The major problem the advocates of online college face is that, ultimately, it doesn’t appear that online education is really particularly good at educating students. The completion rates for online courses are really, really bad.

Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs) have incredibly high dropout rates. When Stanford announced it was offering a free, online course in artificial intelligence 160,000 people signed up. About 20 percent finished the course.

But maybe that’s okay, writes Rebecca Rosen at the Atlantic:

But don’t be disappointed! This is just as it should be. On their own, these statistics tell us little about the efficacy or quality of online learning. They tell us even less about how these experiments will or will not remake the face of American higher education. What they do tell us is that lots of people are aspirational learners — a fact we should celebrate in its own right — and that the bar for passing these courses is high enough that many will not make it to the end.

This is, in some ways, exactly why MOOCs are exciting. The bar for entry is so low that anyone with a passing interest can check it out — quite unlike America’s rarefied and costly system of higher education. Similarly, the costs of leaving are low, and people who don’t have the time, find it’s not quite right for them, or just plain aren’t so interested after all can leave with few consequences. If anything, the low rate of success is a sign of the system’s efficiency.

Well perhaps, but the problem is this: people with any money don’t want to take online courses, because they are impersonal and soul crushing.

That means that online courses are limited to the poor and the desperate, those who can’t go to college using the normal process.

Some think this means that online college will transform higher education, bringing high quality classes to those previously shut out of college. Not really. The sky high dropout rate might mean the courses are high quality, but this also means such courses are not at all good for unmotivated, or even mildly motivated, learners.

But these free, online classes are precisely the sort of courses that are supposed to appeal to the poor and the unprepared. So it’s both harder to learn in this venue and less respected. How is this supposed to work out again?

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer