10/09/2012 04:48 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2012

What's in a Degree?

There's a rumble going through the world of higher education. A sense that providing your undergraduates with a traditional degree may not be enough to keep your university atop the U.S. News & World Report rankings much longer. It is perhaps these feelings that have led top universities across the country, from Harvard to Stanford, to expand their online course offerings. As The New York Times reported, this change in philosophy played a role in the controversial ousting of University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan.

But for many, colleges haven't been quick enough to change their philosophy, or even their curriculum. More than a handful of graduates, current students, and those deciding whether to apply to college feel that the courses and majors at most universities cannot prepare them for the demands of a 21st century job market. Read the comments on my previous article if you don't believe me. The appeal of a college education, and in particular a liberal arts education, wanes as fewer degrees are converted into the jobs students expect.

The website UnCollege, founded by Thiel fellow Dale Stephens, describes students' frustrations perfectly. With more students going to college than ever before, UnCollege argues, a degree no longer predicts success. Instead, it claims, "You can get an amazing education anywhere -- but you'll have to stop writing papers and start doing things." Though it's view of education may be extreme, UnCollege is not a small group of radicals, amplifying their voice through Internet channels. With nearly 8,000 likes on its Facebook page, UnCollege may represent more than an outlying opinion.

UnCollege isn't the only organization suggesting young people find alternative routes to success. Programs such as Exosphere, Knowmads, and KAOSPilot all state their ability to offer personalized, unique training to help their students become entrepreneurs, innovators, and, a recurring word seemingly invented by advocates for nontraditional education, "changemakers."

Each of these organizations claims to give students hands on, practical experience that universities cannot -- in a much shorter time period and for a much lower cost than getting a traditional degree. These nontraditional programs all vouch to help students learn by doing. Knowmads, for example, partners its students with companies such as KLM and challenges them to create practical solutions to real-life problems.

Of course, this movement away from the lecture halls of four-year universities doesn't imply the imminent demise of traditional education. A degree from a top-ranked school still means something on a resume, and experimental programs such as those described above do not yet have enough name recognition or proven success to supplant the value of a college degree.

Instead, increased excitement about non-traditional education is a challenge to brick-and-mortar institutions. How can universities retain their prestige while giving students the skills they want and need to succeed in today's job market? That's a question that college presidents and provosts should ask their student body, especially as the deadline for this year's application process draws near.