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COLLEGE AND HOMESCHOOLING

by Coty Pinckney


What type of higher education -- if any -- is most appropriate for homeschoolers? Is there a need and a market for an institution focused on meeting their needs?

The number of students completing the equivalent of a high school education at home should increase dramatically in the next few years. With more and more families opting to continue homeschooling through high school, there will be at least 25,000 homeschooled 18-year-olds in the year 2000. So there is a potential market.

Home-schooled students who have attended traditional colleges and universities have done well; the possible need for a new institution does not arise from lack of adequate preparation. Nevertheless, many homeschooling parents are skeptical about the net benefits of sending their children to traditional colleges and universities. Some of their concerns include:

(1) Higher education is expensive. While public high schools tend to spend about $5000 per student and homeschooling families only a fraction of that, the best colleges and universities now cost over $25,000 per year. And the "sticker price" does not cover expenses; once all operating and capital costs are included, the total cost to society per student per year is well over $50,000. Although financial aid lowers the short-term cost for many families to amounts well below the "sticker price," much aid is in the form of loans which hang over the heads of parents for years. And financial aid does nothing to lower the cost of education to society. If homeschoolers can educate their children for a fraction of the cost of public high schools, isn't there a way to accomplish the same "educational efficiency" at the college level?

(2) Christian homeschoolers are particularly disturbed by the anti-Christian bias they perceive at most universities and colleges. Some faculty are accused of working specifically to destroy the faith of young Christians. Students who believe that Jesus is the son of God and the Bible is God's revelation to mankind are at times ridiculed even in the classroom. While some students grow in their faith as they meet this challenge, many others fall away.

(3) A related concern is the moral laxity of many residential campuses. In most institutions, students' behavior is limited hardly at all by the school's authorities, and the peer pressure to conform to the norms of the group is strong. Again, many students from strong Christian backgrounds come through these temptations unscathed and strengthened, but many others become involved in sins that have repercussions at least for decades in their lives.

(4) One of the benefits of homeschooling is the degree of interaction between persons of all ages. Traditional colleges and universities, on the other hand, isolate 18 to 22 year olds from persons of other ages, thereby increasing peer pressure to conform, limiting the positive influences of adults and children on this age group, and keeping the students from making their contributions to persons outside their cohort.

(5) Existing colleges and universities were set up when information technology was quite different. Yet changes in this technology over the last fifty years have had only marginal impacts on higher education. While some within academia have recognized that today's technology changes the optimal method of instruction (the President of Stanford in a June 3rd letter to alumni states that "in the future, traditional residential learning may, to some extent, give way to what has come to be called 'distance learning' -- education delivered by technology from the best teachers and libraries, wherever they can be found, to the best students, wherever they are"), there are many vested interests that limit the extent to which these institutions can change. If one can access "the best teachers and libraries" from home, the benefits of attending a residential college or university shrink notably. Furthermore, homeschooled students, who are much more adept at independent learning than their public-schooled age mates, are well-prepared for the challenges of distance learning.

For these and other reasons, homeschoolers in general and Christian homeschoolers in particular have reacted against the prevailing cultural norm that all bright 18-year-olds should go to college. Many have advocated increasing reliance on apprenticeship opportunities, or taking the money that would have been spent on college and setting up the son or daughter in a small business. Undoubtedly apprenticeships will increase in the future and a number of homeschooled students will be able to invest money that would have gone towards college expenses in profitable businesses. But as Mike Farris writes, "If you have a child who wants to become a doctor, dentist, lawyer, architect, or a member of any other profession licensed by the government, your child is not going to be able to obtain the necessary license without a [college degree] (The Homeschooling Father, p. 56)."

Other homeschoolers have attended community colleges or pursued correspondence degrees while living at home. These outlets will grow in importance in the years ahead, and will be valuable in the education of many. There are several problems, however. First, with open enrollment, students at community colleges are not the best. Ideally, the students at an institution should take their work seriously and challenge each other to achieve excellence. This is unlikely to occur at a community college -- and cannot occur through traditional correspondence courses. Second, the value of the credential offered by such programs is suspect to many parents, potential employers, and graduate school admissions staff. And preparation for some future professions -- such as medicine -- is simply not available through correspondence courses or community colleges.

So why should many homeschooled students want to attend an institution that grants degrees equivalent to those offered by the nation's best four-year colleges and universities? These institutions and their supporters offer the following arguments.

First, the credentials offered by such institutions are worth a great deal; good jobs and graduate or professional school admissions come much easier to students from these institutions, even if the students learn no more than those taking correspondence courses.

Second, the opportunity to learn more than students at other institutions is available. With top-notch libraries, faculty on the leading edge of research, excellent laboratory facilities, and (not least) bright fellow students, there is the opportunity to learn a tremendous amount during four years. In particular, bouncing ideas off other students, challenging each other intellectually, can be a key element in the educational process.

