03/22/2012 11:15 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

For the Have-Nots, the Rocky Road Through College

In public forums about the drastic changes that higher ed may undergo in the coming years, one question inevitably gets asked of those advocating market disruption: Would the alternatives to the traditional degree pathway be good enough for their own children?

The answers are always nuanced, and I have never heard anyone say they'd surely send their kids to Western Governors University or choose a certificate from MITx over a degree from nearly any four-year college.

The underlying concern in the question, of course, is that disruption in academe could worsen the divide between the haves and have-nots that already exists in higher ed. Traditional colleges would be reserved for the wealthy and gifted, and everyone else would go online or navigate what is now a confusing and sometimes difficult road to a degree from various providers.

In some places that road is hitting a dead end. California State University, the nation's largest public-university system, announced this week that it would take only a few hundred transfers next spring on eight of its 23 campuses. Typically it gets 70,000 applicants for the spring semester, and 16,000 students eventually enroll.

What will now happen to those students? Some will stay at their current institutions and earn more credits or an associate degree (further clogging the system for incoming students). Others will drop out, some of them short of a credential, perhaps never to return. But one thing is almost certain: They shouldn't expect an easier transition to Cal State the following fall.

In announcing the decision on spring admissions, Cal State officials warned that all applicants for the fall of 2013 would be told that decisions were contingent on the outcome of a measure on the November ballot to increase taxes.

Some students turned away from Cal State will go to alternative providers, private colleges and for-profit institutions, both of which have seen their enrollments grow as state appropriations to public colleges in the state have declined.

But neither sector has the capacity to handle all the students that will be shut out by Cal State. That's where disruptors like Burck Smith of StraighterLine enter the picture. He wants to help places like Cal State serve more students by offering them introductory courses at a low price that they can use later when they transfer. The problem is that Cal State accepts StraighterLine's credits for military students, but not civilians.

Smith said he "went to the California community-college system and told them to send us students. They were reluctant to talk. They were worried about the courses transferring to Cal State."

One-third of students now transfer from one institution to another at least once during their college careers, many we assume for economic reasons. We know transferring credits between institutions is not an easy task for increasingly mobile students. This is an issue that the haves in higher ed, whether students or colleges, rarely have to worry about.

Perhaps who and what defines credit in higher ed will broaden as the funnel of students able or willing to pay for certain colleges narrows. Ever since the economic crisis hit, in 2008, college leaders at hundreds of expensive but not name-brand colleges have worried about filling their classes. For now, those worries haven't turned into reality, except at a handful of institutions.

But many enrollment experts predict a nationwide drop in the number of affluent, well-prepared high-school graduates, the type of student who has helped many colleges mask their financial problems over the past decade.

One such expert, Dan Lundquist, the founding principal of the Education Consultancy, describes for college officials the coming bust using an image of a funnel of students. At the top are the total number of 18-year-olds, some 4.3 million in 2009. The ones that filter out at the bottom are those with above-average SAT scores and family incomes over $200,000 a year, who also want to attend small, private colleges in the mid-Atlantic or Northeast regions. That number in 2009, according to Lundquist? Just 996 students.

That figure will shrink further, Lundquist believes, as the pool of wealthy parents willing to pay high tuition prices contracts. When he shows the funnel to college presidents or trustees, he says, "there is nervous laughter."

"They know they're limping from year to year by nipping around the edges on their costs," Lundquist says. "But no one seems willing to make the hard decisions. It's just easier to kick the can down the road."

For now, alternatives to traditional higher ed might not look as good for our children as the institutions many in academe attended themselves. But as some expensive private colleges compete to fill their seats and cash-strapped public colleges look for ways to handle more students, today's emerging providers will get a second look by college leaders and students seeking quality alternatives. And then you might have more advocates for change endorsing the alternatives for their own kids.