For this really would miss the point: even to become a car mechanic, as Santorum offered, still requires advanced training beyond a high school diploma. A high school shop class just will not do for an industry that is today as computer-mediated as any other. The question we face today is similar to the one faced by Morrill in the nineteenth century: who is responsible for training those mechanics?

Do-It-Yourself Education

A related question, again one that Morrill addressed, is who will pay for the training of those mechanics? Morrill clearly felt that states bear that responsibility, since developing the technical skills of the citizenry is good for the economy and society.

Since the 1980s, we have faced a very different attitude toward funding for human capital development. Morrill's social contract has frayed, and indeed some wish to dissolve it altogether.

Even before the Great Recession of 2008, many states cut funding for higher education.

Indeed, there is a common quip among some university presidents that, as their funding from state legislatures drops year after year, their universities have gone from "state-supported" to "state-assisted" to "state-located." The chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison spoke seriously about "privatizing" in the face of such dwindling state support. In the current budget battles in Washington, Pell Grants have been targeted for potential cuts.

Tuition has risen as a result of state cuts. This change in funding priorities means that the costs of college increasingly fall upon individuals. That is, rather than the state supporting skills development via grants and other means to reduce tuition, individuals are asked to bear more of the costs of their own training, which means that many students must take out loans to pay for their education.

As tuition increases, the size of those loans increases. For many students, to pay off these loans requires subsequent employment in a job with a substantial enough salary to match their equally substantial loan payments. These students, as a result, choose majors that promise immediate and sufficiently high salaries.

This situation is contributing to what might be termed a "higher education bubble." The term is often used to refer to the ballooning number of student loans and the potential for a massive situation on the order of—or perhaps even larger than— the mortgage bubble that precipitated the 2008 recession.

However, I mean "higher education bubble" in another sense: especially since 1945, access to higher education has been linked with upward social mobility and the promise of high-paying employment and career prospects.

But one of the effects of the Great Recession has been that many newly-minted graduates are unable to find employment, or are "underemployed," meaning they work in low-paying jobs that do not take advantage of their advanced degrees.

Hence the conditions for a higher education bubble: if tuition continues to increase such that students go into debt for tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of dollars with no guarantees of employment to permit repayment, then more and more potential students may ask, "What is the value of a college degree?"

Imagine this scenario: there are three baristas at Starbucks, one who did not attend college and one who did, and he has large student loan payments. The third barista is trying to decide if she should go to college. She looks at her friends and asks, "If we are all working here at Starbucks, and one friend is enduring suffocating debt loads while the other earns the same and has no loan payments, where is my incentive to go to college?"

Many students could decide to "opt out" of college, whatever else its benefits, and make the economic calculation to forgo education and debt. Since 1945, we have assumed ever-increasing numbers of young people attending college.

In the absence of funding opportunities, perhaps those numbers will start to decline, and the period 1945-2008 will be one of a large expansion followed by a large contraction of college attendance. Is it possible that we could be heading back to pre-1945 levels of college attendance?

Indeed, entrepreneur Peter Thiel is encouraging exactly that via his Thiel Fellowship, a grant awarded to 18-year-olds who forgo college. Specifically, fellows are given $100,000 to develop their ideas into businesses.

The fellowship website states: "Thiel Fellows are given a no-strings-attached grant of $100,000 to skip college and focus on their work, their research, and their self-education. They are mentored by our network of visionary thinkers, investors, scientists, and entrepreneurs, who provide guidance and business connections that can't be replicated in any classroom. Rather than just studying, you're doing."

These are young people with the aptitude for college, but Thiel is channeling their talents in another direction and toward a different model of life after high school. (But note that some of the Thiel recipients still aspire to college.)

Entrepreneurs like Thiel and others in the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) education movement seem to be encouraging a return to a pre-1862 model of human capital development that encourages young people to develop skills on their own. In such a model, there is no need for college or college credentials: your success is your credential.

Outside the Box: New Models for Higher Education

Other models have been proposed for funding higher education. Economists such as Milton Friedman and Gary Becker were among those advocating "human capital contracts."

