Date: November 22nd, 2005 7:09 PM
Author: Buck-toothed Masturbator
November 18, 2005
Harvard, for Less: Extension Courses' New Allure
By PAM BELLUCK
CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Nov. 17 - Laura Shortill had a 3.6 grade point average at her Buxton, Me., high school and her SAT's were "fairly average," she said. "Nothing astronomical."
So when she applied to Harvard, Ms. Shortill knew it was a stretch. And she had a backup: Harvard.
Although Ms. Shortill was accepted elsewhere, including Johns Hopkins, when she was rejected by Harvard College, she moved to Cambridge anyway. She enrolled in a bachelor's degree program at Harvard University Extension School - for a fraction of the admissions requirements and a fraction of the cost.
"I had Harvard as my reach school," said Ms. Shortill, 20, "and I had Harvard as my safety school."
Students Ms. Shortill's age make up a small but growing percentage of Harvard Extension School these days, said Michael Shinagel, the dean. While the school does not keep count, he said, the number of bachelor's degrees it gives out (118 last year) is double that of 10 years ago, largely because of younger students, at least some of them drawn by the chance to experience Harvard at bargain-basement prices.
"I can tell by the physiognomy, by the color of the hair, by the body types that we're getting leaner and younger," Dr. Shinagel said. "Clearly the trend is to a younger student population."
Extension and continuing-education schools have long served midcareer adults and people with some previous college credit. They still account for most extension students, and many do not accept students under 25 or without college experience.
But schools that accept younger students say interest is increasing, driven largely by economic considerations, although at Harvard it is also fueled by the fact that it is Harvard.
"There is a group of what you might call traditional college-age students who are with us now," said Robert E. Wiltenburg, dean of University College, the extension school of Washington University in St. Louis.
Dean Wiltenburg said that the number of students in his undergraduate degree program tripled in the last five years, and that most students studying full-time were 25 or younger.
University of Phoenix, a continuing-education school with 176 campuses, last year dropped its rule that students be at least 22, and now 18-to-22-year-olds are nearly 10 percent of its 160,000 undergraduates.
At University of Maryland University College, a continuing-education school, students 25 and under seeking bachelor's degrees are the fastest-growing population, tripling to 4,200 in 2004 from 1,400 in 1997, said Mary Ellen Hrutka, dean of undergraduate studies.
"Faculty members are adjusting their pedagogy to reflect age diversity," Dean Hrutka said, including in her course on women in business, where all the students once had careers, but now several are too young.
The trend reflects the increasing number of students struggling to afford college, even as they realize it is increasingly necessary, experts say.
"The cost of college has risen, and the federal aid that is available has not kept up," said Kay J. Kohl, executive director of the University Continuing Education Association. "A large proportion of traditional-age college students come from low-income families or are basically debt averse."
The same impulse has more students attending community colleges for two years before switching to a four-year institution. The National Center for Education Statistics reported that in 2000 only 27 percent of students fit the traditional description of enrolling right after high school, attending full-time, being financially supported by parents and either not working or working part-time.
Extension schools, with evening and weekend classes, appeal especially to students who need jobs to afford college and whose income then disqualifies them for financial aid but is not enough for full tuition.
Harvard Extension School, with its mission of making a part of Harvard broadly accessible, is unusually inexpensive, charging about $550 per lecture course compared to about $4,000 per course at Harvard College.
Other recent high school graduates, as well as home-schooled students, are also pursuing bachelors degrees at Harvard extension. Jeanne Margaret Nurse, although largely an A student, did not even apply to Harvard's undergraduate program. One of 12 children, Ms. Nurse, 20, who went to high school in St. Louis, said her family's income was too high to qualify for financial aid but too low to afford a regular college.
And Chip Perro is thrilled with his extension school decision.
"I really wanted to go to a good school," said Mr. Perro, 21, from the Boston suburb of Natick, who failed to get into Harvard College or other top universities. "My degree will be a degree from Harvard University. Sounds pretty good to me."
