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About two years ago, my classmates and I gathered in Harvard Yard to receive our graduate degrees alongside more than 7,000 of the university's newest alumni. As the procession made its way to our designated seating area, an onlooker eyed our banner with a puzzled look and asked the guy in front of me, “What in the world is the Extension School?”
My classmate’s reply: “It’s the back door into Harvard.” Ouch.
I often felt the same way – that I’d snuck into one of the world’s premier institutions for higher learning. There is little chance that my slightly-above-average undergraduate GPA and an extra-curricular résumé that only consisted of a part-time job at a music store would’ve secured a spot for me in one of Harvard’s ultra-competitive graduate schools. Yet, with no admission letter in hand and exactly zero hours spent preparing for graduate admissions tests, I became a Harvard student.
And I was not alone. The Extension School – Harvard’s degree-granting continuing education school – has a student population of more than 13,000. In fact, almost all of the Ivy League schools offer courses to “nontraditional students,” which the National Center for Education Statistics considers to be those who are older than typical college graduates, work full-time, or are financially independent and may have family dependents.
These continuing-education programs at Ivy League schools are not new creations; they’ve been around for over a century. They were established to engage the local community, further the education of university staff and their family members, and provide new skills to working adults. Their open enrollment and lower tuition rates have long made them appealing to such students. The reduced cost is in keeping with tradition. In the definitive book on HES, The Gates Unbarred. the former Dean of Harvard’s Division of Continuing Education Michael Shinagel describes the early days when courses were free to the indigent and only cost two bushels of wheat for those who could afford it.
Today, three Ivy schools--Columbia, Harvard, and University of Pennsylvania--offer undergraduate and graduate degrees that are obtained largely through evening, weekend, or online classes, making them more accessible to nontraditional students. Admission, however, is not open to anyone and an application process is required, including the familiar admission rites of essays, recommendation letters, and transcripts.
Though I was officially a Harvard student by simply registering online for classes, I was not yet a candidate for the master’s of liberal arts. To gain admission as a degree candidate to HES, the primary requirement is to complete three courses--including an incredibly difficult “gatekeeper” course--and obtain at least a B grade in each of them. Upon completion and submission of the application, I was officially a graduate-level International Relations concentrator. At about $2,000 a course, the total cost of the degree requirements--36 credit hours and thesis--cost me less than $25,000 total. (The cost of a two-year master's degree at Harvard's Kennedy School, in contrast, would have been more than $90,000.)
At HES, of the 13,000 students, only about 2,000 are admitted degree candidates, and the school confers about 600 bachelor’s and master’s degree every year. Shinagel notes that of all the students that have taken courses at HES since its inception, less than one fifth of 1 percent have graduated with degrees. As it turns out, Harvard is hard.
After earning my undergraduate degree as a traditional student, I went off to the Navy and accepted a commission to become an officer. Ten years into my career, I found myself staring at another promotion board, but not having the graduate degree that many of my peers earned in military colleges. In this regard, HES was a godsend. Twice a week for the next three years, I’d wrap up a full day of work at the naval base and make the 100-mile roundtrip to Cambridge to learn from Harvard’s professors. And when this wasn’t possible, I took the courses online for credit.
The advent of broadband Internet has changed the reach and nature of continuing education. A recent study by the Sloan Consortium found that nearly a third of all higher-education students had taken at least one class online during the 2011 fall semester alone. It also found that 62.4 percent of the colleges in the study offered degrees that could be obtained entirely online, up from 32.5 percent ten years ago.
Perhaps the most surprising finding, however, was that though online enrollment is rapidly increasing, the study surveyed chief academic officers and they report that more and more of their faculty do not accept the value and legitimacy of online education. Certainly an argument can be made about the value of classroom learning over online delivery. But there is no debating the stigma attached to allowing students to earn credits from a university without ever stepping foot on campus. This is something that has not gone unnoticed by HES, which is why it mandates in-person attendance for a certain number of courses for admission and degree-seeking students.
Today, views on online continuing education programs have been commandeered by the rise of for-profit universities. These institutions’ business, academic, and student welfare practices are increasingly being questioned. A Senate report found that though these schools received $32 billion federal student aid, their tuitions are still relatively high and they spend less of those dollars on student instruction. Graduation rates are extremely low and student loan default exceptionally high .
These perceptions of online education contribute to a narrative that says these programs are an easy way to earn to a degree. This is particularly unnerving to Ivy League institutions and an anathema to their prestige. And, unfortunately, sometimes its students walk in with guilty consciences, especially when, like me, they probably would not have gained admission in the more traditional way.
