In a faraway colony, one in a thousand people -- mostly young, rich, white men -- are sent to live in isolated, rural Christian communes. Some are pious, learned, ambitious; others are unruly younger sons with no other prospects. The students spend hours every day in chapel; every few years, the entire community is seized by a several-days-long religious revival.
They also get into lots of trouble. In their meager barracks they drink, gamble, and duel. They brawl, sometimes exchanging bullets, with local residents, and bother local women. Occasionally they rebel and are expelled en masse or force administrators to resign. Overseen by low-paid clergymen too deaf or infirm to control a congregation, hazed by older students, whipped for infractions of the rules, they’re treated like young boys when their contemporaries might be married with children. And, oh yes, they spend a few hours a day in rote memorization of fewer than a dozen subjects.
This was the typical 18th century American college, loosely modeled on England’s Oxford and Cambridge, which date to the 13th century. Nine colleges were founded in the colonies before the Revolution, and they’re all still in business: Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Penn, Brown, Rutgers, and Dartmouth.
For universities, history is authority. It’s no accident that America’s most prestigious institution, Harvard, is also its oldest, or that some of the oldest organizations of any kind, worldwide, are universities.
Surveying the history of American colleges and universities with a jaundiced eye convinces me that many aspects of the current so-called crisis in higher education are actually just characteristics of the institution. It has always been socially exclusionary. It has always been of highly variable quality educationally. It has always had a tendency to expand. In fact, it is precisely because we are always asking more and more of education at all levels that its failures appear so tremendous.
Still, the United States does seem to have reached an impasse today, given escalating demand for higher education, spiraling costs, and limited resources. Unlike the 1860s and unlike the 1960s, there is little national will to grow our way out of this problem by founding more colleges or spending much more money on the ones we do have. Is this merely one more symptom of national decline? Have we hit some kind of natural limit for an educated population? Or is there a mismatch between the structures of the past and the needs of the present?
America can’t remain a global economic powerhouse while it slides to the middle of the heap in education. Nor can we grapple with the challenges we face as a global community without meeting the world’s burgeoning demand for education. Nor can college leaders get away with claiming that their hands are tied and only more taxpayer and tuition dollars can solve their problems.
There are two basic options the way I see it: fundamentally change the way higher education is delivered, or resign ourselves to never having enough of it.
The good news is that all over the world people are thinking big about how to change higher education. Brick, stone, and marble institutions with centuries of prestige behind them are increasingly being joined by upstarts, both nonprofit and for-profit, and even more loosely organized communities of educational practitioners and apprentices.
The open courseware movement  started at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2001, when the school decided to put its coursework online for free. Today, you can go online to MIT OpenCourseware  and find the full syllabuses, lecture notes, class exercises, tests, and some video and audio for 1,900 courses, nearly every one MIT offers, from physics to art history. As of March 2010, 65 million people from virtually every country on Earth have raided this trove.
Open educational content is just the beginning. Want a personalized, adaptive computer tutor to teach you math or French?  A class on your iPhone that’s structured like an immersive role-playing game?  An accredited bachelor’s degree,  in six months, for a few thousand dollars? A free, peer-to-peer Wikiuniversity?  These all exist today, the beginnings of a complete educational remix. Do-It-Yourself University means the expansion of education beyond classroom walls: free, open-source, networked, experiential, and self-directed learning.
This opening world presents huge questions about the true nature of a college education: questions that are legitimate even when they are raised with self-interest by traditional educators.
The university is over a thousand years old, older than modernity itself. On American soil it has grown like Katamari Damacy,  the Japanese video game in which a magical “clumping spirit” snowballs around the world collecting everything in its path until it attains the size of a star. The latter-day “multiversity,”  as it was dubbed by the University of California president Clark Kerr in 1963, clumps teaching with research, vocational and technical education with liberal arts, sports, clubs, and parties with intellectual life, accreditation and evaluation with mentoring and friendship. For students “college” means very different things at different times: the place to grow up, be out on your own, make friends, take leadership roles, prepare for and find a good job, and even learn.
Technology upsets the traditional hierarchies and categories of education. It can put the learner at the center of the educational process. Increasingly this means students will decide what they want to learn, when, where, and with whom, and they will learn by doing. Functions that have long hung together, like research and teaching, learning and assessment, or content, skills, accreditation, and socialization, can be delivered separately.
There’s no good way to measure the benefits of the old-fashioned face-to-face educational model; there’s worry that something important will be discarded in the race ahead. More fundamentally, no one knows if it’s possible to extend the benefits of higher education to the majority of a population without diluting its essence. But those are questions that educators ought to be testing and investigating rigorously. College leaders who want to be on the right side of history won’t hold stubbornly to the four-year, classroom-hour-based “butts-in-seats, nose-to-nose, face to face” model as the only way to provide the benefits of a liberal arts education. They will innovate to meet students wherever they are, and they will reinvent assessment to provide much better transparency about what students are learning.
