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College or Not? 31 Things You Need to Know

By Mary Pride
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #94, 2010.

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Mary Pride

Twenty-five years ago, almost nobody believed K–12 homeschooling could possibly prepare children for college. Right after the “What about socialization?” question came “What will you do about college?”

Today, homeschoolers are welcome in every college in the land. But, while college has become more accessible, getting kids ready for college has also become much more complicated.

When I went to college, in the mid-1970s, I was able to pay my own tuition with money I had saved from my afterschool job in high school. Today, tuition at that same college is 20 times what it was when I was a student.

On top of that, the job market is much tighter. Teen joblessness this summer is the highest it has been in 16 years, and new college grads aren’t faring much better. This means that not only is it harder than ever to save up for college, but it’s much more crucial to pick the right major and the right college.

Or not.

In the current job market, some are beginning to ask if a college degree is even worth the investment in time and money. For some careers (e.g., nursing, CPA, college professor) degrees are essential. But advanced degrees, or even a simple bachelor’s, can actually work against you once you’ve given up on getting a job in your specialty.

When competing for “starter” jobs, less is more. Employers are wary of those extra degrees. Fearing you only want the job as a stopgap, they actually prefer to hire less-credentialed help. If no terrific scholarships are at risk, it might actually make more sense for some kids to get a job, work up the ladder, and eventually get a degree (if desired) through less traditional means.

As usual, I’ve put way too much time into studying the ins and outs of what current college (or not) options are for today’s homeschoolers. With five kids still in college, we have personally tried most of the ideas I am about to share with you.

The rules of getting into and through college have changed . . . and here they come!

Preparing for College

Let’s start with the most traditional path: the typical college degree.

Here, your goal is to

  1. get into the best possible college that fits your ability level and
  2. pay as little as possible.

Your first step on this path might be Dual Enrollment. This is not the public-school style, or what I like to call “fake,” dual enrollment, where high-school teachers offer classes in the high school for college credit. It’s the real deal, where you sign up for classes at your local college or community college, often at a hefty tuition discount, and earn both high-school and college credit for the same class.

Dual enrollment is especially great for homeschoolers, because it proves to colleges that you can do college work.

As long as you take courses that will count towards your eventual college major, you’ll be fine. Just beware of earning too many college credits for courses that won’t apply to your major, as this could cause you to prematurely lose your financial aid.

Online courses are another great way to prove your “college readiness.” If you don’t have a college nearby that offers dual credit, or you need a more flexible schedule than is possible with classroom courses, online courses offer a way to take classes that parents lack the time or expertise to teach.

AP, not CLEP. We’ll be talking about the CLEP exams later on, but the bottom line is that it isn’t a good idea to take CLEPs in high school. Again, the extra credits can wreak havoc on your financial aid. Advanced Placement exams, otherwise known as “AP” exams, usually don’t present the same problem. Top colleges are aware that the best students take lots of APs, so they craft their regulations to accommodate them. CLEP exams, which were originally invented to let older folks study for credit on their own, are more “blue collar” and don’t get this special treatment. Is this discrimination? Probably. Can you do anything about it? No. And by the way, make sure your intended college accepts your particular AP and/or dual enrollment credits before you take the course.

Avoid the GED. Yes, passing the GED is supposed to be “equivalent” to a high-school diploma, so in the early days of homeschooling, many parents struggled hard to get permission for their ever-younger children to take this test. However, it still carries the stigma of the “dropout’s diploma.” Colleges are not impressed by GEDs, and military recruiters are even less so. You can accomplish the same goal via a decent high-school transcript, so my advice is to meet state requirements and graduate normally.

Volunteering is super important if you want to get into top schools and/or earn scholarships. The perfect project for getting into places such as Harvard or Yale is to start a group that raises money for a politically-correct cause. This is far superior to earning money with your own business and donating it to a charity, because it shows you have mastered the major principle of elitism: how to be generous with other people’s money.

If you volunteer for any group . . . let’s say, Habitat for Humanity . . . you also get way more brownie points if you’re the one running the group. Simply showing up devotedly for thousands of hours and doing all the work doesn’t have the same appeal to colleges and scholarship committees as . . .

