I recently finished reading College Unbound by Jeffrey Selingo, at the urging of my dean. I won’t claim this book has all the answers about the direction higher ed is heading, but if you want to get a sense of what the current debate is like, this isn’t a bad place to start.

The argument Selingo makes is that higher education, for all its goods and ills, is changing rapidly, and the business models many universities (like mine) cling to simply won’t function a decade or two from now. The four-year in-residence university experience usually perceived as the ideal for a college education is decreasingly the norm — college students are now pursuing a variety of ways to get to the degree and find a job.

Selingo highlights a number of examples of students following creative paths to get the training they need. They may study for a few semesters at a community college, take a free massive on-line course from a top university, take a for-profit course or two, do an internship in their expected field of employment for academic credit, and end up at a conventional four-year college, or not. If it ends with them working at the job they want, that’s better, many argue, than spending a quarter million dollars to live in a dorm room, get drunk at frat parties, and walk out with a diploma, massive debt, and few real job skills.

It’s an interesting premise, and if the bulk of tomorrow’s students will be pursuing these alternate routes to get the education they need, then the current college model is indeed moribund. This possibility has a lot of university administrators in a panic, trying to figure out new, stable sources of revenue (Thank you, children of the People’s Republic of China!) and possible budget lines to cut (Thank you, tenure-line faculty!). Public schools are far from exempt from these concerns, given the degree to which state governments have pulled back from supporting them in recent decades.

I can’t help but think that some of these concerns are misplaced, or at least overhyped, though. I don’t have hard numbers on this, but the modal undergraduate at my mid-sized private university (and, I imagine, many others) seems like a suburban kid whose parents also went to college, place great value on their four years there and the professional and social networks they entered, and want the same or better for their own kids. And these current college students will likely grow up to have kids of their own who expect the same thing. Taking a MOOC from Stanford while in their basement and maybe a course or two at DeVry simply won’t serve as an adequate substitute. I would imagine these folks will serve as a steady stream of revenue for generations to come.

However, for those who are the first in their families to attend college, and for those students from other countries who pay full freight to attend American universities and keep them afloat financially, this model holds less allure. Traditional four-year colleges may have a harder time appealing to these students if they intend to grow.

But the old model only begins to break down when employers don’t see anything special coming from a traditional four-year university. Right now, your typical software company, investment bank, or government agency is run by people who have BAs (at least) from traditional American universities, and they’ll place greater stock in applicants who have done the same. That BA from Berkeley or Cornell that they read on a résumé is a valuable heuristic about the quality of an applicant; thoroughly researching the background of every job applicant simply isn’t practical when you have hundreds of those files on your desk. And if you see an applicant with a decent set of skills but an education stitched together from five or six different institutions, does that tell you that this is a clever and entrepreurial applicant, or someone who has a hard time commiting to a place or forming long term ties?

As long as those doing the hiring continue to give an edge to applicants from traditional four-year schools, the old model should be just fine. Once they stop believing in that system, who knows what’s next?

[Cross-posted at The Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.