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Master’s without a bachelor’s? Now you can

Master’s without a bachelor’s? Now you can

In 1233 a papal bull decreed that anyone admitted to the mastership at the University of Toulouse should be allowed to teach freely in any other university. Ever since then it has been set in stone that the rite of passage into a master’s degree is a three or four-year undergraduate degree. Pretty much by definition, a master’s is a follow-on from a bachelor’s degree. Originally the master’s was a licence to teach, but the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw a huge expansion in the variety of master’s degrees and they became more oriented towards preparing to pursue professions in their subject areas.

In our current times of upheaval in education a lot of moulds are being broken, and the bachelor’s-to-master’s order of events is about to become one of them. Which institution is planning to undermine centuries of tradition? Some backwater college with an over-imaginative director of studies who likes to experiment? No, actually it’s MIT.

Under a new initiative, instead of needing a bachelor’s degree, students take a program of online courses set by MIT and delivered via EdX. If successful in the proctored exams that follow these courses, they receive an MITx MicroMasters credential which permits application for a full MIT master’s or master’s courses at several other universities. In theory, not even a high school education is required for entrance – but you’d have to be extraordinarily bright.

The online courses are free, but students pay a means-tested amount of between $100 and $1,000 to take the entrance exam. This is because the no-bachelor’s-required master’s is a product of MIT’s Poverty Action Lab, whose approach to reducing poverty includes giving simpler access to ‘postgraduate’ study to those whose backgrounds and circumstances might not permit the expensive luxury of a full four years at college.

The normal path into a master’s in the United States is via GREs (Graduate Record Examinations), a standardised test for admission to graduate school, plus an academic transcript and a letter of recommendation. The MITx MicroMasters route does not require GREs to be taken. Here’s why. Esther Duflo, co-founder of the Poverty Action Lab, says “The GRE is not very informative, because no one who comes to MIT doesn't have a near-perfect GRE anyways.” Furthermore, she adds, letters of recommendation mean little unless they come from institutions MIT is familiar with. “ … in practice, if you come from the University of the Middle of Nowhere, we have no way to judge the quality of your application, and therefore that creates a lot of barriers."

The first class of MicroMasters students received their credentials in June, and to date two programs have used the route: supply chain management and data, economics and development policy. 180,000 participated in the supply chain management program, 1,100 finished all the required online courses, and 600 passed the final exam to earn their MicroMasters. So, while academically rigorous and challenging, MIT’s initiative represents a democratisation of postgraduate education which could prove popular.