“I really enjoyed the opportunity to meet students from other Schools and to hear perspectives that are not grounded in health care,” said Harvard graduate student Jessica Walradt, who is taking classes at the Harvard School of Public Health, Kennedy School, and Graduate School of Design.

Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

The growth of cross-registering

6 min read

Harvard sees 30 percent rise in grad students taking courses in allied Schools

At the start of fall, Jessica Walradt boarded the Harvard shuttle from the Longwood area to attend classes at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) and the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD). A student of public health, Walradt had spent her summer interning at the White House in the Medicaid branch, and she was curious about affordable housing and federal government programs.

“During my internship, I learned that an inadequate supply of affordable housing presented the primary obstacle to individuals receiving long-term services,” said Walradt, who is pursuing a master of science in health policy and management at the Harvard School of Public Health. “I felt it would be beneficial to learn more about the housing system in order to better approach the intersection of these issues in the future.”

She enrolled in “Housing Delivery Systems,” taught by Jim Stockard, and “The Business-Government Relationship,” taught by Roger Porter. Discussing her experience cross-registering courses, she said, “I really enjoyed the opportunity to meet students from other Schools and to hear perspectives that are not grounded in health care.”

Waldradt is hardly alone in venturing to other Schools. In the past four years, there’s been a 30 percent increase in the number of Harvard students cross-registering.

According to Michael Burke, registrar at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, there are two explanations for the upward trend: There is a greater interest in interdisciplinary studies, and the enrollment process has become much easier.

“It used to be a paper-based process, where you had to walk around and get a faculty signature and bring it to your host School. It was a really daunting process,” Burke said. “Now, it’s completely online for all Harvard students. You simply go to the course website. The rest is done through back-end process.”

Many of Harvard’s graduate Schools adjusted their calendars a few years ago so that winter and spring breaks better aligned. The calendar reform made it easier for students to take courses at other Schools, since they didn’t have to forfeit a spring break under mismatched schedules.

In the coming years, cross-registration will be streamlined for registrar’s offices too, as technicians are working on a system in which grades and student information are transferred more fluidly. Right now, a lot of information continues to be transferred manually, which takes time and manpower. The cross-registration process still requires some determination and motivation on the part of students. Not only do they have to familiarize themselves with a new campus and course structures, there’s also a degree of adaptation to new styles of classroom learning.

“It was somewhat intimidating at first,” said David Garfunkel, a second-year policy student at the Kennedy School who enrolled in “Business at the Base of the Pyramid” at Harvard Business School (HBS). “It takes a few classes to understand how to properly prepare for class and draw out relevant insights from the cases and other students’ comments. [The challenge] is compounded by the fact that you are in a class full of second-year M.B.A.s who … to a large extent, speak a business language that is not necessarily familiar.

“All that said,” Garfunkel added, “I found the challenge to be very rewarding. I would echo the advice of students that had come before me: Cross-register; you won’t regret it.”

According to Burke, who went back through old catalogs, students were cross-registering between the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) and the professional Schools as far back as 1890. Cross-registration has taken on new meaning today as more students look to supplement their studies with salient courses from other fields.

“There’s a lot more interest in interdisciplinary study,” Burke said. “We see students who are studying economics but want some management expertise or want some public service expertise. In general, more and more students are coming through here who are looking to augment their education.”

For Rebecca Lebowitz, a doctoral student at the Graduate School of Education (HGSE), signing up for a course at the Kennedy School was an opportunity to hear perspectives from those outside the education world.

“It’s easy to get caught in your personal, narrow area of focus, and cross-registering gave me the chance to expand my horizons and perspective,” she said. “In most fields, we work with all types of people, so it was important to me to learn among people with different focuses.”

She enrolled in “Public Narrative,” taught by Marshall Ganz. Reflecting on the experience, she said, “It’s funny that the Schools [HGSE and HKS] are just across the Square from one another, and they’re so different … In the end, I expanded my perspective on education, what students look like, what teaching looks like, and the University and world in which I am getting my degree.”

But cross-registration isn’t for everyone, especially those in a one-year program or those with a heavily structured core curriculum. Joann Wilson-Singleton, the registrar at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), said, “Cross-registration is challenged by the fact that many programs are only one year. There are a lot of core requirements, with very little flexibility. That’s our biggest limitation. In exit surveys, students say that they wish they had more room in their schedule.”

Yet, for those with flexibility in course requirements, venturing to other Schools not only can add a new dimension to a graduate experience, it can help with career transitions, said Peter Harrington, a policy student at the Kennedy School who is looking to work in the private sector upon graduation. Many students find that adding courses to their resume from another of Harvard’s 12 graduate Schools can give them an edge in rebranding themselves for a career shift.

Harrington’s advice on cross-registration? “Do it, but do your homework first.”

“Don’t just cross-register for the sake of it. Have a clear objective in mind, and research thoroughly before committing. Talk to people who have taken it, shop it, and then, if it’s the right one for you, do everything you can to increase your chances of getting in.”