Colleges and universities are struggling to cope with the “higher education bubble“.

Nick Andersen of Washington Post’s College Inc. reports from a forum at which featured the impact of online courses and how to effectively incorporate them into degree programs.

Universities are facing tough questions in an age when students anywhere can access an ever-growing catalogue of courses from top-flight professors online at no charge.

Today, George Mason takes its turn wrestling with the future of higher ed. I’m writing this from a forum Friday at the Fairfax campus where some provocative ideas are being tossed around.

Kaplan, the for-profit higher education unit of the Washington Post Co., is a co-sponsor of the forum.

Jeff Selingo, editor at large at the Chronicle of Higher Education, identified five disruptive forces in higher ed: the sea of red ink that is enveloping institutions; the public disinvestment in universities, especially at the state level; market pressures from so-called massive open online courses, aka MOOCs, as well as other innovations; “student swirl,” referring to high mobility of students from school to school, and out of school altogether; and the “value gap,” referring, in part, to increasingly urgent questions about what a degree is really worth.

The public, Selingo noted, is less sanguine about what it is getting for its tuition and tax dollars than college presidents, who Selingo said are often “tone deaf.”

“We tend to overestimate the speed of change, but underestimate its depth,” said Selingo, who is working on a book called “College (Un)bound.” Tectonic shifts are happening, he said, in ways that will transform the higher ed landscape over 10 to 15 years.

He also offered a frame for thinking about online innovation that caught my eye.

The first phase of online higher ed, he said, was driven by individual institutions and inherently institution-focused. The second, which we’re seeing now in the form of joint ventures such as edX and Coursera, involves federations of institutions. So Coursera has 33 prominent universities offering hundreds of MOOCs. EdX encompasses three elite schools and a major state university system. And there are other emerging groups.

The third phase, which will probably gain prominence, features the free agents. These are professors who are offering up MOOCs on their own, or with only slight ties to universities. Professors, Selingo noted, “who have individual brands are able to leverage those brands.”

The implication: Who needs a school?

One answer: It took a school to organize this very gathering.