Here are some of the questions I’ve received from readers about online degrees. Most of these were prompted by my post about getting my masters degree from Harvard’s Extension School.
So would you recommend the Harvard Extension School program?
Yes. If they have a degree that fits your needs and you can meet the residency requirement, the Harvard Extension School offers some of the best value in education that I’m aware of. Be aware that some of the students who are full time on campus have a negative view of the Extension School students. One of the main complaints I’ve heard is that it is too easy to get into the Extension School. Some students feels that their acceptance into Harvard validates their importance. The Extension School policy of letting everyone try to take some classes and then admitting students who prove they can handle the course work, seems a bit too open.
Personally I think the idea of admittance based solely on performance is probably the fairest way of handling admission to a degree program. The only reason I see for not doing that is if having large numbers of people taking introductory classes would somehow bring down the quality of the class. Interestingly this seems to be less of an issue with online classes than in-person classes. With Internet classes, one slow student can’t monopolize the classroom lecture. They may take more of the teaching fellow’s time, but since most communication is done over email, there tends to be an upper limit to this.
Also, most forms of financial aid aren’t available until after you’ve been admitted to the program so most students have a huge financial investment in the first classes. If they can’t make the cut, they are likely to drop out in the first few weeks while they can still get their money back.
Since you’ve done both an online masters degree and a go-to-the-university masters degree, which did you feel was more difficult?
Thats a bit difficult to judge. My first master’s degree was in music composition–something I had been studying for years. The online degree program through Harvard was focused on software engineering–something I had some experience in, but not nearly the same level of academic background. So it is difficult to compare them directly. As far as the classroom experience, I find sitting in a physical class with other students much easier than attending a lecture online. There is a certain amount of social momentum in a classroom that is hard to duplicate online. It is nice to be able to rewind a lecture if you miss something, but that still isn’t as useful as comparing notes with another student or asking the teacher a question after class.
I’m in highschool and I’m starting to try to select a college to attend. What do you think about going to an online school like what you did for a bachelors degree?
There are a lot of things you will learn outside the classroom by physically going to college for four years. I wouldn’t recommend getting your first college degree online. When I was in my mid 20s, I noticed that I could talk to someone for 5 or 10 minutes and generally tell if they went to college or not. At first I thought it was their academic experience, but looking back I think it had more to do with the social skills they picked up from attending a four year school and interacting with all the other students and teachers. These experiences are very valuable and I’d recommend not missing out on them if you can help it.
Have you ever had an employer not accept your online degree?
I’ve owned my own company since before finishing my degree from the Harvard Extension School, so this hasn’t been an issue. However, if you are looking at an online degree program, this is one of the reasons I’d recommend going to a school with an established long running reputation. By long running, I’m talking about something that can be measured in centuries. You don’t want to get an online degree from a school that has only been around for 15 years and has a reputation as “one of those online schools”. You want a degree from a school that people have heard of well before the Internet came around. It isn’t that internet only schools are never good, you just run a greater risk that they may do something to damage their reputation down the road. This is particularly true of for-profit online colleges.
Does your degree from Harvard say something like “online degree” on it?
When I first applied for the program I asked about this and I was told that, “you get the same diploma as anyone graduating from Harvard.” It is the same diploma, but it says “Studiorum Prolatorum” which basically translates into “in extension” or “of extended studies” right under the name of the degree. Harvard diplomas are in Latin anyway, so it isn’t like people are going to be able to read anything more than your name.
That said, if you are trying to hide the fact that you took classes online, you are doing something wrong. Getting an online degree takes a great deal of discipline and you should be proud of that. An online degree gives you experience of working with distributed teams–a reality in modern work environments. Often an online degree will give you the ability to gain on the job experience that you wouldn’t have obtained otherwise. If you go to a good university, the fact you took classes online should make you more desirable–not less. (I’m specifically talking about Master’s degrees here. I don’t think online schools are a good option for your first college degree as I mentioned above.)
What’s kind of funny about this question, is that I have never had to show my diplomas to anyone. I take that back, I did have to send copies to my auto insurance years ago because in my early twenties, there was a small discount for someone with a graduate degree. I’ve never had to show any type of diploma for a job. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. There are probably employers out there that ask for it. I just don’t know anyone who had to show a diploma for a job–if they wanted to see proof of schooling they would probably want transcripts to see your grades.
The only place I’ve heard of someone showing a diploma to get a job was Frank Abagnale when he forged a diploma from Harvard Medical School. Even then I think I may be remembering something from the movie–not his actual story.
