Harvard Extension Fraud

How dare people who paid for a cut-rate degree claim they paid for the good one?

When I saw the TNR headline “Christopher Rufo Claims a Degree from ‘Harvard.’ Umm … Not Quite” via memeorandum, I had a hunch as to the meaning of the scare quotes. It was right.

On paper, Christopher Rufo, the conservative activist who recently was appointed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to sit on the board of a small Sarasota liberal arts college whose curriculum the governor dislikes, presents his credentials as impeccable: Georgetown University for undergrad and “a master’s from Harvard,” according to his biographical page on the Manhattan Institute’s website.

But that description, and similar ones on Wikipedia, in the press release DeSantis’s office sent out, and on Rufo’s personal website, are at the very least misleading. Rufo received a Master’s in Liberal Arts in Journalism not from Harvard University but from Harvard Extension School in 2022, the school confirmed in an email to The New Republic. Harvard Extension School, in a nutshell, is part of the renowned institution, but it is not Harvard as most people know it (a Harvard student once joked that it’s the “back door” to Harvard). The school describes itself as an “open-enrollment institution prioritizing access, equity, and transparency.” Eligibility for the school is, according to its website, “largely based on your performance in up to three requisite Extension degree courses, depending on your field, that you must complete with distinction.” High school grades and SAT and ACT scores aren’t required at the institution.

Rufo, in an email, disagreed that there was any difference between Harvard Extension School and any other school. He said he was unaware of any debate over whether HES should be referred to differently than any other graduate degree from Harvard. 

Harvard Extension School is meant to be a way for a larger swath of people to gain access to Harvard and receive some kind of accreditation from it. Access to the school is not entirely a given. According to a Business Insider article, “students are required to achieve a B minimum grade in two prerequisite courses before they’re officially enrolled in a program.” But that is not the same as the exclusivity of the undergraduate school at Harvard University. For the class of 2026, there were over 60,000 applications for the undergraduate school. Less than 2,000 were admitted, and only 36 were admitted from the waiting list. Acceptance rates are very low and tuition rates are higher at other Harvard graduate schools that are really what a person is supposed to be referring to when he puts “Harvard” on his resume.

At the same time, an accreditation from Harvard Extension School isn’t as misleading as other Harvard programs. Mina Chang, a former State Department official during the Trump administration, said she was an alumna of Harvard which, in a way, was true. But Chang was a graduate of the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School where the only requirement for admission is $82,000. Graduates of that seven-week program receive an accreditation. That’s different than the actual Harvard Business School Master’s degree.

In explaining that a Harvard Extension School degree is different than a normal master’s degree from Harvard, Kevin Carey, a policy analyst at New America who specializes in education, pointed to the HES description on its website that “Harvard Extension School courses are accepted toward degrees at most colleges and universities.” However, he continued, “Do you know who doesn’t accept HES credits? Harvard College, i.e., the undergraduate institution that everyone in the world thinks of when you say ‘Harvard.’”

So, I’m no fan of Rufo, whose primary claim to fame is having popularized “critical race theory” and turned it into a bogeyman leveraged by the populist right. Further, he’s clearly doing what he’s being accused of doing: conveying the impression that he got a prestigious graduate degree when he got one they’ll sell to anybody.

At the same time, the real fraud here is on Harvard’s part, not Rufo’s. Harvard, like many other Ivies, is cynically cheapening its own brand by offering mass-market degrees without either the up-front selectivity or the teaching of its world-class on-campus faculty.

But, as the article rightly notes, they don’t themselves consider it a real Harvard degree. If you look at the program’s website, they’re clearly marketing to people who aren’t Harvard quality:

Think you’re more than a test score or a ten-year-old undergraduate GPA? We do too. We don’t evaluate your past, but your current academic ability, curiosity, and drive to succeed in Harvard rigor courses.

After you confirm your initial eligibility, you complete two or three required courses from the program curriculum, earning at least a grade of B in each to showcase your academic talent, then you apply.

That’s right! You have to pay for two or three courses before you can even apply for the program! But you only have to “earn” a B, the lowest grade awarded in graduate courses, to qualify. Phew.

If you look at the list of Graduate Degree Programs, you’ll see things like Anthropology and Archaeology Master’s Degree Program, Creative Writing and Literature Master’s Degree Program, Data Science Master’s Degree Program, Government Master’s Degree Program, Software Engineering Master’s Degree Program, and so forth. Which the astute among you will immediately recognize as really unusual phrasing! You have to click on the program details to see that what they actually award is a “Master of Liberal Arts (ALM) in Extension Studies, field: Museum Studies.” (And, in what world are Data Science and Software Engineering liberal arts?!)

Furthermore, the name of the field isn’t even on the diplomas! They just issue a generic Master of Liberal Arts (ALM) in Extension Studies diploma.

Still, they insist, it’s a real Harvard degree!

We are a fully accredited Harvard school. Our degrees and certificates are adorned with the Harvard University insignia. They carry the weight of that lineage. Our graduates walk at University Commencement and become members of the Harvard Alumni Association.

At the same time, they really, really want HES alumni to make it clear that they didn’t go to Harvard Harvard.