Leadership. Try to be the President of something. Just as long as it’s not the Science Fiction Club or Games Club. College admissions officials perceive kids with those interests as loners who won’t contribute to the student body. The only thing worse would be to announce you are a member of the Dungeons and Dragons Club, which immediately pegs you as a crazed loner. And it goes without saying that you don’t announce your lifetime NRA membership when applying to any school that has kicked out ROTC, or your Greenpeace membership when applying to West Point.

Athletics. This is huge for the military academies, who particularly love football players, but it’s just another positive tick mark in the “well rounded” category for other schools. Martial arts or summer sports teams are fine.

Research or Special Projects. Planning to be a doctor, scientist, or engineer? Then high-school research helps. Otherwise, unless you love it, don’t bother.

Travel actually earns you brownie points on college applications. It shows you are:

  1. well rounded and
  2. won’t go crying home to Mommy because you’ve never been away from home before.

Even if you traveled with your family, any extensive trips are worth mentioning. You get bonus points for trips made with a youth group, and extra bonus points for trips you made all by yourself. In fact, taking a “gap” year off after high school to travel (and volunteer at various places along the way) can earn you extra super bonus points. If you don’t lose any great scholarships by doing this (such as National Merit or our own Missouri “Bright Flight” scholarship, which both are withdrawn if you don’t go straight to college after high school), and you have the money to travel, it’s something to consider.

Academic Camps & Educational Experiences are more impressive to some colleges than others. When you get that fancy packet in the mail offering your child a “leadership” or “academic” experience on the actual campus of Princeton (or whatever), for the low, low cost of only $1,000 and up, don’t think this will necessarily help to get him or her into Princeton (or whatever). Save the money and consider it your kid’s first scholarship.

A good-looking transcript that contains all the right information is all-important. One resource for creating these transcripts is Transcripts Made Easy, from everyday-education.com. If you’d like personal help, PHS columnist Jeannette Webb offers expert consulting at reasonable rates. Find out more at aiminghigherconsultants.com.

Recommendations are vital. Even if you live in the wilds of Alaska, hopefully you can find a mentor or distance-learning teacher to write your recommendations. Coaches, bosses, adult leaders of your student group, and in fact any adult who knows you well and has seen you in action, can write recommendations. Jeannette Webb has some great advice about how to get great recommendations in her e-book, Called to Influence, available via her site above.

Funding Your Degree

Student Loans Are Evil. And they just became more evil, since the federal government just took over the entire student loan business. Read The Student Loan Scam: The Most Oppressive Debt in U.S. History—and How We Can Fight Back for the full horrifying story on how a teeny-tiny loan can, through misunderstandings and accounting errors (by the lender), mushroom into a huge debt you will never pay off in this lifetime. Did you know that, unlike other loans, student loans can’t be discharged through bankruptcy? Fun. Too busy to read the book? Check out StudentLoanJustice.org.

Scholarships are one way to avoid or minimize loans. Your local high school counselor has a list of scholarships offered by local groups. Ask for it. Many colleges also offer substantial scholarships to top students. Sign up for the PSAT (to be taken in your junior year) in order to possibly qualify for a National Merit scholarship. Or join Fastweb.com and register your preferred major, grades, etc., to be matched with all sorts of potential scholarship and internship opportunities. Just be careful, because every single time you log in to Fastweb they present a screen with prechecked offers to all sorts of things. If you don’t want the offers, search carefully for the “No, thanks” button and click it, or you’ll end up on all sorts of email lists.

A Great Book. Before I get into the next sections, talking about CLEP, DSST, Excelsior, TECEP, and credit banking, let me tell you about a book—sadly, out of print—that goes into much more detail about all of these than I can manage in this article. Though it was published five years ago, College Without Compromise by Scott & Kris Wightman is amazingly up to date in its information and recommendations. Although our own family was using dual credit and credit by examination long before I ever heard of this book, and in fact our oldest son already earned his college degree from Thomas Edison State College of New Jersey (one of the “Big Three” credit-banking colleges), I consider the price I paid for a used copy of this book well spent, just for the convenience of having all the exam lists and other information in one place.

Now that I said that, I just checked Amazon and was aghast to see that the lowest-priced copy available is selling for over $57. The Wightmans need to revise their book and get it back into print!

