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Mastering an Undergrad Program

Brett Altschul

The Master of Engineering degree created by Provost Joel Moses and offered by several departments in the School of Engineering provides a great addition to the Institute's curriculum. The program offers many MIT undergraduates an opportunity to gain a higher level of undergraduate competency.

However, the way the Institute categorizes MEng students remains flawed. The MEng degree is, fundamentally, an extended undergraduate degree - not a graduate degree. MIT should stop pretending that these students are normal graduate students and treat them as members of the undergraduate population.

Some may argue that since the name of the degree includes the word "Master," the degree candidates must be graduate students, but this argument makes no sense. The use of that word only means that the degree requires more training and research than a Bachelor's degree in the same field.

A real graduate degree program recruits undergraduate students from other schools. The MEng program draws its applicants from the MIT undergraduate population.

The original MEng degree, in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, is even listed in the course catalog next to the department's undergraduate programs. Graduate programs are based primarily on individual research and developed uniquely for each student.

Admission to graduate programs is nearly always contingent on the student's successful graduation. A large number of MEng students don't complete their undergraduate work and receive their Bachelor's degrees after four years. Instead, they get the two degrees simultaneously. This shows that the MEng program is nothing more than an extended undergraduate program.

By calling these people graduate students, MIT tries to include them in the graduate student community. These students started as undergraduates here at MIT, and they developed friends and connections in that community. Then, for their last year, MIT moves them out of that community, both officially and physically - since many of them move to the Institute's graduate housing.

In fact, housing concerns represent the biggest reason for classifying the MEng students as undergraduates. Currently, MIT has significantly less graduate housing than it would like. Allowing MEng students to live in graduate housing forces MIT to deny rooms to many real graduate students.

First-year graduate students dominate graduate housing. After one year, many students must find apartments in the community. The rationale for this is that the students will have a much easier time finding place to live if they have year to familiarize themselves with the area. It also guarantees that the students have plenty of time to look for their housing.

To the registrar, all the MEng students are first-year graduate students. That means that many of them get into graduate housing. After one year, when other graduate students are finding housing elsewhere, the MEng students are leaving.

With a new undergraduate dormitory slated for construction, we could potentially find room for many MEng students in on-campus housing. MIT could then guarantee undergraduate housing for ten semesters for students admitted to the MEng program.

However, it's not really necessary to have dormitory spaces available for MEng students. Having been here for four years already, they are eminently qualified to find housing outside MIT. Seniors are at least as familiar with the community as first-year graduate students. If people want to remain at MIT for five years and get an extra degree, they can find housing off campus.

The MEng program offers many MIT students a useful opportunity and valuable additional training. However, the classification of these students as graduate students poses problems because it makes them part of a community to which they don't really belong. More importantly, it takes housing away from graduate students, for whom MIT already has insufficient housing. MEng students are genuinely undergraduates, and MIT should stop pretending otherwise.