, in fact, Paul Bamberg was my freshman advisor! The Extension school folks always seemed more alert and motivated to me but I think thats because they seemed to be very goal-oriented as opposed to many undergrads who during the same perdiod are floundering around a bit, pondering where to put their effort.
posted by vacapinta at 9:07 PM on February 2, 2007

Slight derail- I met a woman who managed to drop "I taught English at Harvard" within 10 minutes of our meeting. As it turned out, she taught "English as a Second Language" a community night class.
posted by JujuB at 10:40 PM on February 2, 2007

tanglewoodtree: "I did read that article and it was quite positive. I found a full text version here."

I was actually in a class with one of the professors who was interviewed for the article. Allow me to add a little backstory: the general impression of the article's author was that she was trying to figure out which program (Harvard College or Harvard Extension) was for real. In other words, are the students at Harvard College overpaying for the prestige -or- are the students at HES getting a bad education with a cheap Harvard logo pasted on?

My class at the time had an actual College graduate in it. He needed more work on writing and so he took the HES class to get better prepared. This is a common theme: there are actual Harvard College graduates taking classes at the HES for specific subjects.

I've taken classes at the HES for almost 2 years now. The situation is a bit different from what almost everyone believes it is and I'm hoping that I can clear up some of this here and now.

Harvard College is more than just going to the classes. It's living in the dorms, it's being intentionally put into a situation with other talented and driven people who will enrich your experience. The best way to describe it is that the "College" part of Harvard is everything that goes on OUTSIDE of the classroom.

Harvard Extension is probably the BEST program available for students who are returning to school after having attended college for some time and dropped out for some reason -or- for a student that simply doesn't care for all of the trappings of attending as a resident student.

With some notable exceptions, the classes are nearly identical. The material is certainly identical. The problem sets are mostly identical. And the exams and finals are close but not quite identical.

And there's the rub: it's different enough for people to make the case that it's easier.

We could argue this point but the College students benefit from almost constant access to faculty and teaching staff. They benefit from exposure to other students in the same class that they can interact and collaborate with. This kind of support is encouraged and expected at the College.

At the Extension School, you'll get very little of that. If you live in the Boston area, you might be able to link up with another student or two and bang out some problem sets. It won't be anything like the experience of walking down the hall to your classmate who is taking exactly the same course because it's a core requirement and getting his or her thoughts.

If you're a distance student (like I am) you'll be reduced to asking your questions via email or phone calls and then hoping that you get enough of an answer to move forward. The quality of the teaching assistants varies greatly and I learned early on that a bad teaching assistant is a good reason to drop a class. Some of the teaching students resent working with extension students and act a bit snobbishly. Others are great and relish working with motivated students that actually want to learn. The common refrain among the TF's is that the College undergrads are lazy and unmotivated in some classes.

As for the classes, if you restrict your course selection to those that are mirrors of an identical Harvard class taught to undergrads, you'll get a VERY good experience. If you take the classes that are HES-only, then you really are getting a different experience altogether.

And by different, I don't mean bad. The classes are excellent by and large and you will definitely enjoy them. But you won't get the true "Harvard" academic experience that everyone keeps talking about.

Case in point: many of the Computer Science classes that are part of the ALM program at HES are also taught by the same profs in the College. With the instructor's permission, you can sit in on the actual class with the Harvard students. I did this last semester on certain days. So here I was, sitting in the same classroom with the College students, getting the same material, and participating. Neat, eh?

As for Harvard College "impostors" : the HES degree is a legitimate and well-respected one. I can cite numerous examples of HES grads going on to very selective graduate programs in academia (CS especially), law, business, and medicine. Students have gone on to Harvard Law from the HES. There is a professor who went to MIT, dropped out to go into business, finished a CS degree at HES and then went on to get the Ph.D in CS from MIT. It does happen. She now has her own department at Carnegie Mellon.

And this is really the point: there is a great deal of self-selection going on. There are students who really try hard to extract everything they can from the HES program. There are others who just want to take a few courses and claim they went to Harvard. The impostors are usually the latter and the real achievers are the former.

BTW, there are plenty of weirdos in some of the HES classes. Harvard, because of the name, draws out some pretty weird characters. Open admission is sometimes a blessing and sometimes a curse. Plenty of students join the classes and then can't do the work. They will slow down the entire class with dumb questions. The simple fact is that the range of academic background in the HES is mostly a negative. There are bright spots, however. Most of the more difficult classes are populated by real superstars who already know the material but just need the degree. If you are lucky, these classes will really challenge you. You wont grade as high but you WILL learn.

Which brings up another point: the College students have an almost pathological need to believe that the HES program is inferior. They simply cannot get it in their heads that the material and the grading is the same. There are plenty of snobs at Harvard. Expect it and allow your actions to inform their opinions.

This treatment extends to the Harvard Administration itself. It's aware of the appearances and so it encourages a bit of distinction between the College and the HES. If the HES ever got more recognition for its value, the administration would put the brakes on it. They will protect that Harvard brand at (almost) all costs.

BTW, it's almost universally considered bad form by Harvard alums to bring up Harvard in conversation. They call it dropping the "H-bomb". Mention it within the first few minutes of conversation to someone and they will assume there is more to that story. Every alum has a story like this and they love to recount them.

I'm sure I meandered a bit here but I asked Ian Lamont before I joined HES the "is this for real" question. His advice was good and the HES program has proven to be the right fit for me. I live 5 miles from another university but they don't offer the classes I need to complete my degree at times that are possible. I had practically given up on the idea of completing my Bachelor's degree when I found out about HES. It really is a wonderful program and it's a well kept secret.
posted by nrs at 2:44 PM on February 4, 2007

The Harvard Mystique.
posted by ericb at 8:26 PM on February 4, 2007

mendel: I can't speak to other professions, but in the museum field a masters is really a requirement if you want to go anywhere. I have a BA in Art History and am pursuing a masters in IT because I'm intensely interested in the use of technology in museums for education and collections management. So this way, I get both the degree and the IT skills I lack to go forward.

nrs: Thanks so much for the long response. I'm sure that your characterization of the HES bachelors program is quite accurate, but I think master's degrees in general are a very different animal. I've already gone through a very inclusive, social undergrad experience and I'm only looking for education. As you say, I guess that makes my choice much easier. I'm happy to hear you had such a positive experience overall.
posted by tanglewoodtree at 9:38 AM on February 5, 2007

tanglewoodtree: you're welcome. Please note that what I said applies as well to the masters program. It's often thought that the ALM is different in character from the ALB program but in reality the student experience is similar. The one notable exception is the requirement for a thesis as well as a full semester in residence. These are non-negotiable.

Keep in mind that the primary reason for most ALM non completions is the failure to complete the thesis. There are many many examples of this. If you go forward with the program, get started on your thesis EARLY. There is a time limit and you need to fulfill it or the whole thing will be an expensive waste of time.
posted by nrs at 8:00 PM on February 5, 2007

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