But walking through Harvard Yard on the way to debate issues with some of the best minds in the world does much to strengthen one’s sense of belonging. The miles on my car, train tickets, late nights reading countless academic journals and writing papers, and the nine months working on my thesis with a world-renowned political science professor are proof that there was no shortcut to earning my graduate degree.
All who apply themselves can walk proudly out of the gates with a prestigious diploma in hand. This is exactly what Harvard allowed me to do. The school even provided a few stalks of wheat to carry during the procession as a reminder of HES’s founding mission and as confirmation that I did indeed belong.
As stars avoid inauguration bookings, the president-elect tries to divide America’s population from its popular culture.
The Celebrity Apprentice president’s latest PR problem is celebrities. For weeks, reports have indicated that his inauguration team has had trouble booking any star performers: “They are willing to pay anything,” one talent representative reportedly told TheWrap after being approached by Trump’s people. The president-elect’s camp have denied that’s the case, but Elton John, Celine Dion, and KISS are among those who’ve publicly rejected rumors that they’d play the swearing-in celebrations; right now, the confirmed lineup of recognizable performers is the 16-year-old America’s Got Talent contestant Jackie Evancho, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and the Rockettes.
Last night, Trump seemed to confirm Hollywood and he weren’t making nice, tweeting. “The so-called ‘A’ list celebrities are all wanting tixs to the inauguration, but look what they did for Hillary, NOTHING. I want the PEOPLE!” It was a remark that flipped the publicized dynamic (Trump’s team approaching A-listers got swiveled the other way around) for a mix of self-congratulation and insults—a familiar maneuver by now. But the tweet also, tellingly, attempted to draw a dividing line between “the PEOPLE” and the entertainment world, making for his latest divide-and-conquer attempt against American popular culture.
A history of the first African American White House—and of what came next
In the waning days of President Barack Obama’s administration, he and his wife, Michelle, hosted a farewell party, the full import of which no one could then grasp. It was late October, Friday the 21st, and the president had spent many of the previous weeks, as he would spend the two subsequent weeks, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. Things were looking up. Polls in the crucial states of Virginia and Pennsylvania showed Clinton with solid advantages. The formidable GOP strongholds of Georgia and Texas were said to be under threat. The moment seemed to buoy Obama. He had been light on his feet in these last few weeks, cracking jokes at the expense of Republican opponents and laughing off hecklers. At a rally in Orlando on October 28, he greeted a student who would be introducing him by dancing toward her and then noting that the song playing over the loudspeakers—the Gap Band’s “Outstanding”—was older than she was.
The country’s first black president never pursued policies bold enough to close the racial wealth gap.
Over the next few weeks, The Atlantic will be publishing a series of responses to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s story "My President Was Black ." Readers are invited to send their own responses to firstname.lastname@example.org. and we will post a sample of your feedback. You can read other responses to the story from Atlantic readers and contributors here .
Born in 1953, I am a child of the waning years of legal segregation in the United States. My parents, on the other hand, spent about 40 years of their lives under Jim Crow, and all of my grandparents lived most of their lives under official American apartheid. At the time of Barack Obama’s election to the presidency in 2008, my mother and all four of my grandparents were deceased. But my father was alive and well—and absolutely thrilled to have lived to see the election of a black man as president of the United States. Usually deeply cynical about American politics and politicians, my dad could not comprehend my deep reservations about Barack Obama’s leadership. Indeed, he viewed any criticism of Obama as bringing aid and comfort to white supremacists.
Science can’t prove it and the industry denies it, but Gary Taubes is convinced that the sweet stuff kills.
“I hope that when you have read this book I shall have convinced you that sugar is really dangerous,” wrote John Yudkin in his foghorn-sounding treatise on nutrition from 1972, Pure, White and Deadly. Sugar’s rapid rise to prominence in the Western diet, starting in the mid-19th century, had coincided with a sudden outbreak of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Yudkin, one of the United Kingdom’s most prominent nutritionists at the time, believed that one had caused the other.
Then, as now, there was no decisive test of his idea—no perfect way to make the case that sugar kills. It’s practically impossible to run randomized, controlled experiments on human diets over many years, so the brief against sugar, like the case against any other single foodstuff, must be drawn from less reliable forms of testimony: long-term correlations, animal experiments, evolutionary claims, and expert judgments. In Pure, White and Deadly. Yudkin offered all of these as “circumstantial evidence rather than absolute proof” of his assertion. But so many suspicious facts had already accumulated by 1972, he claimed, that it would be foolish to ignore them. Even based on circumstantial evidence, readers should be convinced “beyond reasonable doubt” of sugar’s crime against humanity.
