That’s the question raised by Andrew J. Coulson in a post at the CATO Institute blog.

He makes an excellent point in that the internet gives us access to pretty much… everything.

If you wanted a liberal arts education in 1499, you were probably out of luck. But, if you happened to be a 0.01 percenter, you might have been able to saddle up the horse and ride to Oxford or Cambridge. Because that’s where the books were. Books didn’t generally come to you, you had to go to them.

Today, every one of us has more works of art, philosophy, literature, and history at our fingertips than existed, worldwide, half-a-millennium ago. We can call them up, free or for a nominal charge, on electronic gadgets that cost little to own and operate. Despite that fact, we’re still captives to the idea that a liberal arts education must be dispensed by colleges and must be acquired between the ages of 19 and 22.

But the liberal arts can be studied without granite buildings, frat houses, or sports venues. Discussions about great works of literature can be held just as easily in coffee shops as in stadium-riser classrooms—perhaps more easily. Nor is there any reason to believe that there is some great advantage to concentrating the study of those works in the few years immediately after high school—or that our study of them must engage us full-time. The traditional association of liberal arts education and four-year colleges was already becoming an anachronism before the rise of the World Wide Web. It is now a crumbling fossil.

Handing colleges tens of thousands of dollars—worse yet, hundreds of thousands—for an education that can be obtained independently at little cost, would be tragically wasteful even if the college education were effective. In many cases, it is not. Research by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa reveals that almost half of all college students make no significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, or written communication after two full years of study. Those are skills that any liberal arts education should cultivate. Even among the subset of students who linger for four years at college, fully one-third make no significant gains in those areas.