The Back Door to Harvard

A good way to get into a selective school is by first taking a couple classes at Harvard.

Sound farfetched?  It isn’t. The Harvard University Extension School (HES)   is one of the 12 degree-granting schools of Harvard University, which offers open enrollment into courses across 60 fields and into professional certificate programs in five subjects including nanotechnology. In addition, HES offers associate, bachelor, or graduate degree programs for those more ambitious.

HES began as the Lowell Institute, which was established in 1839 to provide lectures for the masses.  A. Lawrence Lowell, who was the grandson of Lowell Institute’s founder, and was the president of Harvard, integrated the two in 1910, creating HES. James Hardy Ropes, HES’s first dean, soon thereafter set its mission statement: “to supply a thorough university training to those who have previously been denied one and supply it at a very low figure [cost].”

In contrast to the only other Ivy League extension programs at Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania, HES uses “the most experienced teachers that can be secured.’ This has included the preeminent economist John Kenneth Galbraith, and, during the mid-1980s, Roy Glauber, a future Nobel Prize winner in Physics, who taught the core curriculum Physics course to HES students (many of them high level high school students).  In essence, HES seeks to provide the same educational experience as a Harvard College class at about 15% the tuition.

Currently HES has over 13,000 students, 2000 of whom were admitted as degree candidates. Becoming a degree candidate involves completing three required admission courses (online or on campus). The first is EXPO E-25, an expository writing course. (Every Harvard undergraduate must complete an expository writing course during her freshman year—no exceptions). Then the candidate must pass two other HES or Harvard Summer School courses, all with at least a “B” or better. Once admitted, these courses count toward a degree. 35 is the average age of HES students but there are a number of students in their early teens along with a number well into their eighties. This disparity of six decades bodes well for diversity in the classroom or online.  

Once accepted into the degree program (either for the Associates in Arts (AA) or the Bachelor of Liberal Arts (ALB), tuition for each course is $1,020 to $1,200 per course. All told a 4-year bachelor’s degree costs around $35,000. Financial aid is available.  HES degree students must take a certain number of classes on campus (travel costs are extra) but as an HES degree student one can choose among 200 online courses, either asynchronous or via live web-conference courses, and has full privileges to Harvard’s libraries, facilities, museums, academic workshops, career services, athletic facilities, dining halls, and as a graduate is considered an alumnae of Harvard University. This is probably one of the best deals in higher education on the planet.

In 1980, HES established the ‘Health Careers Program’. To date, the program has sponsored over 1,000 students, many of whom join the program with limited science and mathematics backgrounds, for admission to medical school: more than 845, over 85%, gained admission. Some even gained admission to Harvard Medical School.

Again, HES is a good place to enhance an activity sheet by taking one of its hundreds of courses. Or it can be a separate path to gaining an AA, ALB (Bachelor of Liberal Arts) or an assortment of graduate degrees or a Career certificate. What enchants is that the HES program has the full unbridled support and resources of Harvard University behind it. This is not some extraneous extension of the university but a cooperative venture emphasizing and expecting excellence among all its students, and its results impressively speak for themselves.