High cost isn't a coincidence but a necessary outcome. The way to keep a thing valuable is to keep it scarce, so prestigious schools accept few. Government affordability initiatives -- grants, loans, tax breaks and the like -- puff up buying power against constrained supply, ballooning prices and creating the opposite of affordability. In the 10-year period ending in 2005, increases in tuition and fees outpaced inflation by 36% at private colleges and 51% at public ones.

Harvard's own charter, engrossed on parchment in 1650, says nothing about keeping knowledge scarce. It simply promises, in welcoming language for the time, "the education of the English and Indian youth of this country." I single out Harvard because it's iconic, not because it's more guilty than its peers. How sad that elite schools are reduced to machines that cull the bright from the dull and charge mightily to brand them for success -- which these students would have achieved anyhow, because they're bright.

A more inclusive four-year degree isn't the answer; the degree itself often obstructs learning. Consider the laid-off sales clerk who wishes to pursue a college education in hopes of finding a better job. If he wants to go to a name-brand school he must study for and take an admissions test and apply. He must also file a financial-aid application as long and complex as a tax return. He then must wait and cross his fingers. If accepted by the school, he must wait again for the right part of the academic calendar to come around and hope that the classes he wants aren't full. Suppose all goes well. He'll be sitting in front of a teacher a good 18 months after first deciding to learn. What folly.

Google is putting every book ever written online. Apple offers video college lectures for free download through its iTunes software. Skype allows free videoconferencing anywhere in the world. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and many other schools have made course materials available for free on their websites. Tutors cost as little as $15 an hour. Today's student who decides to learn at 1 a.m. should be doing it by 1:30. A process that makes him wait 18 months is not an education system. It's a barrier to education.

There's a better way

The system must change before students are made poorer, society grows less equal, the bright are left ignorant and "college" comes to mean a four-year pajama party intruded upon by the occasional group discussion on gender studies. The answer is to relieve schools of the job of validating knowledge and return them to a role of spreading it. Colleges should no more vouch for their own academic competence than butchers should decide for themselves whether their meat is USDA prime.

The Spellings Commission recommended that government push colleges to "develop interoperable outcomes-focused accountability systems designed to be accessible and useful for students, policymakers and the public, as well as for internal management and institutional improvement." Unencrypted, that means schools should figure out a way to prove what students have learned, beyond the say-so of their degrees. The commission was correct on what's needed. It was wrong on who should do it.

We need a national standard for certifying what students have learned. The easiest way is to simply test independently for course knowledge and compile the results on standardized knowledge transcripts.

We do similar testing now. Students at 1,400 colleges (about a third of such U.S. institutions) can get credit for courses by passing tests created by the College Board. (Participating schools generally restrict the number of tests students may use toward degrees.) There are 33 exam topics, including calculus, biology, U.S. history, business law and Spanish language. Tests cost $77. Guide books cost $10. There are more than 1,400 test centers on college campuses.

Perhaps these tests are comprehensive enough, or perhaps they're not. I'm not qualified to say. The nation's professors are, and they should take up the task of defining this new national standard, even at a threat to their own power, because in truth, a teacher forced to amicably promote the few when he should be boldly teaching the many is robbed of power.

I can only guess what this knowledge transcript would look like -- something like a résumé or credit report, perhaps. I picture a scrawny tree drawn on a page, with the branches representing the fields of learning and the student tasked with extending them. Perhaps vocational certificates would be listed, too. Maybe, once the tree reached a prescribed fatness, we'd call the student a bachelor of arts. But employers could select whatever tree shapes suited them, and college would no longer be a degree-or-nothing affair. Learning would be available everywhere and at a moment's notice, and would be rewarded right away.

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This knowledge transcript would care nothing about where a student had learned, how much he spent or how long he took. It wouldn't care whether he was 12 or 60 when he proved he knew algebra or how many times he failed before succeeding, or whether he knew important people. Employers would have better proof of what students knew. Policymakers, too. Students wouldn't pile on debt. They wouldn't be misled by a college degree into believing they knew more than they did. They'd become true stewards of their own lifelong education.

Universities, I'm guessing, would look much the same. Students would always want to go on long learning sabbaticals at places with top teachers and well-appointed classrooms, and to be around like-minded people for collaboration, sports, fellowship and, not nearly least, mating. But schools would have to truly compete on price and teaching excellence. They'd no longer be able to charge students high prices just because of their ability to confer on them high pay. They'd teach as many students as would learn, since doing so would strengthen their brands, not dilute them. Whisperers would once again profess, and we'd all be better for it.

Jack Hough is an associate editor at SmartMoney and the author of "Your Next Great Stock: How to Screen the Market for Tomorrow's Top Performers."