Here are four trends guiding this transformation, as they might look from the point of view of college leaders:
1. The 80/20 Rule. Is your institution part of the leading-edge 20 percent? How will you attract and serve the “nontraditional” student who is the new norm? Most of the growth in higher education over the next century will come from the 85 percent  of students who are “nontraditional” in some way -- older, working adults, or ethnic minorities. They will increasingly attend the 80 percent of institutions that are nonselective. This includes most mainstream public universities and particularly community colleges and for-profit colleges, which saw the sharpest growth in the 2000s.
For-profit colleges are the only U.S. institutions that have both the resources and the mission to seriously expand their numbers in the foreseeable future. Community colleges already enroll half of all undergraduates. Both disproportionately enroll the demographic groups that dominate the next generation of Americans: Hispanics, all other minority groups, and first-generation college students. Some of the boldest thinking is happening in institutions that are far from the ideal of either the multiversity or the colonial “little college.” Yet, they typically lack the opportunity for undergraduates to participate in original research, not to mention many of the intangibles of college life like dorms and extracurriculars. Concerns about quality and affordability in the new mainstream of higher education have to be addressed head-on. The answer is not for established institutions to exclude the upstarts from the conversation.
2. The Great Unbundling. Which services and departments are core to your mission? Where can you partner, outsource, or pool resources across the state, the nation, or the world for greater efficiency? Universities have historically combined many social, educational, and other benefits in one-stop shopping. Increasingly, some of these resources (e.g., faculty time) are strained, while others (like written course content) are approaching a marginal cost of zero.
As it has with industries from music to news, the logic of digital technology will compel institutions to specialize and collaborate, find economies of scale and avoid duplications.
Books can be freed from the printed page, courses freed from geographical classrooms and individual faculty, and students freed from bureaucratic obstacles to transferring course credit between institutions, or designing their own courses of study.
Could any of your departments flourish on its own? Stripped-down institutions that focus on instruction or assessment only, or on a particular discipline or area, will find more and more audience. The most cutting-edge sciences and the most traditional liberal arts can both flourish in a specialized, concentrated, and technologically enhanced setting. I have seen professors elevate the craft of teaching rhetoric, composition, and critical thinking to new heights using social media and applying cutting-edge research about learning.
3. Techno-hybridization. Are distance learning decisions confined to the IT office? Are you creating online courses through a cheap, hands-off process, or are you experimenting across disciplines with the best ways to integrate online and offline experiences? How can you identify and support your internal innovators among faculty? Department of Education research  shows that a blend of technology-assisted and traditional class instruction works better than either one alone. This blending can occur with institutions enrolling students on campus or off, in classrooms or online -- studies have shown that students do a better job collaborating online if they meet in person even once.
4. Personal Learning Networks and Paths. How well does your college serve the transfer, dropout, and nontraditional student? How easy do you make it for students to design their own experiences? People who graduate from high school at 18 and go straight through four years of college are already a tiny minority of all young Americans, around one in ten. Pulling America out of its educational slump requires designing programs flexible and supportive enough to reach the 44 percent of students who currently drop out of college and the 30 to 35 percent who drop out of high school. These programs have to provide socialization, personal development, and critical thinking skills, not just job training.
Self-directed learning will be increasingly important. Already, the majority of students attend more than one institution during their college careers, and more than half seek to enhance their experience with an internship. In the future, with the increasing availability of online courses and other resources, individuals will increasingly forge a personal learning path, combining classroom and online learning, work and other experiences.
The open-education pioneer Alec Couros  at the University of Saskatchewan talks about assembling personal learning networks that include mentors, colleagues, media sources, books, and collections of links. The existing system will be challenged to come up with new forms of accreditation, transfer credits, and certification so that the value of this work can be recognized by potential employers and others.
Education is an essentially conservative enterprise. If we didn’t believe that one generation had something important to transmit to the next, we wouldn’t need education. So changing education makes lots of people nervous, especially school leaders whose salary comes from the old model.
Still, in an ideal world, we can agree that opportunities to stretch your abilities, test your personal mettle, follow your natural curiosity, and jam intellectually with friends, colleagues, and mentors -- all the good stuff that is supposed to happen in college -- would be more open to more people at all ages and transition points in life. Traditional colleges will continue to find plenty of eager applicants who want the experiences only they can provide.
The 80 percent of American college students who currently attend nonselective institutions will have many more options, and so will the majority of young people, those who drop out or who never apply. Alternatives to the four-year bachelor’s degree will get more visible and acceptable, which might help bridge one of the biggest social divides in American life. Tuition costs would reach sane levels due to increased use of technology, true competition, and better-allocated federal and state incentives. This would lower one of the most important barriers to educational access.
By modifying the economics of the nation’s second largest industry, we’d save money, and tap the resources and energy of a whole new generation to tackle challenges like building a greener society, expanding the middle class, creating better jobs, and providing people with health care. Whether these incipient changes will lead to that kind of positive transformation, however, still hangs in the balance.
It depends largely on whether the guardians of existing institutions embrace transformation, or let history pass them by.