A lot of people do not make it clear that they attended the Extension School, and instead list “Harvard University” on their resumes, either in a misguided justification to hide the Extension School affiliation, or an outright misleading attempt to make it seem as if they graduated from Harvard College, the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), or the Harvard Business School.

Because that would be wrong!

I got a chuckle out of this video from the HES site

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TYw6DVBEO7I&t=1s

especially the part where they note that their shield has VERITAS (truth!) written in big letters just like all of the other Harvard colleges and schools.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Modulo Myself says:

    It’s like buying a fake family crest. Nothing wrong with that, but the impression tends to backfire when you encounter people with real family crests who can spot the difference.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Modulo Myself: Sure. But, again, this would be like the House of Lords selling lordships and then getting snippy when people started calling themselves Lord.

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  3. Modulo Myself says:

    @James Joyner:

    Oh yeah, Harvard is definitely cashing in on the name. Things are tight when your endowment is only around 50 billion or so.

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  4. CSK says:

    The dead giveaway is that “real” Harvard doesn’t award any kind of degree in journalism.

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  5. MarkedMan says:

    This is tangential but another indicator of a problem at Harvard: their medical advice site is crap, more of a collection of low value boilerplate mixed in with a heaping dose of quackery and scams. If you want a serious site associated with a private institution, go to Mayo Clinic or Cleveland Clinic, but avoid Harvard.

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  6. Mimai says:

    These extension programs are cash cows for the university. As are certificate programs and the like.

    Not only do students/alumni use them as an opportunity to (deceptively) status signal, but faculty do too. “I’ve taught at [Harvard/Chicago/Berkeley/etc].”

    I’ve occasionally fantasized about asking something along the lines of the following when interviewing candidates (faculty, trainees, employees): “Of all the items, credentials, etc on your CV, which gives the falsest impression?”

    That question pulls for lots of interesting info, not just the obvious. The primary downside — and it is a big one — is that it’s rather confronting and obnoxious. Hmmm…

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  7. Modulo Myself says:

    I’m curious about how many of these degrees are sold online to students to India and China.

  8. The test is pretty simple: if you put “Harvard Extension School” on your cv instead of “Harvard” people know it’s not the same thing. And, further, the fact that people like Rufo want to leave off the “Extension School” part underscores that he knows it as well.

    The part that really gets me about this kind of behavior from people like Rufo (and DeSantis by extension) is that they want to denigrate American higher education but they also desperately want to draw as much prestige as they can from, you guessed it, American higher ed.

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  9. CSK says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    Trump does the same thing. He never misses an opportunity to tell us he was “a top student” (wrong) at a top Ivy.

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  10. JohnMc says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: It’s interesting the proliferation of Ivy credentials among the RW elected ones. Sort of a back door tribute to… something.

  11. Crusty Dem says:

    So if I start “Harvard Community College”, in Harvard, IL and start conferring online degrees for big fees (our motto is “ Veritas”, I would get sued, but Harvard can do it themselves without issue. I really don’t understand having that cache (and $50 billion endowment) and risking devaluation over a few bucks.

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  12. Just nutha says:

    @Crusty Dem: There’s no particular risk involved. “Anybody who matters” will either know or be able to find out by asking.

    A high school in my town used to do the same trick. It had an elite program, a standard curriculum, and an attendance certificate that it awarded at the time graduation from it was different from graduation from the school for the mill kids. People who needed to know the difference between the diplomas (colleges, employers, etc.) got the key–the color of ink the school’s name was printed in. The “red, blue, white” code was on the transcripts, too.

  13. Franklin says:

    (And, in what world are Data Science and Software Engineering liberal arts?!)

    There’s a lot of overlap between “software engineering” and “computer science,” and the latter is often a part of a university’s liberal arts program. It’s almost a continuum, with “computer engineering” degrees focusing mostly on hardware, and being taught in the engineering program, all the way to computer science which focuses on software. There are degrees in between – I have a computer science engineering degree, and studied both.

  14. gVOR08 says:

    @Crusty Dem:

    I really don’t understand having that cache (and $50 billion endowment) and risking devaluation over a few bucks.

    Cashing in on the brand by putting it on cheaper products is a tried and true business strategy. It’s common enough I believe the business schools have a technical term for it – “pissing in the soup”.

  15. Raoul says:

    What I get out of this story is that Harvard and Rufo are both frauds.

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  16. Gromitt Gunn says:

    [Caveat: I’m not disagreeing with anything anyone is saying here.]

    Just wanted to point out that Harvard Extension isn’t anything new. My mom took courses at Harvard Extension when she was in her 20s, back in the 1960s. It has always been their community education wing, and has been around for more than a century. I find this controversy interesting because I grew up just outside Boston, and have always both known about Harvard Extension and also that it is not “real Harvard.”

  17. James Joyner says:

    @Gromitt Gunn:

    My mom took courses at Harvard Extension when she was in her 20s, back in the 1960s. It has always been their community education wing, and has been around for more than a century.

    Yes but—crucially—it has become something else. Its origins were altruistic: giving a little bit of Harvard back to the community. And it persisted in that mission for most of its existence. I’m not sure exactly when it started offering these dubious masters programs but it’s now very far from its benevolent roots.