Is there an alternative to college?

This Perspective has been updated.

A fundamental transformation is underway in how we access education throughout our lives. Rather than plug into the formal structures of traditional colleges and universities when we need to gain skills, a growing number of us are navigating a “shadow learning economy” from a new set of providers offering education in short spurts, either online or in face-to-face classes. Think about what we do when we don’t know how to perform an operation in Excel or need to learn a skill to get a promotion at work — we turn to YouTube or take a free online course offered by edX or Coursera.