Harvard Extension School

Harvard Extension School: The Backdoor to the Ivy League?

Harvard Extension School is the mostly online way to gain access to the illustrious Harvard brand. We all know that the cost of college is becoming untenable and the chances of getting into Harvard the normal way hover around 4.5% (of highly qualified applicants). But what about the mostly online programs geared towards working professionals? Are they as competitive, expensive or prestigious?

Harvard is aware of their reputation as one of the premier higher education institutions in the world. They are likely also aware that this reputation is largely founded on their history, the achievements of their professors and alumni, exclusivity and branding, rather than some superior ability to educate. The quality of an undergraduate education at Harvard is probably on par with many of the top 100+ schools. Many of my professors at the University of Colorado and Denver University were graduates of elite institutions. I’ve also audited Harvard courses both on campus and through recorded lectures. I found that the differences between their curricula and the ones I undertook were largely insignificant.

So if Harvard doesn’t really offer an impossible-to-replicate level of education, is their value a result of excellent branding? The Harvard brand is clearly one of the most important factors for applicants. Students are undoubtedly attracted to the weight and influence of the Harvard name. Ivy league schools are known for their ability to provide valuable networking opportunities and forge careers. But what do employers think of the mostly online version of a Harvard degree?

Harvard Extension School’s Reputation

This article covers the reputation of the Harvard Extension School (HES) among hiring managers and students and is mostly positive about the value of HES degrees. However, the post is not without some controversy. Some of the most interesting content actually appears in the comments section:

Here’s the key: if you want to attend Harvard to improve yourself, don’t spend time thinking about it, just GET IT DONE… Don’t worry about how people regard the Extension School – instead, spend that time making yourself better through education.


I have had all my classes taught by established Harvard Professors…am happy to tell people I am a student at the extension school. I choose the extension school because I am getting a great education at a reasonable price.

Margaret Sombric

Hold up everyone.
Guys… anyone who is yapping about HES not being the “real” Harvard is a joke. The School of Continuing Studies is ONE OF HARVARD UNIVERSITY’s TWELVE SCHOOLS. All of my HES classes have required on-campus components as well.


It seems that whether or not HES provides a degree that is as valuable as one from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences degree (GSAS) is debatable. But that’s really not what we’re concerned with here. Its not as if we could just quit our jobs and attempt to attend Harvard as full-time students. We are simply considering whether the online degree has the ability to move the needle.

According to the above-referenced article it does! Moreover HES graduates typically come with years of professional experience, adding to their cachet and perhaps making them as valuable to prospective employers as freshly minted Harvard MA applicants with no experience.

If I had to hire one of two applicants for my accounting firm and one said hire me because I got good grades in high school and was active in the community (real Harvard applicant), and the other said I have years of experience in accounting and will work for three months to prove myself to you and if you don’t like what you see I will leave (HES applicant) I would hire the latter.

Why? Simple, the latter has shown they can complete a course of study, are working to better themselves and have decided to take on a great amount of additional responsibility.


Most of the negative responses to HES, are reactions to graduates misrepresenting their degrees as GSAS degrees. However, if a student lists their HES degree as ALM (Master of Liberal Arts), the only degree offered by the Harvard Extension School, there is really no possibility of resume misrepresentation.

HES Statistics

From this data we begin to picture what a typical HES finance applicant might look like. He (66% are males) is a mid-level finance professional with several years of work experience, looking to advance to the next level of his career. The majority of students enrolled in HES finance program are between 26 and 34, have 5 to 10 years of full-time work experience (54% are already working in finance) and 59% don’t live in Massachusetts. Most students take only 1 course per semester and the average time to graduate is 3 years.

How to Get into Harvard Extension School and Earn a Degree

Here I will focus on earning a finance degree, however, most of the programs have similar requirements.

  • Step 1: Review your eligibility
    Harvard requires that you have previously earned a four-year U.S. bachelor’s degree (or foreign equivalent) and that you do not already have a graduate degree in a similar field.
  • Step 2: Complete the reading and writing skills test
    This assessment helps determine whether an applicant has the basic skills necessary to be successful in the program and must be taken before submitting an application. The requirement can also be met by passing a business rhetoric course, Expo 34, with a “B” or better. Expo 34 can also be used as one of the four electives you can choose from as part of the twelve course degree requirements.
  • Step 3: Pass (with a “B” or better) three courses
    For a finance degree completion of the following courses is required before applying:
    • Microeconomics or economics of business course
    • Principles or managerial finance course
    • Statistics course
  • Step 4: On-Campus Experience
    I have been referring to HES as a mostly online path because there is an on-campus requirement. The Finance graduate program requires that two of the total twelve required courses meet the on-campus requirement. An applicant may enroll in courses that combine weekly online classes over a semester with an intensive weekend on campus. That means you can fulfill the on-campus requirement in two weekends over the course of your degree.

    There are other ways to meet this requirement as well.
    For instance, if an student has a GPA of 3.5 or higher, he or she may apply to participate in a week-long, on-campus Executive Education program to earn an additional Harvard credential and get the on-campus requirement waived.

The Cost and Value of the HES Degree

For 2020 the HES graduate program tuition cost is $2,840 per course. With 12 courses needed to graduate, and considering travel costs to meet the on-campus requirement, the total tuition amounts to roughly $35,000. Harvard does offer typical financial aid options once an applicant is admitted to the program, however, asking your employer to cover some of the bill may be ideal for those who are employed full-time.

Final Considerations

Harvard Extension School provides considerable value to working professionals looking to increase their expertise and career options. The price tag is comparable to other graduate programs and if your employer covers even 50% of the expenses you could get a master’s degree for just over $17,000. HES provides a relatively straightforward and achievable route to getting a degree with Harvard’s logo on it.

Further, it would feel amazing to be on-campus among some of the top minds in the world. For people like me who didn’t have the grades to get into a top ten school but developed discipline later in life, Harvard Extension School provides something of a second chance to be a part of the world’s elite, if only a small part.

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