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New at MIT: Learn First, Pay Later (or Never)

And then? Apply—ahead of the pack—if you feel like it. It’s the ‘MicroMasters,’ and here’s how it works.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and 13 other schools said they would offer online graduate-level courses for free, open to all. Students who finish the program, dubbed the "MicroMasters," and pass the final exams can get certificates of completion for about $1,000. If they want to go still further, they'll have a leg up in applying for regular admission to complete a full-fledged degree.

In short: Learn now, apply later. 

The MicroMasters, which MIT offers for supply chain management, covers about a quarter of the material in a typical master's degree program and involves subjects in critically short supply in the workplace. The certificates are likely to carry weight with employers because of the quality of the universities standing behind them.

Among them, Columbia University is offering artificial intelligence; the Rochester Institute of Technology, project management; and the University of Michigan, user-experience research and design. Wal-Mart Stores gave MIT's certificate a strong endorsement in a statement on the launch, calling it "a powerful way for people to learn the important skills required to be successful."

The universities can keep costs low because the courses are online. The offerings help fulfill their educational mission while attracting students who could end up going for full degrees and paying tuition. The program comes as schools, including top universities, are increasingly experimenting with online education, offering "micro-credentials" and expanding their outreach—and their brands. The MicroMasters is being offered through edX, the online education platform co-founded by MIT and Harvard University. Harvard "looks forward to offering a MicroMasters program in the future," edX statement said in a statement Tuesday announcing the programs.

MIT, the originator of the MicroMasters, launched its pilot program in supply chain management earlier this year. It involves five courses lasting 10 weeks each, requiring eight to 10 hours of work per week per course. The school says 27,000 students enrolled, of whom 3,500 are working toward a certificate. By contrast, only 40 students are admitted each year to MIT's traditional, 10-month master's degree in supply chain management.

MIT President Rafael Reif said in an interview that the MicroMasters program is close to his heart because he was raised and educated in Venezuela and understands how hard it is for most people to get an education at a world-class school. After teaching in Caracas, he earned a doctorate in electrical engineering at Stanford, taught there for a year, and then got hired by MIT.

"I hit the lottery," he said.

Reif called MicroMasters "an experiment in what I call inverted admissions. Anybody anywhere can try to take those courses online." If the concept works well, he said, it may be expanded to other parts of MIT. "It is an important project for me," he said. "I believe in the model of empowering people."

Other schools offering MicroMasters include Arizona State University's Thunderbird School of Global Management, Australian National University, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Indian Institute of Management/Bangalore, and Catholic University of Louvain (or Leuven), in Belgium.