Among Harvard undergraduates, the open-enrollment Harvard Extension School – whose continuing education program offers a Harvard diploma, of sorts, to anyone willing to pay a modest fee – maintains a faintly sketchy reputation, and not without reason.
A homeless man who attempted, with some success, to take up residence in my freshman dorm was a part-time Extension School student; so was my notorious "classmate," Ed Meinert, an ambitious George Washington University dropout who posed as an undergraduate and conned several campus organizations into allowing him to join up. At a school where students are encouraged to think of themselves as deserving members of the world's most exclusive club, the Extension Schoolers are the gate-crashers – frustrated Cambridge housewives picking up ancient Greek in their spare time; disheveled autodidacts with an unhealthy Harvard obsession.
Or at least so we always thought. But then last week, the New York Times profiled the new breed of Extensionistas – not the balding weirdos who play chess in Harvard Square and clutch dog-eared copies of Gravity's Rainbow, but relatively normal college-age kids who could have been admitted to a "real" school, but decided instead to pick up a Harvard diploma on the cheap. They're experiencing a version of college without dorms or advisers, in which they watch lectures online and take classes at night – and they might be pointing the way to a better, more democratic approach to higher education.
Obviously, Ivy League Extension Schools aren't a magic-bullet solution to the biggest challenge facing the American meritocracy – namely, that a system intended to produce equality of opportunity is functioning more and more like the class-bound system of advancement it was intended to replace. But they're part of a larger boom in continuing education, distance-learning, and for-profit schools, all of which offer affordable ladders upward for those Americans who grow up outside the posh, U.S. News-obsessed circles of the upper-middle-class.
It's a boom, unfortunately, whose lessons haven't yet been absorbed by most of the people who think deep thoughts about the future of higher education. These thinkers tend to focus on the concerns of the best and the brightest, and understandably so: Whether you're convening a panel of experts to discuss the fate of the liberals arts curriculum (as Slate did last week), or publishing a memoir of your bright college years, it's much more interesting to ponder the ideal college curriculum, or pontificate about how Harvard and Yale should go about forming their students' characters, than to worry about what's happening at the bottom of the higher-ed ladder, in the regional state schools and the community colleges and for-profit academies like Strayer and the University of Phoenix.
And when higher-ed watchers do get around to the innovation going on below the U.S. News radar, they usually recoil in horror at the grubbiness of it all – and particularly at the cost-cutting tactics of the for-profit education sector, which serves low-income students but does so with a bottom-line mentality that's alien to the way that most educated people think, or like to think, about the ideal of a college education. So it was unsurprising to find, in Slate's "College Week," Anya Kamenetz offering the liberal case against the for-profit school – that "the prevalence of fraud, waste, and abuse in these schools from their origins down to the present day is a clear signal that turning a profit, not serving students, is their top priority," and that "when students equal revenue, the pressure is on to pack them in and charge them as much as the market will bear."