Education pundits and technology enthusiasts sometimes say they’d be fine if their kids didn’t go to college, at least not in the traditional, football-games-and-fraternities-and-lecture-classes manner. People explain how technology will render the existing university irrelevant; it seems reasonable to think their own kids won’t need or want to attend traditional college.

As BuzzFeed’s Buzzfeed President Jon Steinberg recently put it, “I don’t want my children to go to college unless they … desperately [want to be] scholars… Otherwise, I’d much prefer them to do an internship.”

I have no doubt people like are totally serious when they say they don’t think their kids will need to attend college. While I sort of wonder if their family financial planning also avoids higher education considerations, it seems entirely valid to think they’re sincere.

But Stacia Brown over at the Atlantic suggests that there’s a flaw in this line of thinking. This is a “one percent conversation,” she complains. As she writes:

In the larger country in which we live, however, first-generation college students still make up about 30 percent of freshman classes each year. First-gen college students find it difficult to adjust to most post-secondary learning without dedicated mentorship. Low-income first gens are four times more likely to leave college after the first year than their multi-generation peers. And a study by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board noted that the state’s first-gen drop-out rate for those in face-to-face, on-campus classes was 18 percent, as opposed to 25 percent for distance learners. Students like mine could not be tossed into the deep end of MOOC without having first spent whole semesters sitting at shared desks, raising their hands, and exchanging their writing among teachers, tutors, and peers.

The problem, Brown explains, is that online college works well for the motivated, reasonably disciplined and sophisticated students. Brown is a community college professor and for the unprepared, she says, the physical classroom appears to be absolutely necessary .

That’s because if you’re not that prepared for college it’s probably not good enough to just plop you down in front of a computer and expect it to work out. That, indeed might be why the completion rate for online college so low at this point.

The end of traditional college is an interesting idea (albeit one that futurists have been predicting for almost 100 years) , but the evidence suggests that this isn’t likely to be the reality anytime soon, if ever.

Self-directed learning has been the goal of education reformers since the early 20th century. The closest we’ve ever really come to actually making this work are for students who design their own majors at Hampshire or Sarah Lawrence and professional, college educated adults who take Udacity courses to ramp up professional skills and take courses that they find interesting. The hard part will be ever making self-directed technology work for the poor and poorly educated.

It seems we’ve got a long way to go.

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