Pretty Much The Only Thing I Learned From The Harvard Disaster

Over the past few weeks, readers have reached out to ask about the troubles at Harvard. Would I write about plagiarism? DEI? Political pressure on universities? But I like to zag rather than zig. When others were investing in OPMs and Chinese and Indian consumer edtech businesses, Achieve began buying staffing companies to hire, train, and place diverse candidates in good tech and healthcare jobs. I wrote a book about a dark, musty, and smelly corner of the education/workforce sector. And I just published an oddly popular article about how America’s single largest skill gap might be a technology that’s been around for nearly half a century.

More amusing, my penchant for orthogonal thinking is evident from the people I surround myself with. Last week I learned that my best friend – who prowls around Yelp as “Mudcat A.” – has developed a habit of concluding restaurant reviews in unorthodox ways. For example, his recent review of Lake Oswego, OR’s Café Marzocca:

We call it "The Zocc." And so should you. Every coffee drink. Every biscotti. Look at the wine. Meet the friendly customers. In summer, sit out under the firs. Get a big paint-by-numbers of a clown, unpack it at a table, paint that sucker right up.

And his review of Coffee Plus:

The coffee and food will make your tastebuds sing, and you're sure to leave with a smile on your face and warmth in your heart. Just be prepared for me to talk your ear off about my latest passion for painting clown paint-by-numbers - but don't say I didn't warn you!

So if you guessed that my response to the Harvard question was that I’d write about continuing education, you win; I’ll have my friend send you a paint-by-numbers clown.

Even if you didn’t win, hear me out. My take is rooted in a Twitter fracas between Harvard’s H.L. Jayne professor of government Jennifer Hochschild and Harvard antagonist Christopher Rufo. (By the way, for me it’s Twitter until the service no longer redirects to – and then probably for a few years after that.) Specifically, Hochschild accused Rufo of trying to pass himself off as a Harvard graduate despite the fact that his master’s degree is from Harvard’s Extension School.

First, some background on continuing education. For nearly 200 years, U.S. colleges and universities have provided occasional and part-time programs for their communities. Harvard was a pioneer, delivering free public lectures in the 19th century and establishing its extension school in 1910. Today, most large universities have continuing education divisions offering courses, certificates, and industry-recognized certifications. UPCEA – the association for professional, continuing, and online education – has 400 members.

While the goal might once have been access or to benefit the community, continuing education is now run as a profit center. In a recent UPCEA member survey, revenue generation dwarfed other objectives like advancing professional opportunities, providing access to underserved populations, and alumni engagement. UPCEA’s report quoted the Dean of UCLA Extension: “It can be a sensitive topic, but the reality is that most [continuing education] units are responsible for bringing revenue to the institution, increasingly at public universities and specifically where there’s been a decline in revenue from state or local government.” I once served on the advisory board of a flagship’s continuing education division. Each year they were handed an annual contribution target: profit continuing education was expected to contribute back to the core.

To attract students to these (primarily) non-credit courses, continuing education divisions trade off the parent brand – 70% of continuing education leaders say brand is their primary competitive tool – and go to great lengths to demonstrate they’re as much a part of the university as the history department. As usual, Harvard is an exemplar:

We Are Harvard… 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.

While Harvard Extension School doth protest too much, the approach works; brands attract students. Just look at the rapid growth of coding bootcamps that sold into continuing education to trade off university brands: Trilogy Education ( acquired five years ago by 2U) and FullStack Academy ( acquired a year ago by Simplilearn). In establishing a “school” – like the better known Business School, Law School, and Kennedy School – Harvard may be in the top tier of tricky. (The fact that the Extension School is part of the continuing education division is in the fine print – the same continuing education division running in social media with the slogan “Yes, that Harvard.”)


What do faculty really think of continuing education? Professor Hochschild offered a clue on January 3 when she took to Twitter to strike back at the conservative provocateur who helped take down her president:

How about also scrutinize websites and c.v.’s, e. g. Rufo’s? The Harvard extension school has wonderful students—I teach them—but it is, admirably, open admission. Not what people usually mean by “master’s degree from Harvard ,” which Rufo has claimed. Hound him out of office??

And she kept at it the next day:

On Rufo: what do integrity police say about his claim to have “master’s degree from Harvard,” which is actually from the open-enrollment Extension School? Those students are great - I teach them - but they are not the same as what we normally think of as Harvard graduate students.

As Hochschild went on to accuse Rufo of using “weasel words to try to attach himself to Ivy status and prestige,” her posts began to garner support from self-proclaimed “real” Harvard graduates who called the Extension School “a source of laughter and annoyance for students and alumni” because “no f***ing way should they get to say they are Harvard alumni.”