Third, many students develop social and presentational skills probably not learned in earlier years and unavailable through correspondence courses: the opportunity to present and defend a thesis orally, for example, or the chance to work in a group on a major research project.

Fourth, if one asks graduating seniors at such institutions what they learned during college, many place the greatest emphasis on a growth in autonomy, a definition of self that occurred during these years, at least in part through encountering an environment different from their home backgrounds. Students with international experiences during these years emphasize such benefits even more.

Fifth, students become part of a community diverse in background and interest, but united in the devotion to the importance of education and knowledge in the world today.

Many homeschooling parents are likely to question one or more of these points. For example, is not the fourth "advantage" simply the maturing process that takes place in most young people at this age? Can not the same or even greater advantages be gained by providing opportunities for experiences abroad, or in a different part of the country, without sending the young person to a four-year college? As for the fifth point, is not the only true "unity in diversity" that which comes through our relationship to Jesus Christ?

Nevertheless, the first three arguments, at least, are strong. Is there a way to reap these advantages of higher education while avoiding the problems outlined above? To do so would require accomplishing the following goals:

(1) Provide a credential within four years that is as valuable in the job market and in graduate and professional schools as those from excellent four-year colleges and universities;

(2) Provide students with the challenge and the opportunity to learn equivalent to that offered in the nation's elite colleges and universities, including the opportunity to interact and work with each other intellectually;

(3) Take advantage of the skills and interests of the students' parents;

(4) Provide the opportunity for students to mature intellectually and spiritually, while maintaining the strong bonds between parent and child developed over the years of homeschooling;

(5) Allow students to stay actively involved in their home communities, interacting with persons of different ages;

(6) Accomplish all of this at considerably lower cost to parents and society than existing institutions,

(7) in an atmosphere that is morally upright and explicitly Christian;

(8) Embrace new methods and technologies which will facilitate achieving these goals.

Can this be done? Imagine an institution focused on home-schooled students that conducts most of its education via distance learning: professors -- many of whom are home-schooling parents themselves -- give students a list of resources to investigate, read, view, and react to; students take part in e-mail discussion lists with other students in the institution who may be located anywhere in the country; students, living at home, interact and discuss these topics with parents regularly. For six to ten weeks each summer all faculty and students come together for face-to-face interaction, oral presentations, and for courses (such as some sciences) that may require facilities unavailable through distance learning.

Would such an institution meet the goals above? Number one -- the value of the credential -- would be difficult to achieve in the short run. New institutions are typically looked down upon in the job and professional/graduate school market. Good marketing and contacts with other homeschoolers could help alleviate this difficulty. Alternately, setting up the institution as a branch of an existing institution that already has excellent credentials would help.

Clearly, goals 3, 4, 5, 7, and 8 could all be accomplished through this model. Goal two -- the quality of the education -- would depend to a large extent on the quality of the faculty and students attracted to the institution. The model, however, would allow faculty at other institutions and professionals from other lines of work to be involved part time. It is possible that homeschooling fathers and mothers who are also university faculty would be excited about being involved in such an institution even if they cannot leave their present employment to join it. Participation through distance learning during the school year and on campus during the summer would still be possible. And our definition of the "quality of faculty" may be quite different from that used at elite institutions, leading to the involvement of professionals outside normal academic circles. Attracting good students is primarily a marketing problem; given the large number of homeschoolers interested in college in the years ahead and the problems associated with the other options, it seems likely that reasonable numbers of good students would be interested. And while the focus would be on students homeschooled through high school, clearly anyone could apply.

Goal six -- reasonable cost -- is challenging. This model, however, should be considerably less expensive than most present institutions. Since students come together only in the summer, there is no need to build or buy a new facility; an existing facility could be rented for the summer. Similarly, by depending primarily on electronic libraries and document retrieval systems, there is no need for the expenses of a library. Intercollegiate sports are not an option for a non-residential institution. Having students live at home most of the year reduces overall cost, both for room and board and for other student services.

Nevertheless, faculty time is expensive, and distance learning which includes considerable interaction electronically between professors and students may not markedly reduce overall faculty input. Certainly in order to achieve a quality education, faculty time per student is likely to be considerably higher than in many large public institutions, even if it need not be as high as in the elite liberal arts colleges. A separate article, calculates that we could accomplish our goals for a cost per student per year of about 8,000 1994 dollars. Charging no more than this without an endowment and with no alumni support while providing a high-quality education would be quite an accomplishment.

In sum, there are strong reasons why many homeschoolers are skeptical about paying large fees to send their sons and daughters to existing four-year institutions, but equally strong reasons to overlook these problems and enroll children in such institutions. Creating a new institution, devoted to and designed for homeschoolers, may be a realistic option. Your thoughts on the rationale for and design of such an institution would be highly valued.


Coty Pinckney is a homeschooling father of six, and Dean of the Center for Development Economics at Williams College. He can be reached via the Internet at tpinckney@williams.edu. An earlier version of this appeared in the December 1994 issue of Practical Homeschooling.

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