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

Preparing Our Kids for a Challenging Future, Part 4: College is a Tool, Not a Goal

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen that preparing our children for a challenging future means not replicating school in our homes. It also means giving our children the opportunity for free exploration, hands-on learning and discovering the upside to failure. These are important components for raising children to thrive in the rapidly changing 21st century.

But just as we no longer teach our children to use the slide rule or achieve perfect penmanship because they’re not necessary any more, there are some things we may not need to do to prepare our children to thrive in the 21st century. One of them is to push our children to earn a college degree.

Not attending college is a touchy subject for homeschooling parents. Back when homeschooling first hit the public consciousness, there were many naysayers who didn’t believe that parents could teach their children well enough for them to succeed in life. Here’s the gauntlet those critics of homeschooling held up: “How will homeschooled kids ever get into college?”

They got their answer when homeschooler Grant Colfax was accepted to Harvard; years later, when he and his homeschooled brothers had all successfully completed college, there was more proof. And when some suggested the boys were simply products of excellent genetics, their father pointedly noted that two of his boys were adopted.

Since then, college has become the holy grail for most homeschooling parents. A home-educated child with a college degree is proof to friends and family that this homeschooling thing works. So to suggest that most of their kids probably won’t need to earn a college degree may seem almost sacrilegious to some. But looking at college graduation as a badge of honor doesn’t necessarily help our children.

The push for college in society as a whole over the past 40 years has ignored the fact that many kids are not cut out for college. They may not be book learners, or they may have gifts that are better served by on-the-job training or tech school. Evidence shows that forcing all kids into college has resulted in a low graduation rate (only half of all college students graduate within six years) and a lot of dropouts hampered by large levels of student loan debt racked up during the time they were in college.

Even young people who excelled in college are finding that the high-priced degree they earned is not much help in the new economy. If they can find work, it may not be in their field of study; it may also pay less than they expected to earn. This can result in real hardship if they took on a lot of student loan debt, which can almost never be discharged through bankruptcy, leaving them with a burden of debt that could weigh them down much of their lives.

The fact is that most of the job growth over the coming decade as predicted by the U.S. government does not require a four-year degree, and college won’t be necessary for most workers (I’ve included those statistics in my book, Thriving in the 21st Century.)

This doesn’t mean that we should discourage all of our children from going to college. Those with the smarts and the desire to have careers that logically and/or legally require advanced education (physicians, scientists, etc.) should certainly be encouraged and helped to attend college. But the idea that every young person can and should go to college makes no sense in light of the changes in our economy. We parents need to be brave enough to buck the trend and look at each of our children as individuals, determine which (if any) will likely benefit from going to college, and then help the rest figure out the best way to proceed so that they’ll thrive in the 21st century.

(Thriving in the 21st Century: Preparing Our Children for the New Economic Reality is packed with ways to prepare your children for the future. Learn more HERE.)

Missed the first three parts of “Preparing Our Kids for a Challenging Future”? You’ll find them here: #1, #2 and #3.



Preparing for Adulthood Without College

I loved college. I loved the campus, I loved the dorms, and I loved the challenging classes (well, most of them). College was a great experience for me, and once I began having children, it was something I wanted for them, too. I assumed they would feel the same way. But as my oldest reached her mid-teens, she decided that college was not for her.

At first I thought she would change her mind, and so I geared her work toward college preparatory subjects, and required her to take the PSAT and ACT. She scored above average on both tests. Soon college brochures and catalogs filled our mailbox, but none of them changed her mind.

Her dream was to work and be on her own. She felt that going to college was a way of delaying adulthood, and she was eager to be an adult. She had dreams of travel, and eventually getting her own place to live. She had been very independent, even as a small child, and that trait grew stronger as she approached her late teens.

I kept thinking that maybe we should just sign her up somewhere. I thought if she went away to school and lived with other girls her age, she would change her mind and enjoy her surroundings. But my husband felt that there was no point in sending an unmotivated student.

As I grew to accept the inevitability of the situation, teaching only college preparatory subjects felt all wrong. Why study subjects she had no interest in, like a foreign language or chemistry, if she wasn’t going to need them for college? All she could talk about was how she was going to move to this city or that city. Some of her plans were very impractical because she had no idea of what it would cost to live on her own. Her naive talk started to make me a little nervous.

