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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK, this time of year, many high school seniors are thinking about what's next. Some aren't sure, some have jobs lined up, and others are set to go to college. And that last group may have already plunked down their tuition deposits, the first real taste of what the college experience is going to cost.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Tuition at many colleges and universities is sky-rocketing. We've talked about this on the program. People are doing the cost-benefit analysis and questioning what values students are really getting for all that money. There's also been a rise in online programs, for-profit universities and other alternatives, so colleges find themselves going to great lengths to attract students.

GREENE: Jeffrey Salingo is an editor with the Chronicle of Higher Education and also author of a new book, "College Unbound." He worries that American higher education has in some ways lost its way, and one symptom is the resources many schools are spending on campus amenities.

JEFFREY SALINGO: You go into a dining hall now and you have sushi in the dining hall. You have climbing walls, which I think everybody has. But now you even have these lazy rivers where you can get in an inner tube and go down a...

GREENE: And read and study while you're floating along the river.

SALINGO: Exactly.

GREENE: Well, where is the pressure coming from on colleges to do...

SALINGO: College presidents say that students and parents want this. But my contention is, is that if Harvard, tomorrow, decided to knock down all its residents' halls and essentially build jail cells, do you think people would stop coming to Harvard?

GREENE: They'd probably keep going.

SALINGO: They'd probably keep going.

GREENE: OK. We're talking about schools that are building climbing walls, at a time when a lot of schools are in a lot of debt and state funding for schools is going down. I mean, explain that for me.

SALINGO: Well, they did that in the last decade, when enrollment was going up, when money was free-flowing. You know, most parents were using their homes as ATMs to pay for college, because of the housing market. And now suddenly, those bills are coming due, and the problem is is that the students are either not there or they're unwilling to pay the money to fund those things.

GREENE: Give me a specific example of kind of a school that is caught in this economic bind that you described where it's hard to get out of.

SALINGO: Most small, private liberal arts colleges, in general, I mean, if you look at a map of the country, most of the private colleges in the U.S. are in the Midwest and the Rust Belt and the Northeast, where all the population growth, especially of 18-year-olds, are in the South and Southwest.

GREENE: OK.

SALINGO: And so part of the problem is that they're having a hard time just attracting students, because students have to fly halfway across the country to pay $50,000-plus for a degree that they're not quite sure what they're going to do with.

GREENE: You painted a picture of higher education and compared it to something like the auto industry in Detroit - that it's very resistant to change, but it's going to reach a point where it just has to accept that there is a new reality. If higher education goes through that process and emerges, what will be the same? What will be different?

SALINGO: I still think that colleges are still going to exist - physical college campuses are still going to exist for those who want it. What will be different, however, is that you're going to have many more players now in the system. If you decide to take a MOOC - for example - and you want to transfer credit...

GREENE: And this one is Massive Online Open Course. Right? Yeah.

SALINGO: Massive Online Open Course. Right. So MOOCs might provide a piece of a person's education. This idea of competency-based education, which I think is perhaps the most disruptive force potentially entering higher education.

GREENE: In this new world you suggested that if you, Jeffrey Selingo, you know, were looking for a job applicant and I was coming to you, I might be able to get some sort of credential from some online program that wasn't a college or a university.

SALINGO: Right.

GREENE: But if you accept that as sort of a legitimate credential, you could hire me and kind of keep colleges out of the process.

SALINGO: Right. Now I talked to some students who did that - who took some of these Massively Online Open Courses and one of them is working for Google right now. I mean the problem with that is that the best signal to the job market that you're ready still remains a college degree, and in my opinion will remain a college degree for the near future. But, as employers start - are not satisfied with some of the college graduates that they're hiring or they see others who are doing well based on their background, I think that we're going to start seeing employers look at alternative credentials - whether they're badges or certificates from other players beyond what we think of as traditional higher ed.

GREENE: Well, what can colleges do to convince students who are sitting there and saying, you know, I could take a massive online course, it's a lot cheaper than signing up for a four-year college degree? I mean what's the value of paying all of this money and going to one of these campuses still?

SALINGO: Well, and the value is, is really the one-on-one interaction with professors. I don't believe that we're suddenly in 10 years going to see thousands of colleges go out business and be replaced by online institutions. I'm also optimistic because some of the smartest most innovative people in this country live and work on college campuses, and that's why I think we still can figure it out. But the problem is that we have to move away from this hubris that I think higher education now has. They feel like we're a public trust; people will always want to get us as they're getting us now. I think those days are over and I think that colleges and universities need to think in new and different ways in order to prepare for the next 20-30 years.

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GREENE: Jeffrey Selingo is the author of the new book, "College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students."

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GREENE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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