It's 11:45 p.m. and I've just gotten off the phone with my daughter Molly, now a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh Honors College. She's had wonderful things to share about her week. She's met a new friend who also loves to speak French, and they plan to meet every Thursday for a French-conversation-only lunch. Her honors Shakespeare teacher just invited the whole class over to his home for pizza and a class outing to see a Shakespeare film. Her Psychology Research Methods course is one of her favorites and he's very encouraging of her ideas for doing homeschooling research. Molly loves being a Nationality Rooms tour guide on campus, and is looking forward to trying for one of their overseas scholarships for study abroad one summer.
In short, Molly's just in the perfect place for her right now at this huge urban university, and she feels right at home there. So how did we come to this particular choice? How does any homeschooling parent help guide their kids to the "right" college? What questions do you need to think about and how can you best come to a decision?
Here are some of the factors that have helped us in making college decisions. They may help you work your own unique way through this exciting maze.
Know your child. What areas of interest does your child have? Are these possible college majors (like computer science or English literature), or just strong hobbies that your son or daughter would like to be able to continue on campus? This can really help you narrow your focus at least a bit. Using the books reviewed in the accompanying article on page 27, you'll start figuring out which schools have the major your child wants, which schools are really known for the field, and which just have a token program. Then you can see if the other possibilities are there too. Is there Irish step dancing, is there a rockclimbing club or student radio station, is there drama or an orchestra on campus that non-majors can take part in?
Think about costs. Although you'll constantly hear from colleges that cost of a particular school should not keep you from applying and considering the place, as there is always financial aid or possible scholarships, for many homeschooling families cost is still an important factor to consider. Public colleges are usually much less expensive than private colleges - but some private schools like Grove City College in PA are known nationwide for a top-notch education coupled with an astonishingly low bill. In-state students also always get a financial break at public universities, and community colleges can offer a good program at very low cost.
Did you know that the "top" colleges, such as the Ivy League schools, have a firm policy of not giving academic or merit-based scholarships? They have super financial need help, but don't expect any dollars to flow from your kid's high SAT scores - all the applicants have those. To find merit scholarships you need to go to the next tier of schools, those that are working very hard to upgrade their student body. These schools often also have excellent honors college programs, offering special advising, coursework, and activities to encourage bright kids.
Military academies are practically free to the fortunate students who can make it through the very challenging admissions process. If this sort of experience has appeal for your family, check out their requirements.
How close to home? Many homeschooling families are very close-knit, and will appreciate having their kids fairly nearby. My deal with Molly in choosing the University of Pittsburgh, which is just an hour from our home, was that she could feel very free to travel abroad as much as she wanted during her summers or during the school year, as she'd be earning a top scholarship there and there's no major extra expense of plane fare or the need for lengthy car trips there and back several times a year.
Many homeschoolers do very happily zoom off across the country - or around the world! - but don't assume that there is no possible college within an hour or two of where you live. If you are short on time for a huge college tour across half the country, like me, you can usually visit a full range of colleges within a couple of hours of home. Often this can be done quite informally when you are attending special cultural events on nearby campuses - a play, concert, art exhibit, special ethnic festival, or lecture series. Look around and assess what you all think of this place in general while you're there.
Look for special and unique programs. Start looking at some selected colleges in depth and see what you can find out about their unique offerings. You might find some of the following: a college that has a special short semester where students focus on only one course for two months; a special college study-abroad program to some odd place, such as the Pitt Honors College research trip to Mongolia that Molly is seriously considering for this summer; a special outdoors education program like Hocking College, where more work is done on the rockface and the trail than in the classroom at times. Are there options for creating your own self-designed courses or major, making college an extension of independent-minded homeschooling? Or would your child rather immerse himself in a Great Books type of school where all the students take exactly the same courses, and the energy comes from a shared experience and lively discussions that extend beyond the classroom? The possibilities are endless - and the more questions you ask, and the more investigations you do via college websites and direct communications with professors and admissions staff and current students, the more you'll learn.
Atmosphere on campus. Most homeschooling families worry about the impact of the atmosphere of a campus - will all their strong family and religious values be shot down or will they be supported and encouraged? Are there lively student religious groups on campus? (Don't assume a large public university will be anti-religious - I was amazed walking about a student activities fair this fall at Pitt at just how many different and very active student religious organizations there were on campus - clearly something for everyone.) What is the dorm situation like - is it a drinking party haven or conducive to actual study and friendship? Are there quiet floors, international floors, floors for kids who share a major, an honors dorm? Taking advantage of any "sleeping bag weekends" offered by colleges your child is seriously considering is a good idea. My son Jacob decided for Carnegie Mellon University after his weekend on campus and the chance to attend classes and room with actual students.
Safety considerations. Check out the school's safety record, and see what special precautions are taken to avoid problems. Many colleges now have late-night escort services on campus, so that students can feel safe walking back to their dorms after a late session at the library. At least one homeschool grad met his future wife while serving as an escort himself!
Atmosphere also includes city v. suburban v. rural settings. Does your student enjoy having many cultural options always available - major symphonies and plays, art and science museums, large well-kept parks with community festivals, many nearby options for internship positions? Does your teen want to be fully integrated into the bustling life of the surrounding community or cloistered away in a safe and well-defined ivy-covered campus? Is wonderful wild scenery important, with maybe miles of cross-country skiing trails leading right from the dorms? Any of these are possible, and more.
Decisions, decisions, decisions. It's also important for kids to realize that while it's important to find a good match for their basic interests and goals, their initiative and motivation once on campus is what's going to really make the difference in feeling that they've made the right choice. The many homeschoolers I know who've gotten really involved in campus life - through tutoring fellow students in Spanish or community kids in college afterschool programs, visiting profs during office hours to discuss academic goals, taking part in religious clubs, taking fencing lessons or jumping into intramural volleyball, working on the college radio or honors activities committee to plan special events, helping with the escort service, or anything else - have one thing in common: they usually love their colleges. They feel a part of things, they feel active and alive and growing. And if you love where you are, you'll generally be ready to work hard to meet all of your academic goals also.