Hisayoshi Osawa—Getty Images
By Martha C. White
September 21, 2016

Both the idea of free college education and the need to recalibrate the American workforce’s skill set have been popular talking points on the presidential campaign trail, but the biggest step taken so far might be an initiative the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is spearheading in conjunction with 13 other schools.

The gist: Students can take online classes for free, pay a fraction of what tuition would ordinarily cost in order to get a certificate, and get an advantage if and when they do apply for a traditional degree.

Dubbed “MicroMasters,” the MIT-led program offers about a quarter of the graduate-level classes a student would need to get his or her master’s in supply-chain management—a field said to be facing a shortage of qualified workers—according to Bloomberg.

After completing the work successfully, a student can pay $1,000 to get a certificate of completion. From there, they can use that certificate to bolster their resume or their application for a traditional master’s degree.

Experts say this could be a breakthrough because MIT and the other schools rolling out similar graduate degree on-ramp programs have excellent academic reputations. For instance, Columbia University has a program in artificial intelligence; the Rochester Institute of Technology has one in project management; and Harvard University is said to be looking into its own offering, Bloomberg said. MIT and Harvard collaborated on the edX online learning platform that powers the MicroMasters program.

The other advantage, of course, is that students wouldn’t have to commit upfront to thousands of dollars in student loan debt before beginning to learn, and would be able to stop short of earning their master’s with a certification that could still help them advance their careers.

 

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