Students have access to Harvard faculty, even Nobel laureates like Roy J. Glauber, a physicist who has taught extension classes. At least 52 of the 128 credits required for the extension bachelors degree must come from courses taught by Harvard instructors. And some courses are virtually identical to those at Harvard College, professors say.
Ms. Shortill, majoring in classics, is taking the course Ancient Christianity with Helmut Koester, who teaches the same course at Harvard College and Divinity School.
Ms. Nurse takes a course called Justice taught at Harvard College by Michael Sandel, a well-known political scientist. It is videotaped and is one of 75 courses offered online for extension students.
And Mr. Perro said he discovered that a high school classmate attending Harvard College "had one of the same instructors for an expository writing course."
Their instructor, Thomas A. Underwood, said the extension course "aspires to be the equivalent" of the college course. To get a bachelor's degree in either school, students must take that course and get a B minus.
The differences, professors say, come mainly from the students. The rigorous competition for getting into Harvard College make its students "almost like polished river stones," Dr. Underwood said.
Extension students are all ages and from all academic backgrounds, and many have jobs, marriages and children. There are no requirements to take extension courses; getting into the bachelor's degree program is permitted if students get at least a B minus in three extension courses, including expository writing.
"There's a much wider spectrum of good and not so good and poor students," Dr. Koester said.
But some professors say the real-world experiences of extension students make the classes less academic and more practical.
Greg Harris, a Harvard College preceptor teaching advanced fiction writing in the extension school, said that he started with an academic approach, but that some students said, " 'Get that stuff out of the way because I just want feedback on my writing.' "
What extension students do not get is the experience of living in college dorms, socializing routinely with others their age and having access to all libraries, dining halls and other facilities. They also do not get as much faculty advising.
For that reason, heads of some other continuing-education schools say younger students are a bad idea.
"We've in fact discouraged it," said Jay A. Halfond, dean of Metropolitan College, Boston University's continuing-education school. Metropolitan College used to have younger students, he said, but they "were more likely to have academic and disciplinary issues, issues of plagiarism, attendance and neglect, misbehavior of sorts."
He added, "I've spoken to parents about this: do you really want your child in school with 30-year-olds? Unless your child is very mature and independent and able to juggle commitments, it's not a good choice."
At Harvard, although extension students must maintain a C average and fulfill language, science and math requirements, they may deal with the perception that they are not full-fledged Harvard citizens."Some people are like, 'What are you exactly?' " Ms. Shortill said. "But some people are like, 'Oh my goodness, you can do that? Wow, that was really smart of you to figure that out.' "
Social life can be challenging too because most classmates are older and return home to families. But some students like the mix of ages, and that the evening classes allow daytime pursuits. And there is the diploma, a bachelors of liberal arts in extension from Harvard University (that other diploma says bachelors of arts from Harvard College).
Dr. Shinagel put it this way: "Let's say you're buying a Gucci handbag and you're going to pay a thousand dollars for it, and Gucci also puts out a line that doesn't call itself Gucci but is close in quality to a Gucci and you can get it for $50. That's what this is."
Not everyone buys that analogy.
"I think that's sort of going to Harvard the wrong way for the wrong reasons," Dr. Halfond said.
But on a résumé, most employers would probably not know the difference, he and others said.
Gail Kaplan, a legal recruiter in Boston, said: "If I were sending someone with a Harvard Extension School degree to a law firm in Boston, I know it would not get the same reaction as Yale or Harvard or Stanford or Princeton. But if I sent them to St. Louis or California, people wouldn't notice as much."
Dr. Shinagel said extension graduates had done illustrious things, including attending Harvard's medical and law schools.
Dr. Underwood said students getting bachelor's degrees from the extension school were "brilliantly milking the cow of Harvard University."
"If for some reason your finances or your SAT's wouldn't get you into the Ivy League," he said, "you could come and get a very similar experience and then have the Harvard name on your résumé. People say Harvard-trained, they don't say Bunker Hill Community College-trained."