C&B Notes

Democratizing Admittance

The more information a school can gather about applicants, the better the admissions department can assess fit for a particular program.  It also removes the necessity to rely on shortcuts — GRE scores, schools attended, etc. — that may or may not be the best indicators of ability or preparedness.  Education will continue to be disrupted in any number of ways.

A pioneering master’s degree program at MIT is about to change the way graduate students are admitted and how much they pay.  Right now, MIT selects most graduate students pretty much the same way other universities do: Students usually have to have a college degree.  They have to take standardized tests, like the GRE.  They must send letters of recommendation and submit their earlier grades.  Esther Duflo thinks MIT can find a better way.

“The GRE is not very informative, because no one who comes to MIT doesn’t have a near-perfect GRE anyways,” Duflo says.  Letters of recommendation, Duflo adds, are only useful if they come from people and universities that MIT faculty are familiar with.  “So, 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 Poverty Action Lab, officially known as the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, or J-PAL, is testing more than 800 programs around the world.  And now it’s part of a bold experiment by MIT: to allow students to take rigorous courses online for credit, and if they perform well on exams, to apply for a master’s degree program on campus.  “Anybody could do that,” Duflo says.  “At this point, you don’t need to have gone to college.  For that matter, you don’t need to have gone to high school.”

The master’s program is in data, economics and development policy.  Duflo says with the knowledge gained in the program, students should be able to run their own evaluation projects.  They would know that most imaginative, well-thought-out programs fail, and therefore they have to be tested in the field — and they would have the tools to do that testing.

More than 8,000 students around the world have enrolled online.  “So many countries,” Duflo says.  “Ten percent of the students are from China, and then there is a big group of them from India.  In total, there are 182 countries represented as part of the program, even some from the U.S.”

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Students take five online courses for free.  They pay only to take the final exam for each class, from $100 to $1,000 depending on their income.  Once they’ve completed the online courses, students can apply to the on-campus master’s program.  Students are admitted based on their performance in the online courses.  If accepted, students would spend about six months on campus: a spring semester and a summer semester.  They would be required to complete a capstone project involving a field experiment with randomized evaluation, which could be with their current employer.  They would also write a master’s thesis.


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