This past June, the board of directors at the University of Virginia fired (and, after widespread outcry, rehired) its president, worried she was too slow to move the university into the digital world. It was a panicky and clumsy move, but the board’s concern was not altogether misplaced. Just as newspapers and bookstores have been decimated by low-priced online competition, so too are brick-and-mortar universities threatened.

But when will this digital threat actually hit, and what will it look like when it does? To find out, the Washington Monthly sent ace education journalist Kevin Carey to Silicon Valley, where investment in education technology companies has quadrupled since 2007. Carey spent time poking around the offices of startups with goofy made-up names like Quizlet, Chegg, and Udemy, studying the folkways and insights of the young tech entrepreneurs who work there — and the venture capitalists who fund them.

Among other things, Carey discovered that instead of placing big bets on a handful of new companies, today’s venture investors are increasingly putting small amounts of money into myriad tiny startups, a trend made possible by the plummeting cost of digital storage. The resulting plethora of new companies maximizes the chance that one of them will come up with the killer new business model that will upend traditional higher education.

Carey also learned that instead of a direct assault on the existing higher ed sector, protected as it is by government subsidies and regulations, Silicon Valley is creating a whole parallel universe of online learning and credentialing, mostly serving foreign students currently locked out by cost and geography from the American college market. When this parallel new system starts producing well-educated graduates able to meet the needs of global employers but willing to work for less than the heavily-indebted graduates of traditional American colleges, the moment of truth will arrive.

Read “The Siege of Academe” in the Washington Monthly’s 2012 College Guide and Rankings.

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Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. A former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, he is writing a book on America’s involvement in the Greek War of Independence.