Miguel Palacios Lleras offers the following scenario: "Imagine that a student who wants to attend college, but does not have the resources to do so, signs a contract with an investor in which he commits to pay 10 percent of his income for twenty years after graduation in exchange for $100,000 received today to pay for tuition and living expenses. This contract, which gives the investor a 10 percent stake in twenty years of the student's income, is an equity-like instrument."

The idea would be to replace the student loan with an investment-grade instrument that, in theory at least, would be more attractive to potential students than the prospect of an insurmountable debt load. (Presumably, a graduate who is employed as an engineer has the potential for a higher "payout" than someone who works as a social worker.)

Critics deride such human capital contracts as a modern form of indentured servitude. It is also unclear how many college-age students would actually have access to these potential investors.

Colleges themselves might turn to something like a human capital contract instead of charging tuition.

Clarkson University recently unveiled a plan to provide free tuition to students who win at a business competition (think Shark Tank for college students), with the university providing space, networking opportunities, and marketing. In exchange, Clarkson receives a 10 percent equity stake in any resulting business. In the absence of the state support Morrill advocated, colleges and their students are seeking new ways to fund their investments in higher education.

The investor in a human capital contract sees only a way to earn capital gains, and is presumably less interested in the value of the skills the student might develop. What if that investor were also concerned with skills development?

Businesses almost always benefit from an "educated workforce," hiring graduates of colleges and universities. Indeed, community colleges and career-colleges often work closely with employers, establishing informal pipelines that directly link curricula with the needs of employers. Tell us what skills you seek, we will train the students, and you will hire them, as this reasoning goes.

What if companies became more directly responsible for higher education? That is, what if companies were in the business of directly training their own workforces rather than "outsourcing" this task to colleges, meaning a student would forgo college to be trained directly by the company?

Many companies already have their own "corporate universities" that provide more than just training, and are viewed as a way to develop talent within the organization.

McDonald's' corporate university, nicknamed "Hamburger U," recently announced that its program in business management will be accredited by Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK. In effect, one can now receive a business degree (the equivalent of an associate's degree) from McDonald's, a credential that would be highly valued even by those who do not plan to remain in foodservice. Imagine the attraction of a degree from McKinsey University or Apple U.

Higher Education in the 21st Century

We have assumed since the days of Justin Morrill that colleges simultaneously provide students education and certification of that education. That is, universities are in the business of both training and credentialing students. Those two functions of the university are in the process of being cleaved.

MITx and other such initiatives have separated the skills training from the credentialing. Students are free to watch an MITx lecture but do not receive a credential or certification from MIT.

(Although this is about to change: Antioch University recently announced that they would start offering credit to students who successfully complete course work through Coursera's menu of MOOCs. Also, the American Council on Education (ACE) is considering certifying college credit for some MOOCs.)

A model now emerging has students receiving a certificate for a class completed. Take enough such classes, accumulate enough certificates, or "badges," and an entire degree can be constructed. Or, just the course-level certificate might be sufficient: certificates granted for individual classes appear to have some standing in the marketplace. Indeed, a Microsoft certification holds as much value in the marketplace as some college degrees.

Students at Western Governors University (WGU), a nonprofit online university, can acquire skills through a variety of means: they can take classes through WGU, or can work by themselves in a library, or can claim expertise from prior learning.

WGU offers to credential students, to certify their learning, but that learning occurs at a pace and in a manner determined by the student, suggesting a new relationship between skills acquisition and credentialing. And as the Hamburger U example indicates, corporations themselves might enter the business of credentialing.

Accessibility and practicality will continue to shape the future of higher education in the United States.

There are several key unknowns about that future: who will fund/invest in human capital development? The state? Individuals? Corporations? How will college-level skills be certified? Will we need to certify skills? (Yes, clearly, some occupations will require such certifications: we want to know that a doctor is certified. But how that certification will work remains in question.)

Will colleges and universities continue to hold a monopoly on skills training and credentialing? Or will new models appear to replace the methods to which we have been accustomed for the last 150 years?

Justin Smith Morrill himself was not college-educated, and not because he did not desire it: he could not afford to attend college, instead moving into a very lucrative career in business. He was an autodidact, however, reading widely and voluminously.

Would a self-taught Justin Morrill have approved of Western Governors University, where his self-paced erudition and vast reading could have been certified and credentialed? I suspect that were he alive today, Justin Morrill would be devouring free online classes from MITx.