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In a riff on the 1978 "Scared Straight!" documentary designed to keep kids out of jail, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" conducted an "intervention" with high school students meant to discourage them from racking up student debt brought on by acquiring dubious college degrees.

The half-serious comedy program sat down with a half-dozen high school seniors and introduced them to a man who tallied $170,000 in debt by earning a degree in illustration, which he doesn't even use in his current job.

The segment also featured a career counselor who noted that many students would be better off pursuing career-oriented certification programs rather than traditional college degrees. He argued that many students with useless college degrees end up doing work that didn't require a degree at all, like bartending.

"I thought there must be a degree in bartending," the interviewer commented. "No, that's called English literature," the counselor responded.

Incoming college students may already be forcing prices down, simply by refusing to pay inflated tuition, The Wall Street Journal reports. This is apparent in the "discounts" offered to incoming students, which reduce the nominal tuition at private colleges.

The Wall Street Journal noted that "the average 'tuition discount rate' — the reduction off list price afforded by grants and scholarships given by these schools — hit an all-time high of 45 percent last fall for incoming freshmen."

The spiraling cost of higher education has been making a lot of noise of late. Jeffrey J. Selingo, editor-at-large for the Chronicle of Higher Education, has a new book out titled "College (Un)bound," which argues that college education is undergoing a rapid and radical transformation.

Last week Selingo did an interview with NPR, arguing that what it means to be educated will become more flexible and competency-based.

"I still think that colleges are still going to exist — physical college campuses are still going to exist for those who want it. What will be different, however, is that you're going to have many more players in the system. (For example) if you decide to take a MOOC (massive online open course) ... and you want to transfer credit ... MOOCs might provide a piece of a person's education.

"This idea of competency-based education, which I think is perhaps the most disruptive force potentially entering higher education — so, right now we measure learning by time spent in a seat. They test you on the way in; they see what you know; and you basically focus on what you don't know. What I think the disruption will be is that some students could finish in 2 1/2 years. There's nothing really magic about 120 credits in four years. It's just tradition."

Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at eschulzke@desnews.com.