There are several parts of most institutions of higher ed that weren't around twenty years ago. First-year programs, service-learning centers, climbing walls (and other "frills" meant to attract students), technology-enabled learning, assessment, and undergraduate research programs all have become part of the infrastructure of American colleges and universities. Each took a different path to become part of the mainstream. And each provides a model of how higher ed might approach the problem of maintaining quality while reducing costs.
Here are the models:
Competition--Some changes have become part of American higher ed simply through competition between campuses. The most obvious is the improvement in the quality of student amenities--residence halls, fitness centers, cafeterias, bookstores, and, yes, climbing walls. Prosperous campuses invested in amenities; other campuses adopted them in order to keep up. Some schools (Elon comes to mind) have built themselves into outstanding institutions by starting with the look and feel of campus.
Vendor-driven change--All sorts of forces drove campuses to embrace technology-enabled learning, but the most significant (I would argue) was the power of vendors. Apple, for example, adcquired market-share and loyalty in schools by making great deals for educators. More broadly, EduCause, the leading national organization on tech and ed, got its birth from vendors seeking a way to entice campuses to adopt their products.
Faculty and government cooperation--Undergraduate research became a movement (as opposed to a common practice) by a combination of faculty interest, especially among science faculty, coupled with funding support from the federal government. The major national organization dedicated to undergraduate research--the Council on Undergraduate Research--makes this connection clear on its website, where it features its work in government relations.
Entrepreneurial faculty/campuses--The first-year experience movement would not exist in its present form without a couple of entrepreneurial faculty--John Gardner and Betsy Barefoot--and the support of the University of South Carolina. While FYE has now become an independent organization and is no longer directly affiliated with USC, its influence emerged from that handful of people who managed to organize just ahead of national attention turning to the problem of student retention and success.
Campus-based think-tanks--The assessment movement as we know it was born from two major campus think-tanks/research centers: HERI at UCLA and NSSE at the University of Indiana. Those organizations continue to provide both raw data, national research, and intellectual leadership to American higher ed.
Presidential leadership--faculty have been teaching service-learning courses for about 100 years, but the civic engagement movement got its organizational birth from the leadership of a handful of presidents--at Brown, Stanford, Georgetown, and Rhode Island--who sat down to talk about the problem of student civic disengagement and the decline of higher ed's civic mission. Out of that small group came Campus Compact, an organization of over 1000 schools, each of which has joined because its president wanted to be part of the organization.
If you look at the cost/quality world today you can see these various models vying for supremacy. Vendors offer software to support learning, entrepreneurial campuses offer open course ware. Think tanks provide data. And campuses are beginning to compete.
But there is a huge gap, one that needs to be filled if the cost/quality effort is going to get beyond individual campuses--presidential leadership. By this I don't mean presidential leadership on individual campuses. (Westminster's president, for example, is leading out in this area.) I mean a coalition of presidents who pledge, as did the early Campus Compact presidents, to work together to bring about major change in higher ed. Without a coalition of presidents, we will likely default to a competition model, in which higher ed as a whole probably doesn't move at all (campuses either sink, swim, or get into another pool).