George Washington University. (Photo by Mary F. Calvert For The Washington Post)

When George Washington University announced last week that it was laying off nearly 50 employees to reduce costs, the university’s president, Steven Knapp, blamed a decline in enrollment in graduate and professional programs.

Graduate degrees and professional certificates have been the fastest-growing segment of higher education in recent years, and the thinking has always been that when the economy improves, fewer people go back to school for such credentials because they can more easily get jobs instead.

[Why are so many college students failing to gain job skills before graduation?]

But GW and thousands of other college and universities are mistaken if they think that any downward trend in graduate enrollment is a temporary blip caused by an improving economy. Rather, what is happening now is a permanent shift in how today’s working adults acquire education throughout their lifetimes.

Until now, if you needed additional training to get ahead in your job or switch careers, you had little choice but to enroll in a graduate or certificate program at a local college or online. These programs largely replicated undergraduate programs at colleges in that they required students to start at a specific time and dedicate months or even years to a series of courses. Most of all, the programs were expensive, and came with little, if any, financial aid from the colleges, which saw them as cash cows.

We hear a lot these days about the “student-debt crisis,” but some of the biggest increases in student debt have come at the graduate level, not among undergraduates. A Brookings Institution report released last June found that the average debt levels of borrowers with a graduate degree have more than quadrupled since 1999, from about $10,000 to more than $40,000 (by comparison, those with a bachelor’s degree increased from $6,000 to $16,000).

The graduate and professional education market is ripe for disruption, yet much of the discussion on the changes coming to higher education have focused on undergraduate programs, like the kind Sweet Briar College operates. Persuading 18-year-olds and their parents to think of alternatives to a bachelor’s degree is a tough sell in a culture that celebrates the coming-of-age experience of going off to college. It’s much easier to offer a different pathway at the graduate level, when students already have a bachelor’s degree and they’re often paying the tuition bill themselves.

[What’s the purpose of college: A job or an education?]

New players in the market that aren’t traditional colleges — the Khan Academy, General Assembly, Skillshare, Lynda.com, Coursera, and Dev Bootcamp — are starting to attract students who normally would have pursued a graduate degree or certificate. Sure, these so-called “boot camps” don’t have the household brand names of legacy players, but they are largely succeeding where traditional colleges haven’t even tried to compete: with “just-in-time education.”

Think of just-in-time education as when you watch a video on YouTube to figure out how to change a flat tire or fix a broken appliance.

These emerging providers know that today’s economy demands education throughout our careers rather than just at the beginning, so they offer short spurts of content (from a few hours to a few weeks) when students need it instead of giving them a full helping of a degree.

So far, their model is proving popular. The Khan Academy serves 10 million people a month with 5,000 videos. General Assembly has nearly two dozen locations around the world and more than 12,000 alumni who have taken its full- and part-time courses, most of whom are in their 20s and 30s and already have a bachelor’s degree.

And then there is Lynda​.com, which reaches more than 4 million people a year with its how-to tutorials online in everything from management skills to programming. Last week, just as GW was announcing its cutbacks, LinkedIn announced that it was buying Lynda​.com.

The purchase price: $1.5 billion. That’s almost double George Washington University’s annual budget and perhaps the only sign you need to see the kinds of changes coming in graduate-level education.

Read more from Jeffrey J. Selingo:

Why are so many college students failing to gain job skills before graduation?

What’s the purpose of college: A job or an education?

Just how high can college tuition go?