In an interview with Fast Company late last year, Sebastian Thrun, CEO of MOOC company Udacity, said that struggling MOOC students were “from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives. It’s a group for which this medium is not a good fit.”

Unfortunately, Thrun’s description precisely matches that of many who take online courses, and who MOOC enthusiasts had hoped the free platforms would be reaching.

“The online students in so many cases are working full time with family obligations while most of the on-campus students are not employed full time and have those same obligations,” said Ray Schroeder, associate vice chancellor for online learning at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

When San Jose State University and Udacity partnered to offer for-credit MOOCs last year, as much as 75 percent of students failed some of the courses. More than 60 percent of the students were not enrolled in a degree program at the university.

Out of the matriculated San Jose State students taking the remedial math MOOC, every one of them had previously failed a remedial math class. More than three-quarters of students enrolled in the MOOCs were balancing school work with jobs, the university said.

And these demographics characterize many forms of online learning. While the majority of “traditional” students on college campuses are in their late teens and early twenties, those taking online courses tend be adult learners with families and jobs.

The average age of students at the online-only Western Governors University, for example, is 36. A 2012 survey of online courses, sponsored by the Learning House and Aslanian Market Research, found that the average entirely-online student is 33 years old and fully employed. Online students who are younger are often low-income, and take online courses owing to issues of affordability.

(Next page: Not all are institutions are seeing low retention rates)

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