Now that hundreds of thousands of parents have discovered for themselves how the public school system is an incredibly inefficient and ineffective means of providing children with an education, it is interesting to note that some of them are beginning to turn skeptical eyes on the hallowed institution of the university.

I’ve written before regarding my own doubts about the logic of college, but a conversation with a friend who attended the Minnesota Association of Christian Home Educators annual conference last weekend got me thinking about the issue again. My friend, whose wife homeschools their children, had attended a workshop titled “Credentials without College,” which resonated with him when he realized that he had never once had an employer ask for his diploma or review his college transcript.

What’s particularly interesting about my friend’s perspective is that he graduated from one of the more expensive and exclusive private universities in the country (picking up keys from Phi Beta Kappa and Tau Beta Phi in the process). But not only did he find his education there to be largely superfluous, it actually got in the way of his career development, for as he informed me during our conversation, his senior year was largely a matter of taking philosophy courses while waiting to graduate and work full-time for the company he’d been with for the three previous summers.

My experience was similar. I remember being called a few years ago by a European headhunter who was looking for a technology executive. The headhunter was puzzled by the way in which my career did not coincide with my education, wondering how I had learned the management skills that brought me to her attention when my degrees were in economics and Asian literature. But learning and formal education are not synonymous, and any correlation between what we study in college and what we subsequently do to earn a living is often mere coincidence. Even in the case of the more technical fields and the professions, the vast majority of that which is taught in college is outdated by at least a few years. One need merely look at the equipment in any university computer lab to see that.

When confronted with these facts, university cheerleaders often like to say that a college education, especially a liberal arts education, is not about preparation for a specific career, but learning how to learn and think critically instead, providing skills that are useful in any job. While this may have been true 100 years ago, it is certainly not true now. A 10-minute conversation with any recent Ivy League graduate will suffice to reveal how even very bright young individuals are not being taught how to think critically or logically, and worse, are permitted to continue wallowing in their parochial ignorance of the world and its history.

What college boils down to is a brand name stamped on the graduate for the benefit of corporate consumers. The large international corporations, like wealthy, upscale shoppers, prefer to make their selections from among the elite brands – the Harvards, Oxfords, Stanfords and Yales. At the other end of the scale, the small businesses paw through resumes from the Wal-Mart equivalents, hunting for bargains in the public universities and no-name two-year institutions.

Still, it is vital to note that to say something is merely a brand is very different than asserting it is without worth. One need merely look at Microsoft or Nike to understand that there is inherent value in a brand because consumers harbor such regard for them. If Man was a perfectly rational being, no one would buy Microsoft Office for $499 when OpenOffice 2.0.2 provides compatibility and 98 percent of the functionality for an infinitely better price, being a free download.

So, what is a brand worth to my child? That is the important question that every parent should ask when considering college applications. And university presidents will soon be forced to wrestle with that question themselves, as the gap between the perceived value of the brand and its actual value to the corporate consumer becomes more obvious with every inflated grade, every graduate with an English, sociology or philosophy degree and every new Women Talking About Feelings program.

Technology has an uncanny way of puncturing such structural vacuities. Already universities are flirting with various forms of Internet-based distance education, and once a brand-name university realizes that it is far more profitable to charge $1,000 per class to 10,000 online students than $40,000 in annual tuition to 1,000 on-campus freshmen without harming the brand, the next great revolution in higher education will begin.

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