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Free online courses have been available through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the last several years, but students taking those courses were out of luck if they wanted them to count toward a degree. That’s all changed, however.

A new pilot program is allowing students to take a semester of online graduate courses in the school’s supply chain management program for nominal fees, and then earn a MicroMaster’s credential if they can pass an exam.

So no, it’s not a free degree. But it’s a significantly cheaper alternative, and provides students who might not otherwise be accepted into the traditional program based on previous academic performance to prove their abilities.

“Anyone who wants to be here now has a shot to be here,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif was quoted by the Associated Press. “They have a chance to prove in advance that they can do the work.”

That MicroMaster’s credential will count toward half of MIT’s one-year master’s degree in supply chain management, Arthur Grau, community manager for the Supply Chain MicroMaster’s program, said. Students who do well can qualify by exam to apply for the second semester on campus.

The cost of the MicroMaster’s includes $150 for each of the five online classes, plus an additional fee of up to $800 to take the exam, according to Grau. The first courses launched last winter, Grau said.

The first group of students to take part in the program — about 2,000 students thus far, Grau said — have started two of the five required courses and should have completed all five by March or April of 2017, just in time for the first qualifying exam in May, 2017.

“So they’re about one-third through the entire process right now,” Grau said.

“We have not done any official launches yet,” Grau said, though the university expects to make an official announcement of the program on Sept. 20. “At that time we’ll probably see a bump in the numbers.”

Grau did note that approximately 30,000 students take the online supply chain management courses, but only 2,000 have paid the fees necessary to qualify for the degree program. That’s good news for an industry in need of qualified workers.

“We produce 40 students a year, and they say that’s a drop in the bucket; we need thousands,” Yossi Sheffi, director of the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics, was quoted by the Associated Press.

As tuition rates continue to climb (a four-year degree at a public college is on track to cost $94,800 by 2033, according to data from the College Board), finding alternative solutions is becoming attractive to more and more students and student hopefuls. It’s also becoming more attractive to higher-education institutions, which are offering more and more free online classes in hopes of reaching a wider student audience.

That’s not surprising when you consider that tuition and fees have outpaced inflation over the last several years, while wages have stayed the same or fallen, according to 2014 analysis from the Pew Research Center.

Those statistics can seem even more daunting when you consider that the average student now graduates with more than $37,000 in student loan debt. Government funding (or the lack thereof) also is a significant part of the many things affecting students’ access to affordable education. (Credit scores can also play a role, specifically if you need private student loans to subsidize your education costs. You can check two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com to see where you stand.)

Image: Zoran Zeremski

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