When Is a Person Taking Classes at Harvard Not Considered a ‘Harvard Student?’

–Graphic by Eric Silva/Boston.com

Being called a “Harvard student’’ is about more than taking courses at Harvard University.

Last week, we covered the story of a 26-year-old Boston man who allegedly went on a naked rampage at Logan Airport. The man, Cameron Shenk, was identified by his lawyer as a financial planner and a student studying economics at Harvard Extension School. As such, we identified him as a “Harvard student’’ in our headline.

In almost every measurable way, the Harvard Extension School is part of Harvard University. The Extension School is an accredited insitution and “one of 13 degree-granting institutions at Harvard University,’’ its site explains. Its students — 14,000 annually, a Harvard spokesperson said — can take classes on Harvard’s campus or online. Classes are taught by Ph.D professors and experts in their field. Those that take enough classes and gain enough credits are awarded Harvard degrees at commencement ceremonies by the University president.

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Still, Boston.com commenters said calling Shenk a “Harvard student’’ was misleading and sensationalist. “The Extension School = not the real Harvard,’’ sums up the overriding opinion. There’s a bit of jumping through hoops when Harvardians are asked to define how exactly the students at the two schools are different.

“I guess it depends how you define the term Harvard student,’’ Hanel Baveja, a freshman at Harvard College, said when asked if Extension School students counted as Harvard students. “I would say that they’re someone who takes classes at Harvard.’’

Annika Nielsen, a senior at Harvard, used less semantics.

“I would consider people who go there to be Harvard students,’’ she said. “It’s valid.’’

Extension School classes are open to everyone — “no application required,’’ the site says. Therein lies the major difference.

Calling yourself a Harvard student comes with a set of assumptions: you scored well on the SATs, kept up a top GPA, led some extra-curriculars, wrote a grammatically correct and interesting essay, and maybe even had a parent attend.

Extension School students don’t need any of these qualifications; they just need an interest to learn and some money to spend. Most are not trying to get a degree. “Many simply enroll in a course or two to gain the knowledge or skills they need for their current career or for personal enrichment,’’ a Harvard spokesperson said. That makes some difference in determining the ‘Harvard student’ definition.

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“I would categorize a Harvard student as someone who gets a degree from the University,’’ Baveja said, “so I guess in that sense I wouldn’t necessarily categorize [an Extension School attendee] as a ‘Harvard student.’ ’’

But in some ways being accepted into Harvard is as important as graduating. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, two wildly successful Harvard dropouts, are often noted as former students. They didn’t graduate, but can readily be called former “Harvard students.’’

The case of Tyra Banks is the other side of this issue. In 2012, Banks told anyone and everyone she graduated from Harvard Business School, posing for pictures with her supposed diploma. But as Jezebel reported, she in fact graduated from the Owner/President Management Program at Harvard, a non-degree-granting certificate course at Harvard.

Banks was not a “Harvard student,’’ but a person taking classes at Harvard’s campus. But you can see how that got confused in shorthand.

All of this is to say that dropping the “H-bomb’’ in conversation (or article headlines) is fraught with the expectations and stereotypes we have about the school. Attending Harvard University provides an identity. Taking classes at Harvard Extension School, however, may lead to an identity crisis.

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