David Brooks is at it again (no I don’t get commission), with another solid column about higher education. Brooks has written before about how college graduation is one of the main dividing lines in American society. Culturally speaking, those who attend an institution of higher education are more likely to engage in certain behaviors, watch certain shows, own certain cars, vote for certain candidates, etc. (and yes, they tend to be the things you associate with latte-sipping, Subaru-driving, Jon Stewart-watching, Obama-voting people, such as yours truly–minus the Subaru, which we gave up for the Toyota minivan; but of course we never would have seriously considered buying an American car–that’s so… bourgeois).

In this column, however, Brooks points out one of the major looming shifts in how we think about higher education in America, which is the prevalence of community colleges. There are over 5,000 institutions of higher education in America, and over 14 million students in those institutions. Think about that for a second. If you tried to name as many colleges and universities as you could, you might be able to come up with 200, or less than 5 percent of the total number of higher ed institutions in the country. Of those many institutions you probably couldn’t name, nearly 1,200, or close to 25 percent, are community colleges, and 11.5 million of those 14 million students are enrolled in them.

The Chronicle of Higher Education runs a supplement once or twice a year on community colleges, and I, like many others I presume, toss it in the recycling before even giving it a glance. But Brooks reminds us that community colleges are not only important loci of diversity in education; they are, because of their lower cost, harbingers of the future. The day is fast approaching (in California, it came yesterday), when even we who have figured we were sending our kids to prestigious universities aren’t going to be able to afford it. The kids of more people that you know will be attending community college, experimenting with other delivery options for higher education (distance learning while living on some kind of campus that provides a student life experience and mentoring by tutors who are cheaper than tenured faculty), or avoiding college altogether. The economics is simply going to drive it, and higher education in the U.S. is going to look very different than it does today.