Josh Kaufman

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Hacking Higher Education, Part 2 - Hacking Harvard

This post is a follow-up to Hacking Higher Education, Part 1: How to Obtain an Accredited Undergraduate Degree in 1 Year for $4,000.

“There is always better way – find it."

The Hacker Ethos

In Part 1 of this series, I showed you how to get an accredited degree in one year for $4,000. While testing out of undergrad via CLEP exams is certainly a viable option, many people have doubts about the “pedigree" of such a credential, and are concerned how it would be received by hiring managers. If you value the status and prestige of an Ivy League degree but don’t want to play the admissions game and pay retail prices, this post is for you.

A degree from Harvard University is one of the most prestigious credentials money can buy. Unfortunately, Harvard is also one of the most expensive universities in the world. If you want to earn a degree from Harvard without mortgaging the next 30 years of your future earnings, matriculating with students going through the traditional program isn’t going to cut it… assuming you’re able to get accepted in the first place.

Fortunately, there’s a little-known way to get into Harvard without applying that also reduces the total cost of obtaining a Harvard diploma by more than 75%. Here’s how.

Welcome to the Harvard Extension School

Believe it or not, there’s a little-known back door to getting a Harvard degree: the Harvard Extension School. Designed as a continuing education program for adults, the Harvard Extension School is a degree-granting program within Harvard University designed to meet the needs of non-traditional students.

All you need to do to become a student at the Harvard Extension School is pay a course fee and show up. There’s no SAT or ACT requirement, no admissions process, and no up-front bureaucracy. Each class at the extension school costs approximately $1,000, and anyone can sign up. Many courses are offered both in-person and online.

If you’re able to complete 3 Extension School courses with a GPA of at least 2.5, you’ll be able to petition for acceptance to the degree program. The admissions criteria are straightforward: if you meet them, you’re in. Going through the Extension School is trial by fire: if you can prove that you’re up to the challenge by excelling in actual coursework, you’ll be accepted. In my opinion, that’s a much better approach than sweating bullets for 13 years fine-tuning your resume to beat hundreds of thousands of competing students in the standard Harvard admissions gauntlet.

Is it really the same?

The diploma that you receive upon graduation is issued by Harvard University, and there is absolutely no difference in the quality of the courses. The curriculum is the same , the requirements for graduation are the same , and the courses are taught by the same professors. You’ll also have the same perks: a student ID that gives you access to Harvard libraries, museums, and events, as well as access to the Student Employment Office , Career Services , and other Harvard student programs and services.

You’ll also have the same benefits of the Harvard reputation “halo" and network. If you want, you can rent an apartment in Cambridge and hobnob with other Harvard students - after all, you’ll be one. If you don’t want to live in Boston, you can take courses online as long as you complete the 16-hour residency requirement before you graduate, which can be done in a single summer. When you graduate, you’ll be a member of both the Harvard Extension Alumni Association as well as the regular Harvard Alumni Association , which provides access to a vast network of previous graduates.

All of the Benefits, Higher ROI

The total cost of an undergraduate program at the Harvard Extension School is ~$35,000-$40,000. For perspective, the cost of one year of Harvard College’s “normal" bachelors program is $33,696 for academic year 2009-2010. Assuming it takes four years to complete the program, attending the Extension School allows you to get essentially the same degree at~25% of the retail price. According to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities , the average tuition for private universities in 2008-2009 was $25,143, and costs are rising dramatically, so this option blows away every other private alternative by offering more benefits for 1/3 of the price.

That’s just considering the undergraduate program - Harvard Extension School also offers Masters and Professional degree programs (including a Management/MBA program ), with similar cost/benefit characteristics.

If you’re going to go to college, be a smart student - find a better way to get what you need, and never pay retail. I have no plans to pursue a masters or professional degree, but if I went that route, this would be the program I enroll in. If you’re looking to obtain your undergraduate, masters, or professional credential from a top-tier college, Harvard Extension School may allow you to get a top-notch private Ivy League degree at a public university price.

Posts in the “Hacking Higher Education" series…

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