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MIT introduced a pilot program Wednesday in which professionals can receive a master’s degree in supply chain management (SCM) by taking the online equivalent of a semester’s worth of classes and following it up with a semester on campus.

The hybrid model includes a new academic credential, called a MicroMaster’s, that students will receive after completing the online classes and passing a comprehensive exam. The MicroMaster’s has no admissions process and is awarded solely based upon students’ online performance.

Each of the five MITx courses in the program will cost $150 if students pursue the MicroMaster’s credential. They will be free, however, for those who just want to learn the curriculum.

Students who choose to pursue a full master’s degree will then be able to use their MicroMaster’s credential to strongly supplement their application, and upon acceptance, will only need to study on MIT’s campus for a semester before receiving their degree.

The first MITx course begins on Feb. 10, 2016. The inaugural class of online students is expected to arrive on campus in 2017 or 2018, depending on when the final courses in the online sequence are released.

“Inverted admissions” process

MIT is calling this new paradigm an “inverted admissions” process since students will have the opportunity to demonstrate their performance in the subject material before even applying.

Professor Yossi Sheffi, the head of the SCM master’s degree program, compared these “performance-based admissions” to the current model, in which students are assessed based on short, one-time tests like the GRE. He said that performance-based admissions will offer a long-term view of the SCM master’s candidates’ qualifications and will even allow MIT to connect with them as they’re taking online classes.

When asked if an online component would water down an MIT degree, MIT President L. Rafael Reif said he thought it would rather “democratize the access to MIT” without diminishing the quality of a degree. Many people are qualified to be here, he said, and MIT’s hope is to allow more of them to come to the school to learn.

While many foreign students who receive a MicroMaster’s may not be able to afford to come to MIT for a semester, Sheffi mentioned the possibility that MIT would identify students excelling in its online classes and connect them with partner companies. The companies could then choose to hire the students and fund the rest of their SCM master’s degrees. Sheffi said this could be beneficial to companies that are looking to expand their businesses into countries where the students come from.

The idea behind MicroMaster’s

The pilot program is looking to accept 30 to 40 students with the MicroMaster’s each semester to add to the roughly 40 students that participate in the traditional, 10-month SCM program on campus each year, thus tripling the number of students.

This increase in size was a response to the primary complaint of SCM’s 50 partner companies, who wish more of their employees could go through the program, said Sheffi. SCM has already partnered with universities in other countries to offer dual degree programs where students split their time between campuses. The new pilot extends that model online.

The development of the MicroMaster’s and hybrid program was also spurred by a report released August 2014 by the Task Force on the Future of MIT Education. Reif, who initiated the task force, said the ideas were “in the air” before that, but that the task force formalized them.

Also involved in the conception of the program were faculty members such as Chris Caplice, who started teaching a series of supply chain classes on MITx last fall.

Costs of the degree

In addition to paying $150 to receive a certificate for each of the five online courses, students will pay somewhere between $400 and $800 for a comprehensive, proctored exam. If accepted to the SCM pilot program on campus, these students will pay at least half of the the $65k annual tuition that traditional students currently pay. Sheffi noted that they still have to conduct market research before any of the exact prices are determined.

Ultimately, Reif said that he’d like the pilot program “to find a way to break even” so that it is sustainable.

Looking forward

While MIT has shown eagerness in bringing its curriculum, and now credentials, online, it has no desire to offer a completely online degree, Sheffi said. While many parts of an education can be learned online, he said, things like “dealing with people, leadership, communication” still need to be done in close proximity to professors and other students. The hybrid model allows for both types of learning to take place while also letting more students receive an MIT education.

MIT is using this pilot program as a means to test inverted admissions for the first time. “If it works well, and the quality is there,” Reif said, “chances are it’s going to continue.” Although the pilot is limited to SCM for now, Reif left open the possibility that it could spread to other parts of MIT. “It’s a matter of who wants to do it,” he said.