Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), large-scale courses developed by professors and offered to students for free online, represent one of the more important trends in higher education today. Their unique structure allows technology to provide high-quality course material to interested students around the world.

But as Reihan Salam writes at Reuters, MOOCs, at their most basic level, represent a long-term trend in American education, one that isn’t altogether positive:

What if there is no free lunch to be had? That is, what if the only way to reduce the failure rate in online courses is to blend them with some of the more labor-intensive — and thus, more expensive — aspects of traditional education? Recently, a good friend of mine — a tenured academic who has the good sense not to publicly weigh in on higher education controversies — suggested that “massive online open courses,” better known as MOOCs, represent the logical culmination of a long-term trend in higher education. As the higher education sector has increased its reach, it has been recruiting students who are less prepared for rigorous instruction and less committed to completing their degrees than those who came before them. ….It is no coincidence that while only one-fifth of college enrollees failed to complete a degree in the 1960s, the number has since increased to one-third.

That’s because the more we promote “access” to college, the more we’re really promoting access to people who need help completing college. It’s easy to get smart, motivated, and relatively affluent students through college; the hard part is educating poorly prepared, distracted, and low-income students.

MOOCs take care of one part of this problem (because the courses are free, it’s easy for poor students to access them), but MOOCs aren’t really so great about the other parts. This is a huge problem in promoting greater access to college. The students who have problems with access also have problems with actual completion:

At the same time that the higher education sector is taking on tougher-to-teach students, it has aimed to use labor less intensively. Elite liberal arts colleges that offered a great deal of personal attention and hand-holding gave rise to large land grant universities that offered somewhat less personal attention and hand-holding. State schools, in turn, gave rise to community colleges, which offer still less of both, which in turn left room for for-profit higher education institutions that eagerly recruit students with minimal preparation for college-level coursework while offering them hardly any personal attention or hand-holding at all. With each step, higher education has in a sense become more inclusive. Yet with each step, the institutions in question also see a higher attrition rate.

Or, as Salam puts it quite succinctly in the title of his piece: “Online education can be good or cheap, but not both.”

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