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Colleges without Walls

By Howard Richman
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #4, 1993.

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Howard and Susan Richman


About 5 years ago, my wife Susan and I were interviewed about homeschooling on a Pittsburgh radio talk show. Lynn Cullen, the host, was concerned about whether homeschoolers were able to "let go" of their children. I assured her that letting go of our children, as they grow up, was a problem for every parent and that we would deal with it as best we could.

Soon Lynn asked, "What about college?" Susan began to say that we might even do college at home, but I cut in, "Homeschoolers are not having trouble getting into college. Of course college isn't for everyone."

I just wasn't ready to tell the world about college at home, and I suppose Lynn Cullen might have been shocked if she knew we were even thinking of it. But now our oldest son Jesse is a homeschooling high school junior, and we are starting to look at college catalogs and read books about college admissions.

What's Available Now?

Sticker shock when you go to a new car dealer is nothing compared to your shock when you read the tuition prices of most private universities -- $20,000 or more per year! Of course most parents don't pay that much. Colleges have financial aid plans so that the less you make, the less you pay. If you're poor enough, you can actually afford it! Some parents are actually quitting their jobs so that they can send their children to private colleges! State universities are less expensive for state residents -- about $4,000 to $8,000 per year, and less in California.

Then there are the descriptions of undergraduate life by students who have been there -- the beer drinking every weekend, propagandizing by "politically-correct" professors, promiscuity, date rape, student lack of interest in learning, the cheating epidemic. Sending kids to college doesn't sound much better than sending kids to high school, does it? So, what about college at home?

There are already people out there, mostly adults, who are homeschooling their way through college. Maybe you saw Paula Mann's sidebar "College by Mail" in the fall issue. She describes her own experience of getting a college degree as an adult after dropping out of junior college. She took tests through CLEP (College-Level Examination Program) to get some credits, correspondence courses for other credits, and got her degree from Thomas Edison State College (101 W State ST, Trenton NJ 08608) which accepts credits that are earned by examination, by correspondence, by college attendance at other colleges, and by portfolio review. Other state colleges with similar programs include Charter Oak College (The Exchange Suite 171, 270 Farmington AV, Farmington CT 06032), and the Regents External Degree Program (Cultural Education Center, Empire State Plaza, Albany NY 12230).

I especially like the idea of college credits by portfolio review. It means that you can homeschool a course in your own way, and get credit when an evaluator examines your portfolio. Thomas Edison also makes available state-of-the-art technology, courses on video tape, on-line computer discussions with others in the course, and so on.

Thomas Edison State College may be at the forefront for college at home. It should be. It was named after New Jersey's own Thomas Edison, the homeschooler who invented the light bulb, the phonograph, the electric power plant, and everything else. Thomas Edison State College is even reasonably priced at about $1,000 per year for New Jersey residents and about $1,500 per year for out-of-state residents. You could probably afford that without quitting your job! The only trouble with Thomas Edison is that it is only for adults. They even say in their brochure that students are expected to be at least 21 years of age.

Another alternative is college by correspondence. Almost every state university has a correspondence program through which you can earn many college credits at home. In Pennsylvania, we have Penn State University with correspondence courses for almost every subject area covering two or three years of college work. To get their degree you have to finish off with a year or two on campus. A full-time year of Penn State correspondence courses costs about $3000 (a little over $300 per course). You could even transfer your credits to Thomas Edison State College and finish your degree there.

The main trouble is that college by correspondence may not have the flexibility that many homeschoolers crave, may not lead to the self-initiative that many homeschoolers value, and may charge for services that aren't needed. Even though correspondence schools are available for elementary and secondary education, many homeschoolers choose not to use them.

What Might be Available in the Future?

What is needed might be a Homeschool University (or several homeschool universities) designed for those who want to homeschool through college. Homeschool U. could be a lot like Thomas Edison State College, but not limited to adults. It could be established by a core group of dedicated homeschoolers with a vision for the future. Once established, it could cost much less than other universities and produce better educated graduates.

Homeschool U. could avoid the main pitfall of the current schooling system in America where the teacher is also the evaluator. There is a natural conflict of interest when teachers grade how well their students are doing. Incompetent teachers may give good grades so that they won't draw attention to their own incompetence. Not only that, some students tend to choose poor teachers just because they are easy graders. At Homeschool U., the teacher and evaluator would be two different people. Not only that, people could often dispense with the teacher altogether.

A major function of Homeschool U. would be to provide descriptions of what is expected to be learned or done in a course, and provide professional evaluations to grant course credit and grades. Some courses, like math and physics, could be easily tested by paper and pencil exams. Other courses could be assessed through portfolio evaluation by PhD's or people actually working in the field.

Teachers could be optional. The services provided by a teacher could be up to the teacher, and the price would be set by each teacher. They could provide lectures of themselves on videotape or cassette tape, participate in class discussions over computer connections, respond to written assignments, and/or answer students' questions by phone.

You can often do quite well without a teacher. Video tapes of master teachers in action are readily available, educational computer programs are getting more sophisticated each year, and many can teach themselves from books without a teacher. A computer bulletin board could be available for students in a course to communicate with each other by computer. At Homeschool U., those who don't need teachers could teach themselves and save the money.

At Homeschool University the catalog would include brief descriptions of the courses, the teachers, and the costs involved. Student-evaluations of the helpfulness of teachers would be available so that teachers who were really worth it would be in great demand. As homeschool universities proliferate, teachers could teach students at many universities. The better teachers would be in tremendous demand and would earn salaries commensurate with their helpfulness.

Even accreditation may not be a problem. For one thing, Homeschool U. would not be very different from Thomas Edison State College, which is accredited. For another, the separation of evaluation from teaching would ensure that Homeschool U. graduates would be better educated than those from other colleges. The moral fiber of homeschool graduates should ensure that they are more honest and reliable than those from other colleges. Before long, businesses and graduate schools would probably prefer Homeschool U. graduates. Impressive portfolios and letters from their evaluators could help Homeschool U. graduates get their first jobs or get into graduate school.

Back to Reality

Of course our children often have other ideas. Jesse, my eleventh-grader, is looking into college possibilities right now. He wants to go to college but doesn't know where. I am urging him to make a choice that is within our budget. A local state university would be fine. He could even live at home and commute. If he can get an academic scholarship to somewhere further away, that would be fine too.

Another possibility that we are considering would be for him to start off with a correspondence program at Penn State. He can even take two courses during his senior year in high school to see what they would be like. Then, in a few years, he could either transfer to the main Penn State campus or to Thomas Edison State College. I think that he will want to go to graduate school, and Thomas Edison brags that 50% of their graduates apply to graduate school and nine out of ten are accepted into the school of their first choice.

Whatever he decides, I suspect that the amount that he gets out of his college education will be in proportion to what he puts into it. He has tremendous selfinitiative, loves learning, and loves reading. He is a fine young man and I am quite proud of him. I suspect that he'll get a good education no matter where he goes.


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