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February 15, 2017

(LA Johnson/NPR)

There's an experiment underway at a few top universities around the world to make some master's degrees out there more affordable.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, says the class of 2018 can get a master's degree in supply chain management with tens of thousands in savings. The university's normal price runs upwards of $67,000 for the current academic year. But it's not as simple as sending in a coupon with your tuition bill. There are big hurdles for students, and clear benefits for the universities.

It's called a MicroMasters and MIT, Columbia University, the University of Michigan and the Rochester Institute of Technology are among a dozen or so universities globally that are giving this online program a shot with courses like entrepreneurship, user interface design and artificial intelligence.

What's in it for students: New skills, lower cost

Meet Danaka Porter. She's a 31-year-old business consultant from Vancouver, British Columbia, and says a master's degree was exactly what she needed to boost her career.

"I found that people were a little bit more respected, I guess, once they had their master's," she says. "It was like they had taken that next step to go a little bit further."

But she couldn't afford to stop working and become a full-time student again. She owns a house and, "I have bills, and all of that stuff that doesn't stop because I wanted to go to school," she says.

When a friend told her that MIT was piloting its first partially online master's degree in supply chain management, she signed up.

The tuition for a year in the master's program costs $67,938. Her MicroMasters certification, though, is just $1,350.

It's called a MicroMasters because it isn't a full degree, just a step toward one, though Porter says the coursework is just as rigorous as if she were on MIT's campus in Cambridge.

"It requires a lot of effort, and if you don't have a background in math, engineering or supply chain it's not a breeze. Like, we do have people that fail," she says.

Even if students don't go for a full master's, the online coursework can make them more appealing to employers.

Industry leaders who say they can't find enough qualified candidates are looking for very specific skills like those offered through the MicroMasters. GE, Walmart, IBM and Volvo have recognized MicroMasters and are encouraging their employees and job applicants to take the courses.

edX CEO Anant Agarwal. (Kirk Carapezza/WGBH)

What's in it for schools: Filtering the very best applicants

Back to Danaka Proter, even if she passes the certification, she'll still need to complete a semester on campus at full cost if she wants to finish her graduate degree. It's part of what MIT calls the "blended" program — online and on-campus.

Getting accepted is no easy task. MIT says it expects to admit 40 students a year into the blended program and admissions officers at MIT say they'll weigh applicants' performance in these online courses before admitting them.

"When you get applications from people all over the world, it's often a crap-shoot," says Anant Agarwal, an MIT professor and CEO of the online-learning platform edX, which makes these online courses possible. "You don't know the veracity of the recommendation letters or the grades. And so you're taking a bet very often."

And Agarwal says that should give MIT and other institutions a better sense of how students will perform — if they're lucky enough to get in.

WGBH's Lydia Emmanouilidou and Dina Kleiner contributed to this report.

This story originally aired on WGBH in November, 2016.

confronting cost, new business models, increasing access and success

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