Faced with rising costs, huge loans and poor job prospects, today's prospective college students are re-evaluating their future and many universities are re-inventing their offers.
Like many in her generation Leila Mills heads to college armed with the latest ways to save. She started by taking college credit courses while still in high school. Today she lives at home, works a part-time job and is already paying off her student loans.
Mills is working towards a four-year undergraduate degree from Regent University, a private Christian college in Virginia Beach, Va. She says going to school and facing post-graduation debt is considered normal in her group of friends.
"I've been told by other people that you come out of college with debt so I just accepted it and I put in my mind it's going to take 10 years to pay off this debt," she explained.
The Weight of Education
While Mills is optimistic, she and her peers still face an uphill battle.
In the last 25 years college tuition has risen more than 400 percent. Nationally the average student graduates with well over $20,000 in debt. Combine that with a tough economy and poor job prospects and it creates a perfect storm.
For parents, even those with dual incomes, there's plenty to worry about. Texas mother Sherrie Parks has has four kids ranging in age from nine to 16. She and her husband say it will be tough to help all their kids graduate.
"I've got back-to-back kids going to college," Parks said. "And we've been through economic hard times and used a lot of our savings to pay for that so now, getting ready for college in two years is a definite concern."
That concern stretches to many college campuses where administrators are trying to cut costs, keep quality high and compete with a new array of online offerings.
'The College Fix'
It's why education commentator and editor of "The College Fix" Nathan Harden recently predicted that half of the country's 4,500 universities will close in the next 50 years.
In a recent piece, "The End of the University as We Know it," Harden says cultural and economic changes will force universities to adopt drastically different business models in the coming years. In particular, Harden expects residential campuses to decline, free online access to a college education to open for all and elite universities and flagship state schools to come out on top.
"I think we're going to see a world where some of the most respected universities in the country are going to be offering some kind of credentials and eventually degrees online for little to no cost," Harden predicted. "And when that happens I think we'll see a tipping point."
Regent University President Carlos Campo warned today's educational landscape must be navigated with care. "Is Nathan Harden right that tuition-driven schools will fail in the next 50 years? Yes," Campo said.
"It's tough to let go and say we're not going to make it. No school wants to say that about themselves. But I think you're going to see students thinking, 'This school isn't well-resourced. It's quite clear that their graduates aren't doing well in the marketplace. How can I invest in this education?'" Campo said.
Campo suggests in today's environment universities must know who they are and create online opportunities for students.
"There are great case statements to be made for lower cost," he said. "You can get through an online program, often more quickly than a traditional environment."
Still, Campo believes the residential experience is here to stay.
"There is something different about the interaction that happens, the growth in the student body as they interact with their peers, with faculty and staff," Campo said.
Regent offers both online and traditional residential programs, a path many universities are jumping on as well.
Perhaps the clearest sign of change is top universities like Harvard and MIT offering what are known as "massive open online courses" or "MOOCS." These free classes are open to anyone, anywhere.
"The big stigma I think is that online education hasn't been respected as being on par with an in-class experience" Harden said. "But I think that's starting to slowly change."
Eventually, Harden believes thousands of professors will lose their jobs as online education efficiently delivers content.
For now, many kinks remain. There's no degree credit attached to MOOCS like Harvard's and in the current on-line universe there's a wealth of options for students to consider.
In the wake of educational shifts Campo warns that students must know what they want and consider what skill sets employers. "I would ask this," he said. "'Tell me the online educator you're considering. What are their graduation rates? What are their students doing two years after they graduate, five or 10?'"
The 10K Revolution
One bright spot for students is a move to dramatically lower tuition. In Texas, they're calling it the "10K Revolution." Gov. Rick Perry prompted the initiative during his 2011 State of the State address.
Florida's Gov. Rick Scott is also pursuing the plan, which calls for offering four-year degrees for just $10,000. In both states, students have already begun such degrees, which usually start in high school with dual credit classes.
The programs typically also offer web-based instruction to glean further savings. It could be a marriage made in higher-ed heaven where technology paves the way for dramatic tuition cuts.
Mills is already taking advantage on a smaller scale-taking classes that save time and money.
It's just one more indication that fundamental changes in higher ed are already on the way.