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New approaches to College offer benefits, avoid pitfalls

November 7, 2016

There are few topics on which secular society is more unified than the homeschooling community, few topics on which homeschooling parents can find themselves in vehement disagreement with people they otherwise align on so many issues. The stakes are very high, and there are (what seem at times) competing goals in play: on the one hand we all want to position our children for “maximum success” in their adult lives; on the other hand we want to guide them through their late teen years to help them avoid risks to their morality and faith.

Secular parents nearly unanimously subscribe to the importance of sending their children off to college, seeing it as the last critical boost to ensure their kids’ success in life, and their last step completing their responsibilities as parents. Many feel the four (or will it be five?) years of college will be their child’s chance to “find themselves” and set their direction in life. They take their kids on campus tours and feel a great deal of pride talking with their friends about the schools their kids are considering.

More than 2/3 of parents push their kids to take on student debt in order to enable their years in college – a debt averaging over $37,000 per student, over $1.5 Trillion in total. It is proof of the extent to which it’s seen as a critical investment, that despite college costs climbing at approximately 400% the rate of inflation of family incomes in the U.S. since the 1980s, the number of students attending college has doubled over that period, to 23 million.  In another sign of our times, the number of women with college degrees surpassed the number of men in the 1990s, and the gap is growing…

college-degrees

Homeschool parents raise legitimate concerns about the college experience

Homeschooling parents, in contrast, are significantly divided on the issue. While some families see value in a college education, whether via traditional or newer approaches, other families are hard set against their kids getting a college degree, for a variety of reasons:

  • Some believe getting a degree is an acknowledgement of dependency on the world’s approval for one’s future success. (It is sometimes hard to know how to apply Scripture’s call to be “in” the world, but not “of” it)
  • Others worry about the party-oriented “hookup” cultures on most college campuses being a constant temptation to sin, leading to later regrets
  • Some have convictions for young ladies, in particular, that if they are setting their sights on a life as a wife and mother, a college education is a waste of time, effort and money – or worse, a mixed message nudging them toward feminism
  • Some parents believe that more true “learning” is possible in the work world, because college imparts theoretical information of little value outside academic settings (depending on one’s major)
  • Recent studies showing the prevalence of both cheating and short-term memorization “cramming” cast doubt on how much material college students are actually absorbing
  • Some point to the dilution of the value of a bachelor’s degree, with rising college enrollments driven by easy access to student loans and reduced standards at many universities enabled by SAT score inflation
  • Many Christian parents are very concerned at the problem of university professors intent on destroying students’ faith – even at so-called Christian universities

 

But in our complex modern society, the value of advanced specialized education seems clear

High school curriculum covers many useful subjects, but it’s extremely unlikely that anyone can find a way to earn a decent income in the world, either using or selling their skills from a high school education alone. Additional education is critical, either to learn how to produce goods that can be sold with enough scale and enough profit margin to be profitable, or to learn a skill for which someone will be willing to pay them. Investing in one’s self to become skilled and marketable is a prerequisite for success, whether one wants to become an entrepreneur or an employee poised to climb the corporate ladder.

There are other ways to gain valuable additional education, as I discussed in a previous post, but many of the skills our society needs, for which it is willing to pay, are taught in college. So at least some college degrees have a value in increasing one’s earning potential. Choosing one of these majors is critical, and we must guide our children to avoid majors which lead only to a future in academia, which is surely on the precipice of major disruption.

Addressing an objection some homeschoolers raise, even if young ladies do rightly set their sights on homemaking and motherhood as their primary goal, there are two reasons a college degree might make sense for them. Firstly, gaining additional skills can be just as valuable for a woman as for a man, as exemplified by the Proverbs 31 woman, who is engaged in commerce for her household. In this context, obtaining a college degree is a far cry from adopting a feminist worldview.

Secondly, it’s possible in the future that the U.S. government may mandate that homeschool teachers be credentialed alongside those in private schools; the recent ten-year increase in homeschooled students of over 60%, coupled with the growing divide between how public schooled children and homeschooled children view the government, makes federal regulation more of a risk with each passing year. In short, the more of us there are, and the more different we are, the more the government will be motivated to do something to slow the progression. Homeschooling mothers possessing a college degree in the future will have an extra layer of protection of their right to teach their own children.