Now I’m no friend or fan of Chris Rufo. As far as I can tell, his one accomplishment is figuring out how to buy and use anti-plagiarism software (albeit likely demonstrating more technical agility than most faculty). But as he lit the plagiarism fuse back on December 10, Rufo acknowledged:

I earned a master’s degree from Harvard’s night school – not nearly as prestigious as the graduate school – but if I had committed these kinds of violations, I would have been expelled.

As this became apparent and thousands of Twitterians lit into Professor Hochschild, she tied herself in knots attempting to explain, likely setting a record for most consecutive backhanded compliments of continuing education students:

Extension school students are mostly smart, ambitious, hard working, thoughtful, sometimes very accomplished--but mostly striving for upward mobility without background that would get them admitted to what is usually understood as Hvd. grad school

I admire and respect the students and I love talking with them… My gripe is with people who try to pass themselves off as something they are not.

I don't get the point of all of this scolding of me. Rufo is the one being a snob, by obfuscating exactly which Harvard unit his master's degree comes from. If he were proud of it, wouldn't he say so explicitly?

Her comments roused the slumbering Harvard Extension Student Association, which last week told the Harvard Crimson it was “deeply concerned and disappointed by the recent comments.” In response, Hochschild managed to apologize without further insult, although disingenuously: “my point, which was clearly phrased badly in the original tweet, was that students should proudly state their HES degree.”

So here’s what we’ve learned. Professor Hochschild teaches Extension School students. She loves Extension School students… Some of her best friends are Extension School students!


Professor Hochschild is right in one respect: continuing education students are different. They’re almost always older. They’re also probably working. They almost certainly had fewer advantages than traditional Harvard students. Which means they probably worked harder and traveled a greater distance. And they’re less likely to be afflicted by a malady common to denizens of Harvard Yard: born on third base, think they hit a triple.

But Hochschild’s comments – described by one interlocutor as “dripping with elitism” – are symptomatic of a bigger problem: universities view non-degree pathways, non-traditional students, and apparently even non-traditional students in degree pathways, as inferior. As long as they do, they’re highly unlikely to lead the way on providing more realistic, accessible pathways to millions of Americans. That’ll be the province of new providers and intermediaries, and perhaps community colleges. But you can go ahead and rule out the four-year colleges and universities currently absorbing most students and public investment.

This explains why universities segregate continuing education. Despite OECD’s exhortation that continuing education should be "'fully integrated into institutional life,” the big ones are always separate. 60% of continuing education leaders say continuing education is “not well-integrated into the institutional portfolio of offerings.” Only a fraction of universities offer credit for continuing education programs with three-quarters reporting that the hurdle is “institutional barriers.”

Perhaps universities want to keep it small. More than half of continuing education leaders say they don’t have the budget or staff to execute on institutional goals. Small and highly selective (or in ASU president Mike Crow’s parlance, “highly rejective”) is synonymous with prestige – as opposed to, say, scale and scope of alumni network, or employers who hire graduates and interns. So in an irony that should not be lost on Professor Hochschild, it turns out that “the percentage of those who begin (take a class) and graduate with a degree (not a certificate, but a degree [from Harvard Extension School]) is less than 1%.”

What we know for certain is that continuing education wasn’t a pathway taken by Professor Hochschild or her colleagues. They went from high school to a four-year college – probably an elite one – to graduate school, to employment at a college or university – in Hochschild’s case, at Princeton, Columbia, Duke, and then Harvard. (If there was any private sector employment along the way, it was undoubtedly nasty, brutish, and short.) No one becomes an academic via continuing education. At best, they become an academic gadfly like Rufo.

Or maybe they teach an extension school course or two. Another casualty of keeping continuing education segregated and small is that these are the courses taught by industry practitioners, or at least instructors with relevant private sector experience. They’re more likely to deliver job-relevant courses and programs. They’re also more likely to be able to connect students to jobs. And that’s not negligible if we care about doing something about the precarious state of the American Dream.

Hochschild’s clumsy attack on Rufo is the perfect encapsulation of the higher education elitism Americans are fed up with. If universities continue to prioritize a narrow-minded, inside-baseball definition of prestige over their stated missions (Harvard College’s mission: “to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society”), things will continue to go south. Expect more anti-higher ed. action in Washington like December’s shockingly bipartisan House Committee vote eliminating federal financial aid for Harvard and its elite brethren in order to provide more funding for… you guessed it: continuing education. Because if this bill ever becomes law, it’s going to hurt Harvard more than Chris Rufo, Claudine Gay, or Jennifer Hochschild ever could. And then everyone in charge up there will look like a paint-by-numbers clown.