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