The main source of meaning in American life is a meritocratic competition that makes those who struggle feel inferior.
What is happening to America’s white working class?
The group’s important, and perhaps decisive. role in this year’s presidential election sparked a slew of commentary focused on, on the one hand, its nativism, racism, and sexism. and, on the other, its various economic woes . While there are no simple explanations for the desperation and anger visible in many predominantly white working-class communities, perhaps the most astute and original diagnosis came from the rabbi and activist Michael Lerner, who, in assessing Donald Trump’s victory, looked from a broader vantage point than most. Underneath the populist ire, he wrote. was a suffering “rooted in the hidden injuries of class and in the spiritual crisis that the global competitive marketplace generates.”
The lonely poverty of America’s white working class
For the last several months, social scientists have been debating the striking findings of a study by the economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton.* Between 1998 and 2013, Case and Deaton argue, white Americans across multiple age groups experienced large spikes in suicide and fatalities related to alcohol and drug abuse—spikes that were so large that, for whites aged 45 to 54, they overwhelmed the dependable modern trend of steadily improving life expectancy. While critics have challenged the magnitude and timing of the rise in middle-age deaths (particularly for men ), they and the study’s authors alike seem to agree on some basic points: Problems of mental health and addiction have taken a terrible toll on whites in America—though seemingly not in other wealthy nations—and the least educated among them have fared the worst.
The fourth in a series of conversations between the president and Ta-Nehisi Coates
In “My President Was Black ,” The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates examined Barack Obama’s tenure in office, and his legacy. The story was built, in part, around a series of conversations he had with the president. This is a transcript of the final of those four encounters, which took place by phone after the election, on November 17, 2016. You can find the other interviews, as well as responses to the story and to these conversations, here .
Obama: Well, I’m doing fine. I’m in Germany, so this is how I roll this week, I guess. I guess I’ve got some business back home in between doing my business out here.
The Atlantic ’s editors and writers share their favorite titles—new, classic, or somewhere in between—from a year of reading.
Roadside Picnic is a book about aliens in which no aliens appear. Rather, one character hypothesizes, aliens seemed to have zipped carelessly around Earth and strewed it with trash—like roadside picnickers leaving behind wrappers and empty bottles. The scientists, smugglers, and other profiteers so drawn to these alien objects are but ants crawling through the picnic crumbs. Is this a book that makes you contemplate the smallness of humans? Absolutely. Don’t be fooled by the seemingly breezy title. Roadside Picnic was first written in Russian in 1972, and it is the very loose inspiration for the movie Stalker. An afterward to the 2012 English translation describes Soviet efforts to censor the book, which seems somehow newly relevant in America.
In addition to its holiday cheesiness and religious moralizing, the 1946 classic touches on financial themes that remain painfully relevant.
Seventy years after its release, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life remains a holiday classic, with warm and fuzzy messages about the importance of love and family. But the movie’s plot also touches on some still-relevant financial topics, including the nature of banking, the philosophical calculus behind issuing loans, and the way American families’ financial fates are intertwined (and, we swear, we aren’t just saying that because we both happen to report on business and economics at The Atlantic ).
The film’s protagonist, George Bailey, gives up his dreams of traveling the world to run Bailey Building and Loan, a small community bank with a mortgage business. But all is not well in Bedford Falls. The decisions of the well-intentioned Bailey as he faces an unfortunate deposit-envelope mix-up and tries to fend off an aggressive tycoon make for a clear-cut narrative set piece, but also, whether Capra intended to or not, make the movie financially instructive all these years later.
Berlin suspect shot dead, Libyan plane hijacked, and more from the United States and around the world.
—The manhunt to find the suspect in the Berlin Christmas market attack ended Friday, after the Tunisian man was killed in a shootout with Milan police. More here
—A Libyan plane carrying 118 people was hijacked Friday and diverted to Malta. The two hijackers on board have released at least 65 passengers, but are threatening to blow up the plane with hand grenades. More here
—We’re live-blogging the news stories of the day below. All updates are in Eastern Standard Time (GMT -5).
In a short animation, Barack Obama speaks with Ta-Nehisi Coates about his road to the White House.
From a moral standpoint, it makes the world worse.
A short film on the popular American sport, and why it deserves a better reputation