New approaches to college allow the benefits of learning and obtaining a degree, without “going” to college

So earning a college degree is a helpful thing for the life prospects of both young men and women, and for men in particular it’s best to have a major applicable outside of academia. If enrollment in brick-and-mortar institutions were the only way to obtain a college degree, we would be facing a significant trade-off indeed, as most of the concerns listed above spring up from the culture while “away at school” – student life in the dorms, in fraternity and sorority houses.

Thankfully, the growing acceptance of two recent innovations are removing the trade-off, truly enabling a path to a college degree (at least within certain disciplines), with all of the benefits but none of the potential pitfalls. These recent changes are credit by examination (CLEP credit) and online college courses.

CLEP testing (including DSST and other similar testing programs), enable a student to earn college credit if they prove a true mastery of the material for each course. In other words, it measures the truly meaningful part of college – whether students are learning the materials in the classes they take. Even better though, with this approach, students can learn the material at their own pace, in the style of learning best suited to them – in other words, they can learn college material in the same way adults gain new knowledge in our everyday lives! These tests acknowledge what has long been common knowledge – that the material in undergraduate college programs all over the country is the same basic material, explained in the same textbooks. If and when students gain that level of mastery over each subject, they can rightfully gain college credit for that knowledge by paying a minimal testing fee to the College Board organization, who administers these tests on behalf of colleges nationwide.

Online college is likewise a growing trend, with most courses offered by traditional universities, often taught by the same professors in combination with their on-campus courses. Here again, the ability to separate out the core activity of learning course material enables a student to earn a college degree without needing to submerge themselves in the college’s on-campus culture. They can learn the material while remaining at home, receiving constant counsel from their parents to keep their bearings and priorities, and likely avoiding the need for student debt. For anyone familiar with the number and type of temptations which may distract on-campus students, it is no surprise that online students often set the curve in these courses!

With the trade-offs, risks and costs involved with traditional college, newer online/CLEP options are certainly worthy of consideration

The foregoing points establish at least that online college and/or CLEP testing are valid options for Christian students to consider. I purposefully stop short of claiming these are the perfect pair of solutions for every student, for several reasons:

  • Every family and student is different. Although it’s difficult to know with certainty that parents aren’t rolling the dice with their child’s spiritual wellbeing by enrolling them at a brick-and-mortar university, I am very certain that some students are mature enough to handle all of the social challenges and temptations at university and go through completely unscathed.
  • Every school is different. Some create a safe environment among students and are purposeful in choosing faculty who are respectful of Christian students’ beliefs (although having “Christian” or a denomination in the school’s name is FAR from guaranteeing this). There are families who trust one specific school to be a wholesome environment in which the student can have “the college experience” safely, mainly due to the fact that only kids from likeminded families would be sending their kids to such a school. On the other hand, there are families who believe this kind of school is precisely the wrong place to send kids, because the frequency of “rubber-band rebellion” will be higher in a student population coming out of more restrictive homes, finding themselves for the first time free to make their own moral choices.
  • Some fields of study don’t setup well for online or CLEP study – specifically those which require significant laboratory work, in-person interaction, performance, etc. Likewise neither CLEP or online options can be used to obtain a graduate degree. The good news in many of these exception cases is that students involved in graduate studies or laboratory-intensive undergraduate programs are likely to be among the most mature on campus, muting many of the risks found in general undergraduate cultures.
  • Friends and extended families may be just as critical of this approach as they would be of bypassing college altogether. The “finding one’s self” conception of the college years is set deep in the minds of many people. They may absolutely see the risks and concerns of the traditional approach, but still hold this need for a young person to use those years to set their direction. To these we can only say that surely home and real-life community are safer places to find one’s self – more realistic and balanced – than an artificial social construct comprised solely of young adults away from home for the first time.

 

Having said all of this, I know and respect many strong Christian families who have set a course to send their children away to brick-and-mortar colleges, some for the exception reasons I list above.  I know other strong families who have determined not to have all or some of their children earn a college degree in any form, for the reasons listed above. They love their children and are acting in conviction that these are the best decisions for their family. I love these families dearly and still believe their kids can go on to have happy adult lives.

I publish this article humbly, not as exegesis or judgment on those who disagree, but merely as the best application I can make for my own children, and I hope as an article which will be thought-provoking to readers, if you strive, as I do, to apply God’s Word to every aspect of your lives. Comments are welcomed!

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