The idea of deeply indebted college students in their 20s without degrees or even traditional reading and writing skills is something relatively new in America. Yet aggregate student debt has reached a staggering $1 trillion. More than half of recent college graduates -- who ultimately support the huge college industry -- are either unemployed or working in jobs that don't require bachelor's degrees. About a quarter of those under 25 are jobless and still seeking employment.
Apart from our elite private schools, the picture of our postmodern campus that emerges is one of increasing failure --a perception hotly denied on campus but matter-of-factly accepted off campus, where most of the reforms will have to originate.
What might we expect in the future?
Even more online courses will entice students away from campuses through taped lectures from top teachers, together with interactive follow-ups from teaching assistants -- all at a fraction of current tuition costs.
Technical schools that dispense with therapeutic, hyphenated "studies" courses will offer students marketable skills far more cheaply and efficiently. Periodic teaching contracts, predicated on meeting teaching and research obligations, will probably replace lifelong tenure.
Public attitudes will also probably change. The indebted social science major in his mid-20s with or without a diploma will not enjoy the old cachet accorded a college-educated elite -- at least in comparison with the debt-free, fully employed and higher-paid electrician, plumber or skilled computer programmer without a college degree.
Real skills will matter more than mere college attendance or a brand. New competency in national tests in math, science and English will be considered by employers to be a far better barometer of past achievement and future potential than the mere possession of a now-suspect university transcript.
As in any revolution, much good will be lost along with the bad. The traditional university used to offer a holistic four-year experience for motivated and qualified students in a landscape of shared inquiry and tolerance. The Internet and for-profit trade schools can never replace that unique intellectual and social landscape.
Yet because professors of the traditional arts and sciences could or would not effectively defend their disciplines or the classical university system, agenda-driven politicians, partisan ideologues and careerist technocrats absorbed them.
The college experience morphed into a costly sort of prolonged adolescence, a political arena and a social laboratory -- something quite different from a serious place to acquire both practical and humanistic knowledge.
No wonder that it is now financially unsustainable and going the way of the dinosaurs.