CLEP, or “College Level Examination Program,” is a great way to earn college credit for low cost once you are already in college. You sign up for the test, which costs $77 as of this July, and can possibly earn up to 12 college credits (most tests actually earn you 3 credits). Check first whether your college:

  1. accepts CLEP exams and
  2. charges you full or partial tuition for the “privilege” of accepting your CLEP credits.

Most colleges accept all CLEP exams. Some accept only some, while a relatively small number (most top-ranked institutions) won’t take any CLEP credits.

DANTES Subject Standardized Tests (DSSTs) once were just for the military. Now civilians can take them, too. According to the official government site on the topic (dantes.doded.mil), “The DSST program is an extensive series of 37 examinations in college subject areas that are comparable to the final or end-of-course examinations in undergraduate courses.” (Oddly, GetCollegeCredit.com and Wikipedia both agree there are actually 38 exams.) The military pays testing fees “for eligible Service members and civilian examinees” (meaning civilian employees of the military) at DANTES Test Centers and at national test centers (colleges and universities) that offer Internet-based DSSTs. All DSST test titles are currently available at local Thomason Prometric Internet-based testing centers, except for the “Principles of Public Speaking” test that will remain a paper-based examination. Far fewer institutions accept these exams.

Excelsior College Exams (here) offers a wide variety of upper-level liberal arts, science, and nursing exams, plus a few exams for business and education courses. Hundreds of colleges accept these exams, including quite a few that don’t accept DSSTs. But check first with both your college and the department in question, as policies vary even within colleges, department by department.

Thomas Edison College Examination Program, or TECEP, is another way to earn credit by examination. It’s not a terrifically long list of available tests, but it might fill in some holes. Go to www.tesc.edu/701.php for more details.

Alternative Routes to a Traditional Degree

2 + 2 = 4. In a previous edition of one of my books, I quoted an article that Dr. Rhonda Morgan wrote for the Christian Financial Concepts “Money Matters” newsletter. In it, she pointed out that, “Students working toward a bachelor’s degree can avoid a lot of expenses and debt by staying home the first two years and attending a local community college.” The article further pointed out that academic results from this process were indistinguishable from those gained by going to the four-year college for all four years (or, these days, more likely five or six years!).

My family has taken this message to heart. We have found that, when a student isn’t sure what they want to major in, it is way more sensible to spend the first couple years of college at our excellent community college. On the other hand, those of our kids who committed to a particular career path have gone straight to four-year colleges and done very well there. The easiest way to “split the difference” is for them to take community-college courses for dual credit during their last two years of high school. That way, if a child chooses to go straight to a selective university, the community-college courses are good selling points for scholarships. If they don’t, they are just that much ahead with their college education, at a very small cost.

The “Big Three” Credit Banks. Thomas Edison State College of New Jersey (tesc.edu). Charter Oak State College (cosc.edu). Excelsior College (excelsior.edu). What do they have in common? They are fully accredited colleges that allow you to “pull together” credit earned:

  1. at their institution,
  2. at other colleges,
  3. via exams such as CLEP and DSST, and
  4. via portfolio assessment (a method whereby you present paperwork to demonstrate you have life experience in some area that is equivalent to content required in a specific course).

Using this method, you can earn a degree at minimum cost and in minimum time.

In our case, our oldest son, Ted, was physically unable to attend campus-based courses for most of his college education. He took CLEPs, APs, and TECEP exams. To that, he added various courses taken through Thomas Edison and other online providers. Finally, he managed to attend enough local campus-based courses to fill in his last degree requirements. Though, due to Ted’s weakened state at the time, he wasn’t able to go through this process as quickly as some, not to mention that computer science (his major) is a bit more complicated than English or Business Management, it did enable him to earn a real degree for about $5,000 per year.

(If you’d like to learn how to earn a degree this way for the absolutely least amount of money in the absolute least time, pick up a copy of Brad Voeller’s Accelerated Distance Learning. It’s available through Amazon, and also through Brad’s website, GlobalLearningStrategies.org.)

Pure Online Degrees. Think Jones University or University of Phoenix. Think $50,000. Unless you’re desperate, think again.