Are online degrees worth anything?
We’ll obviously I think so, but asking “are online degrees worth anything?” is kind of like saying “is a blue car reliable?” It depends. Where is the car from and who is driving it? Are online degrees worth anything? Where is the degree from and who is getting it? The piece of paper you get when you graduate can’t do anything for an employer. It is the person who holds the degree and two people can have the same piece of paper but have very different skill sets.
Going to college is a way to help increase your skills and your employability. Simply attending classes isn’t going to automatically make you valuable. Simple getting a degree (online or not) isn’t going to immediately make you worth more. In this respect online degrees are no different than any other type of degree. And just alike any other type of degree there are schools that have poor reputations and schools that have good reputations. The nice thing about getting an online degree is that you aren’t limited to the schools that happen to be nearby–you can choose the one that has the best reputation for what you are wanting to accomplish.
What was the hardest part of getting your degree online. Specifically what did you find was more difficult with an online degree than your other graduate degree?
My online degree was in information technology–focused on software engineering. My other master’s degree was in music composition. It is a bit hard to compare the two because they are very different fields and I already had a bachelor’s degree in music.
For me the hardest part of an online degree was sitting down and paying attention. Fortunately the lectures were interesting and I had great teachers. If the teachers have of been boring or if I had of been taking classes without video lectures where I just had to read the textbook and other material, I would have been much worse. As I’ve mentioned the classroom camaraderie of an online degree doesn’t happen automatically and I didn’t really seek out other people who were going through the program until the end of my studies. As I was working on my thesis, I found some people who were a bit ahead of me on completing theirs and asked for any advice they had. It was incredibly refreshing to just talk to someone else who was going through the same difficulties I was. I should have started this early on and tried to keep in contact with people through the degree program. The problem with online degrees is that not everyone progresses at the same pace and if you want to develop relationships with people you have to really seek them out.
In talking to some of the teachers and advisors, it sounded like a lot of people really struggled with the writing aspect of the coursework. When I was working on my thesis proposal, my advisor told me that I seemed to be having a much easier time because writing came easy for me. I thought this was kind of strange, but evidently I was submitting a proposal, getting feedback, making the changes, submitting the corrected version and I was good to go, while other people were going through 5 to 10 revisions.
It sounds like a lot of people get through all the coursework, but then get stuck on the writing part of their thesis and never finish the program. Personally I think writing regularly for Productivity501 has been a huge benefit to me because I’m very accustomed to getting thoughts from my head out and into the computer. So starting a blog might be a good way to prepare for getting a graduate degree.
I’m not sure that online degrees are more difficult from the writing standpoint, but I do know that the support you get when physically working with your thesis director and thesis advisor is much greater in person than via email. Based on that, someone without good writing skills may want to do their thesis in person, or at least plan on making several trips to their school to work with their advisor and director during the thesis process.
The program I completed came out with a new option right as I was starting my thesis that would replace the thesis with a capstone course. I didn’t do this, but it looked like it might be something that was created in response to the difficulties people were having completing their thesis when they were doing most of their work online.
jackson rodgers says
Online education can be great for some, especially if you have a full time job, young kids in the house, or other things that make it difficult driving to a campus somewhere. The convenience factor makes it very attractive. I agree that you want to make sure the program fits your needs.
There are some downsides, too. Cost is usually higher. It is also harder to network with your classmates and to make contacts.
You’re right about the difficulty of both the courses (proseminar in particular) and thesis. The attrition rate in the Extension School is pretty bad. A lot of people don’t make it.
But Harvard Extension is giving you the real thing. They work you pretty hard, but, as you say, it’s easily the best value in online education. Don’t forget those minimum residency requirements for degrees!
Mark Shead says
The attrition rate is high because they let pretty much everyone try. They keep the standards high, but don’t prejudge through admissions who can give it a shot and who can’t.
Hi Mark, thanks a lot. I wonder if you applied for any financial aid, because you didn’t mention that. I’m an international student and I need financial aids. Did you meet any international student in this program? How did they work on this?
Mark Shead says
I did not apply for financial aid. I think you can apply for normal federal programs like Pell grants once you are accepted into the program which doesn’t happen until you’ve completed three courses. I don’t think the Extension School itself has any type of scholarship programs, but I could be wrong. You might check to see what financial aid is available from your country.
Thanks Mark. I viewed their webpage and I found some financial aid programs available both pre-admission and after admission. However I think I’d better save enough money before I take up this program. Oh, perhaps I should go get a loan?