Extension schools. You might’ve seen the ads: plastering the train, shouting from the back of the newspaper, scrolling across website ad banners. Online options! Flexibility for working professionals! Ivy-league education in the evenings! Many universities offer individual courses, certificates, and even full graduate degrees through these programs. But are they right for you?
There are certain biases against continuing education in some professional and academic circles, and it’s important to weigh how extension degrees are perceived by those in your field of interest. However, after talking with several people in my field of interest about what sort of extension courses would be valuable, I decided to pursue my master’s degree at an extension school. And I’m not alone—continuing education enrollment, whether it’s for full degrees, certificate programs, or individual courses, is at an all-time high. Here’s why.
Getting into a great program is a priority, but by the time most of us are ready to pursue graduate study, it’s not our only priority. The aim of continuing education is to make school possible for those with work or family commitments, and accordingly, courses are scheduled more flexibly. Many schools offer evening, weekend, or short-term courses; others offer online options, including both interactive courses and those that allow you to view lectures on your own time. I work full time while taking courses part time, and let’s be honest: going from work to an evening class more than once a week is way too much sitting down for me. Luckily, my program allows for a mix of online and on-campus study. I can view lectures on the weekends so I have time for other important things—workouts, downtime, nights out with friends—during the week.
Degree and certificate requirements and application
The majority of students enroll in just one or two extension courses; however, certain schools also offer in-depth certificates or degrees. Extension degree programs at top-tier schools usually have a considerably less intensive application process than the graduate schools at those universities, with more of a focus on life experience than grades. You will have to work just as hard to earn the degree, but there is a potential to bypass the incredibly selective application system. This levels the playing field for those who have the skills to succeed but might have trouble getting accepted due to previous school performance or life circumstances.
Hey naysayers, here’s a secret: the extension courses in Ivy-league or other top-tier schools are often the same as those taken by their “real” graduate students. Many offer the same curriculum as day students follow, and online courses offered through continuing education are often just videotaped day classes. Even in cases where extension course offerings differ from courses offered in other schools within the university, many are taught by the same professors. I have worked closely with brilliant and well-known scholars in my field, often following the exact same curriculum and reading schedules as enrolled students. Some continuing education programs also offer full access to libraries and student resources.
Graduate programs themselves attract people from all walks of life, and the flexible nature of continuing education draws an even more diverse crowd. Additionally, because extension schools allow students to choose and pay for single courses directly, the students in each course tend to be genuinely interested in working with faculty, networking with classmates, and applying what they learn outside of class. This provides an interesting opportunity to meet all types of people, as well as a chance to network with people who are successful in various ways outside of the classroom. It also ensures rich class discussion. I took an extension course on religion and literature, and learned much more than I would have had I not been surrounded by those genuinely interested in literature, gender studies, philosophy, and religion; those with a cross-section of religious preferences ranging from orthodox to atheist; and those whose professions ran from small business owner to freelance writer to pastor.
In its quest to be accessible to all, continuing education courses are often offered at a fraction of the cost of regular tuition. If the extension school you’re interested in offers graduate degrees, you can most likely earn one for about a quarter of the price you would normally pay. And it goes without saying that there are many more job opportunities open to those who attend school in the evening or online. Keeping your current 9-to-5 while in school means having a safety net when you graduate—not to mention keeping your salary instead of forgoing during graduate school. If your current job offers tuition reimbursement, even better. I’m timing my degree so that my workplace will cover the majority of my costs, and my books cost more than my tuition last year.
Every person’s road to a graduate degree is different, but we’re all looking for an excellent, flexible, and affordable program that will allow us the networking and educational opportunities essential for professional growth. While an unorthodox—and often misunderstood—way to get there, extension schools can offer a flexible, cost-efficient way to get a top-notch education. Don’t skip over them in your search for a graduate program!