College Advice from a Ph.D.

In Thriving in the 21st Century, I described how to assess whether or not your teen is “college material.” In this video, a man who holds a Ph.D. and has taught at several universities explains just how crucial it is that parents ask the right questions before sending their sons or daughters to college. This is well worth watching:


Blast from the Past: What Does a Degree from Harvard Get You?

Back when I was fairly new to homeschooling, a California family whose homeschooled son was accepted to Harvard made it big in the news (see links for their books below). Homeschooling was pretty much unknown at that time, so the idea that a child who did not attend school could get into a university, much less Harvard, created quite a stir.

Since that time, some homeschooling parents made it their goal to raise children who could gain acceptance into the best colleges, and they’ve done quite a job of achieving that goal. Many homeschooled kids have since graduated from college with honors, including one of mine.

But that wasn’t the reason we homeschooled him. His academic achievements were spurred by his own motivation. Our goal was to raise Christian kids who had a good basic education, could think for themselves, and who had developed the ability to teach themselves whatever they might need to know.

There’s nothing wrong with homeschooling children so that they can get into Harvard, but I hope it’s not the only reason a parent chooses to homeschool, because a degree from Harvard doesn’t guarantee learning as much as it does “a good student,” as college professor Joseph Epstein describes here:

I have come to distrust the type I think of as “the good student”–that is, the student who sails through school and is easily admitted into the top colleges and professional schools. The good student is the kid who works hard in high school, piles up lots of activities, and scores high on his SATs, and for his efforts gets into one of the 20 or so schools in the country that ring the gong of success. While there he gets a preponderance of A’s. This allows him to move on to the next good, or even slightly better, graduate, business, or professional school, where he will get more A’s still, and move onward and ever upward. His perfect résumé in hand, he runs only one risk–that of catching cold from the draft created by all the doors opening for him wherever he goes, as he piles up scads of money, honors, and finally ends up being offered a job at a high level of government. He has, in a sense Spike Lee never intended, done the right thing.

What’s wrong with this? Am I describing anything worse than effort and virtue richly rewarded? I believe I am. My sense of the good student is that, while in class, he really has only one pertinent question, which is, What does this guy, his professor at the moment, want? Whatever it is–a good dose of liberalism, libertarianism, feminism, conservatism–he gives it to him, in exchange for another A to slip into his backpack alongside all the others on his long trudge to the Harvard, Yale, Stanford law or business schools, and thence into the empyrean.

Just what the world needs…another Yes Man (or Woman), someone who goes with the party line in order to gain approval. In his essay, Epstein points out that there are some students who are willing to stick with their beliefs, no matter what belief system their professor professes. His own son is one of them. But they know they may be punished at grade time.

Epstein also suggests that those who do not attend high-brow colleges and universities like Harvard have a better chance of real success in the world:

Universities are of course the last bastion of snobbery in America. The problem is that the snobbery works. Nor is this snobbery likely to be seriously eroded in our lifetime. No parent whose child has the choice of going to Princeton or Arizona State is likely to advise the kid to become a Sun Devil. Go to one of the supposedly better schools and your chances for success in the great world increase, flat-out, no doubt about it. To have been accepted at one of the top schools means that a child has done what he was told, followed instructions, kept his eye on the prize, played the game, and won. But does it mean much more?

Harry S. Truman and Ronald Reagan were two of the greatest presidents of the twentieth century. Truman didn’t go to college at all, and Reagan, one strains to remember, went to Eureka College in Eureka, Illinois. Each was his own man, each, in his different way, without the least trace of conformity or hostage to received opinion or conventional wisdom. Schooling, even what passes for the best schooling, would, one feels, have made either man less himself and thereby probably worse.

Epstein taught at Northwestern University for over thirty years, so he’s had some time to develop this theory. What do you think?

(Originally posted 12/8/08.)

Flashback Friday: More Thoughts About College

Note: this post was written nearly seven years ago. My eldest now works part-time and has two small businesses. My son never did go to seminary because of his college debt. But he has a great job that he would not have gotten without a college degree.

I’ve written before about the struggle my eldest and I went through once she told me she had no interest in going to college. That was several years ago. In fact, it’s been six years since she finished homeschooling. She has worked full-time ever since, and while she has not yet found the kind of work that makes her happy and pays its way, she loves living on her own, which was one of her primary goals.

Meanwhile, in the five years since my son finished homeschooling, he has been working towards his college degree, and we are all happy for him because he graduates in a few weeks. This is not the end of his formal education, however; in August he will enroll in a Lutheran seminary, where he will begin three more years of classes (plus a year of vicarage).

So we’ve had a wide range of college viewpoints going on in our family, from adamantly opposed to college to thriving in the college atmosphere. The past six years have taught us a lot about the whole college issue. Boiling it down to several salient points:

College is not for everyone. Many young people, including my daughter, want to experience life outside of the classroom, not within it. Often, the work that interests them does not require a degree. Also, many are autodidacts like my daughter. She inhales books of all kinds because she wants to, not simply because they were assigned.

College is just what some people need. My son has thrived in the atmosphere of the small Lutheran college he attends. He has made contacts he will need as he goes about his life’s work. He has learned a lot, which was the whole point. And he cannot reach his goal of becoming a Lutheran pastor without a bachelor’s degree.

College is incredibly expensive. I say this as the mother of an intelligent and outgoing son who earned a lot of money in scholarships and grants and yet is graduating with a frightening amount of debt….and may have to rack up more before he’s finished with seminary. My daughter works with people who graduated owing thousands and who were unable to find work in their major. They earn the same money as she does (some earn less), but they have to pay back that debt in addition to all the usual monthly expenses.

College should not be the only option considered. In the years since I attended college, the way our society views college has gone from “nice if you can afford it” to “an absolute necessity.” This is patently untrue, but the result of this change in outlook has resulted in kids who have no business being there being pushed into college. That’s why so many colleges now have to offer remedial reading and remedial math.

College does not equal success. There are plenty of people in this world who have done very well for themselves without a college diploma, and many others who turned out to be failures despite having one.

Attending college is not an indicator of homeschooling success. Young people who have trouble understanding what they read or putting two numbers together are getting into colleges these days. Homeschooling parents should set their sights higher than merely bringing up future college students; raising young people with moral character, a concern for others and a wide range of abilities is a worthier goal, and if said young people decide to go to college, they’ll be a good influence on the other students they meet there.

Adapted from an April 2007 post