MIT’s New Master’s Program Admits Students Without College and High School Degrees … and Helps Solve the World’s Most Pressing Problems

One of the cen­tral prob­lems of inequal­i­ty is that it per­pet­u­ates itself by nature. The inher­ent social cap­i­tal of those born in cer­tain places and class­es grants access to even more social cap­i­tal. Ques­tions of mer­it can seem mar­gin­al when the cre­den­tials required by elite insti­tu­tions prove inac­ces­si­ble to most peo­ple. In an admirable effort to break this cycle glob­al­ly, MIT is now admit­ting stu­dents to a grad­u­ate pro­gram in eco­nom­ics, with­out GRE scores, with­out let­ters of rec­om­men­da­tion, and with­out a col­lege degree.

Instead stu­dents begin with some­thing called a “Micro­Mas­ters” pro­gram, which is like “a method used in med­i­cine… ran­dom­ized con­trol tri­als,” reports WBUR. This entry­way removes many of the usu­al bar­ri­ers to access by allow­ing stu­dents to first “take rig­or­ous cours­es online for cred­it, and if they per­form well on exams, to apply for a master’s degree pro­gram on campus”—a degree in data, eco­nom­ics and devel­op­ment pol­i­cy (DEDP), which focus­es on meth­ods for reduc­ing glob­al inequal­i­ty.



Enroll­ment in the online Micro­Mas­ters cours­es began in Feb­ru­ary of last year (the next round starts on Feb­ru­ary 6, 2018), and the DEDP mas­ter’s pro­gram will start in 2019. “The world of devel­op­ment pol­i­cy has become more and more evi­dence-based over the past 10–15 years,” explains MIT pro­fes­sor of eco­nom­ics Ben Olken, who co-cre­at­ed the pro­gram with eco­nom­ics pro­fes­sors Esther Duflo and Abhi­jit Baner­jee. “Devel­op­ment prac­ti­tion­ers need to under­stand not just devel­op­ment issues, but how to ana­lyze them rig­or­ous­ly using data. This pro­gram is designed to help fill that gap.”

Duflo, co-founder of MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Pover­ty Action Lab (J‑PAL), explains the inno­va­tion of Micro­Mas­ters’ rad­i­cal­ly open admis­sions. (For any­one with access to the inter­net, that is, still a huge bar­ri­er for mil­lions world­wide): “Any­body could do that. At this point, you don’t need to have gone to col­lege. For that mat­ter, you don’t need to have gone to high school.” Stu­dents who are accept­ed after their ini­tial online course work will move into a “blend­ed” pro­gram that com­bines their pri­or work with a semes­ter on MIT’s cam­pus.

Micro­Mas­ters cours­es are priced on a slid­ing scale (from $100 to $1,000), accord­ing to what stu­dents can afford, and costs are nowhere near what tra­di­tion­al stu­dents pay—after hav­ing already paid, or tak­en loans, for a four-year degree, var­i­ous test­ing reg­i­mens, admis­sions costs, liv­ing expens­es, etc. The cur­rent pro­gram might fea­si­bly be scaled up to include oth­er fields in the future. Thus far, over 8,000 stu­dents in the world have enrolled in the Micro­Mas­ters pro­gram. “In total,” Duflo says, “there are 182 coun­tries rep­re­sent­ed,” includ­ing ten per­cent from Chi­na, a large group from India, and “even some from the U.S.”

Stu­dents enrolled in these cours­es design their own eval­u­a­tions of ini­tia­tives around the globe that address dis­par­i­ties in health­care, edu­ca­tion, and oth­er areas. Co-designed by the Pover­ty Action Lab and the Depart­ment of Eco­nom­ics, Micro­Mas­ters asks stu­dents to “grap­ple with some of the world’s most press­ing prob­lems,” includ­ing the prob­lem of access to high­er edu­ca­tion. You can view the require­ments and enroll at the MITx Micro­Mas­ters’ site. Read fre­quent­ly asked ques­tions and learn about the instruc­tors here. And here, lis­ten to WBUR’s short seg­ment on this fas­ci­nat­ing edu­ca­tion­al exper­i­ment.

Find more Micro­Mas­ters sub­jects in our col­lec­tion: Online Degrees & Mini Degrees: Explore Mas­ters, Mini Mas­ters, Bach­e­lors & Mini Bach­e­lors from Top Uni­ver­si­ties

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence: A Free Online Course from MIT

MIT Is Dig­i­tiz­ing a Huge Archive of Noam Chomsky’s Lec­tures, Papers and Oth­er Doc­u­ments & Will Put Them Online

Intro­duc­tion to Com­put­er Sci­ence and Pro­gram­ming: A Free Course from MIT 

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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