Alternative Degrees

Career Colleges. Not everyone wants to be a political scientist, English major, or chemical engineer. Lots of kids would be much happier working as hotel managers, chefs, bakers, forest rangers, firefighters, ecotour operators, and a whole host of other “hands-on” jobs. Career colleges such as Johnson & Wales University (in Denver and other locations) and Hocking College in Ohio offer degrees in these kinds of majors. Other career colleges offer degrees and certificates that enable students to find work in various general office and medical office positions. You can learn to drive a tractor or care for horses, lead groups in whitewater rafting or operate a small business. The better schools not only train you “hands on,” but provide internship opportunities which can lead to your first job. Scholarships to such schools are typically less available, though, so you’ll want to carefully plan your finances and choice of major.

Two-Year Degrees and Certificates from Community College. Yes, Virginia, your local community college might offer some pretty nifty degrees, too. In our area, you can learn to be a paramedic, nurse, phlebotomist, chef, dental hygienist, physical therapist, funeral manager, paralegal, carpenter, electrician, interpreter for the deaf, horticulturalist, and dozens more interesting jobs.

Police and Fire Academies. You can find out what life is like for recruits who make it into these academies by watching the reality show The Academy. Maybe it will spark some career aspirations!

Want to find out more? Andrew Morkes of College and Career Press, who we interviewed in PHS #61, has a great book entitled They Teach That in College? Second Edition. It’s a resource directory of more than 95 interesting and unique college majors and programs at the two-year, four-year, and graduate levels. You can purchase it from his site, collegeandcareerpress.com.

Alternatives to a Degree

Job After High School. In the past, most folks started right in working full-time after high-school graduation. This is still an option, provided that you can find that elusive first job.

Here are some thoughts on that subject.

Certified Nurse Assistants are required to take a certain amount of classroom instruction, combined with a certain amount of on-the-job experience, before they can take the CNA exam. Guess what! Lots of nursing homes provide the classroom training for free! And once you have that coveted CNA certificate, this is one of the easier-to-obtain, more lucrative jobs around. It does require dealing with people who are usually sick and often old, but if you are a caring person with good physical endurance, this could be a great way to break into the workforce.

Graphics artists and web designers are usually hired more on the basis of their knowledge and abilities than their degrees. It’s pretty easy to prove you can lay out a page in Quark XPress or massage a picture in Photoshop. It’s also easy to demonstrate that you know web programming by saying, “Here . . . click on this site I designed and see what it looks like and what it can do.” In other words, if you (the parent) are responsible for your support group’s website or newsletter, teach your son or daughter everything you know. Maybe even invest in a couple “Dummies” books on popular programs. It could get them a job!

Trades. Everyone knows plumbers make more than college professors. The downside is that

  1. it’s not always easy to join the union and
  2. plumbers wear out much earlier than college professors.

My dad, the college professor, is still working at 82. If he was a plumber, I doubt this would be the case. (On the other hand, if he was a plumber, he wouldn’t need to work . . . Hmm, have to think about that . . .)

Remember that ancient saying, “He who does not teach his son a trade, teaches him to steal”? It might not be quite that dire today, but face it, it’s harder to outsource the plumbing than the engineering and computer programming.

Entrepreneurship is another way to go. Starting your own business used to be the American way. What made it the “American dream” was that nobody would steal all the fruits of your hard labor. Protection rackets and corruption were not only against American law, but against American culture. (BTW, all this applies to Canadians, too!)

The problem is that when people talk about “spending the $20,000 on helping your kids start a business instead of on college,” they forget that usually Mom and Dad don’t have $20K to begin with. Junior is taking out a $20K loan for his education in $5K chunks, and that loan is not available for the purpose of starting a business.

Spending your entire young adult life hanging around the hacienda helping Mom and Dad with their business is also not exactly ideal. Not if Junior ever hopes to get married, that is.

If Junior has a fanatical interest that can potentially make money, and he can start it up in a small way while in high school . . . or if Mom and Dad don’t mind him getting free rent temporarily while he starts up the business . . . this can work out. But keep an eye on it. If he’s working endlessly, but getting nowhere . . . or hardly working, while hanging out on the couch . . . it might be time to reconsider college, or to get a “regular” job.

Marriage is actually a viable career path. I hope you won’t be shocked when I say that many homeschooled girls are well trained enough and mature enough to make good wives and mothers soon after high-school graduation. Though today young ladies have to wait until an average age of 26 before getting married, our mothers and grandmothers certainly didn’t! Raising lots of babies and homeschooling them is the best job in the world, and I hope at least some of you land it. Whether you go to college . . . or not.

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