I closely studied my large collection of homeschool catalogs, hoping to find resources we could use for her last year of homeschooling. But it seemed like most products were geared toward the college-bound student, and those that remained focused on cooking and sewing. She already knew how to cook and sew. I was more concerned about how she would handle credit cards and whether she really understood how much it would cost her to feed and house herself. If she didn’t want a degree, she would likely have to live on a modest income. (How times have changed!)

I decided to design sensible projects for her. So, in addition to Math Review, Shakespeare, Bible, History and Expository Writing, each week she had to research different aspects of living on her own. She compared rents in different cities, and interviewed insurance agents, landlords and utility companies. She asked many questions and got many answers.

Soon we branched out to subjects she would need to know about before she got her first full-time job. She learned about health insurance (a must, as our health insurance would not cover her once she turned 19 unless she attended college full-time). She learned about taxes and withholding, budgeting and even mortgages. She educated herself about every aspect of buying a car, and the pros and cons of car loans.

I noticed that as she completed the projects*, her naive plans slowly turned into more logical ones. By the time she finished homeschooling, I felt that she was well-prepared for independence. She started studying different cities on her own. She researched and bought her first car, for which she paid cash, because she understood just how much interest a car loan would have cost her. And she didn’t move out as soon as she turned 18, as she’d always said she would, because now she really understood that she couldn’t afford it.

Instead, she saved up a portion of her pay, and she now has a good-sized savings account. She is nearly 20, and will soon move into a city apartment with two other young women. We will miss her, but we see how excited she is about living on her own, and we are thankful that she is prepared for it.

Walking through the preparation process with her taught me a lot, too. I learned to listen to what she was really saying instead of expecting her to want what I wanted for her. I saw how prepared she could become with the right training. And now I get to see her try her wings as she leaves the nest.

Author note: Since I wrote this article almost ten years ago, my daughter has lived in three large Midwestern cities. She now owns two Internet businesses and, unlike many of her peers, is enjoying the debt-free life.

* The projects are in my book Life Prep for Homeschooled Teenagers.

A Response to the Usual Back-to-School Drivel

A recent issue of the Sunday newspaper supplement USA Weekend offered the usual back-to-school article; this year, the author devised a 7-point plan for parents sending their children back to their local school.

Here are her seven points, followed by my take on them  :)

1)      “Make contact with teachers by Week 3.” Personally, I’d want to know the adult(s) my child is spending each day with before I put her on the bus. But that’s just me. As the author says, “The goal is to open up the lines of communication between the most influential adults in your child’s life.” Again, we homeschoolers prefer that the most influential adults in our children’s lives are us. We’re funny that way.

2)      “Check that your child is reading at grade level.” This would be perfectly logical if all children learned at the same rate. But they don’t. I read at three; a friend’s homeschooled daughter didn’t start reading until 11. Both of us could read massive novels at age 13. So let’s not try to force kids into a mold; they’ll read when they’re ready.

3)      “Understand the importance of downtime.” We already do, which is why we homeschool! The author quotes an article from Pediatrics magazine stating that in 2009, 30% of 8- and 9-year-olds got little or no recess in school. That’s sad, but the remaining 70% probably don’t get much more downtime because today’s kids are fully booked outside of school. Downtime is sorely needed by ALL kids.

4)      “Analyze test scores.” Because test scores tell you how smart your child is, right? No! Some very bright kids don’t test well, and some average kids can score quite well because they can read the test-writer’s intentions. Schools (and our government) place way too much importance on test scores.

5)      “Stay on track for college.” Here we go again. Not all kids should go to college. Not all kids need to go to college. And given the number of college grads now underemployed and unemployed, college is not a guarantee of a promising job future. Determine if your child is college material and go from there.

6)      “Don’t trash-talk about math.” Well, duh. You never trash-talk things you want your child to enjoy and excel in. But why math in particular? Be open to all of your child’s interests and give him plenty of opportunities to explore the world around him.

7)      “Be part of the learning community.” The author recommends going to school meetings, being a school volunteer and going to the school play. Beans! My parents never showed up at school except for occasional parent-teacher nights and my graduations, yet I still made the honor roll. Let’s be honest: being part of the “learning community” is just a way for the school to butt into and usurp your family life. Replace the phrase ‘learning community” with “family.” Be there for your child. Read to her, answer her questions, take her to museums, zoos and anywhere else that piques her curiosity. Put your energy into your child instead of the PTA. The time you put into actually being a parent is priceless.