In their current issue, Washington Monthly has an interesting article about one vision of the future of a college education.

The article profiles a company called StraighterLine that is using a Netflix model to offer all-you-can-handle online courses for only $99 a month.

According to the writer, this is just part of the overall trend in our society.

In recent years, Americans have grown accustomed to living amid the smoking wreckage of various once-proud industries–automakers bankrupt, brand-name Wall Street banks in ruins, newspapers dying by the dozen. It’s tempting in such circumstances to take comfort in the seeming permanency of our colleges and universities, in the notion that our world-beating higher education system will reliably produce research and knowledge workers for decades to come. But this is an illusion. Colleges are caught in the same kind of debt-fueled price spiral that just blew up the real estate market. They’re also in the information business in a time when technology is driving down the cost of selling information to record, destabilizing lows.

However, at the same time college expenses are rising at far more than the rate of inflation, the institutions often short change students taking lower level courses, the primary target of StraighterLine.

But the biggest cash cow is lower-division undergraduate education. Because introductory courses are cheap to offer, they’re enormously profitable. The math is simple: Add standard tuition rates and any government subsidies, and multiply that by several hundred freshmen in a big lecture hall. Subtract the cost of paying a beleaguered adjunct lecturer or graduate student to teach the course. There’s a lot left over. That money is used to subsidize everything else.

This should all sound very familiar if you’ve read Disrupting Class.

In that book, the authors start with the theory that industries are disrupted when small, upstart companies find innovative ways to offer their core business faster, easier, cheaper.

They predict that companies like StraighterLine will do the same thing for (to?) American education, especially higher education but eventually including parts of K12.

However, since I learned more outside of classes during my undergraduate years than I did in them, I’m not buying everything in either the article or the book.

Of course, it all depends on what you’re looking for from a college education.

If all a person needs is the information and credits, $99 a month and working entirely online is certainly a good way to go.