I notice that lots of people use college admission as evidence that homeschooling works. Here’s an example of a mom who says college is proof of her homeschooling success.

This is shocking to me. While homeschooling is controversial, ditching college is much less controversial.

There are lists of wildly successful people who did not graduate college. The New York Times is publishing essays about how starting one’s own business is more important for lifelong success than going to college. And because of the insane costs associated with higher education, the topic of how useless college is has entered the political debate as well.

It’s becoming pretty clear that college does not prepare kids for adult life. In fact, college makes a mess of adult life because it saddles kids with huge debt. So, yes, it’d be great if every kid could spend four years in ivory towers, but only trust-funders can afford it. And please, don’t tell me college is important for grad school, because in almost all cases, grad school is an absolute waste of time and resources. (Here are the voices of the defenders of grad school, and me crushing them.)

For people who cannot imagine life without a college degree, going to a cheap school is really important. Because college debt is ruining the lives of young Americans, and where the degree is from is largely unimportant.

But homeschoolers should be different. We are not used to participating in the messed-up primary education system. We are accustomed to telling people that kids learn just fine without institutions. So why would we strive to prepare our kids for college when it is so clearly messed up as well?

Harvard graduates do better than most people in the workforce. Sure, OK, fine. But there’s a great study, by Alan Krueger from Princeton University, that shows that going to Harvard is not an indicator of success in adult life. Applying to Harvard is the differentiator. Because kids who apply see themselves as high-achievers and they are ambitious and they reach high for their goals.

That should be the measure of success—get your kid to have ambition and confidence to strive for what they want. Believe me:  going to college is no big goal to reach. Going to college doesn’t show anything except that the kids or the parents (or both) got scared and gave up on the idea of individualized learning at the most crucial point in a kid’s transition to the adult world.



25 replies
  1. Zellie
    Zellie says:

    Homeschoolers use college as a mark of success because non-homeschoolers’ arguments and fear centers around college. How can they succeed in college if they didn’t have 12 years of practice? How can they get into college if they don’t have the grades and tests to wow admissions with like schooled kids?

  2. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I liked the story from Jo-Anne Tracy on Lisa Nielsen’s blog. It’s proof how little we know how to teach or measure the amount of learning that actually takes place when we’re trying to teach. It’s like throwing stuff up against the wall and observing what sticks and what doesn’t. Very empirical.
    Also there’s an infographic at http://www.c4lpt.co.uk/blog/2011/10/28/you-cant-manage-informal-learning-only-use-of-informal-media/ that I keep going back to. One piece of information that really sticks with me is eighty percent of learning is informal learning and it’s under the control of the learner. I understand it to mean learning as it is taking place wherever or however it is being delivered.
    College costs have skyrocketed over the last two decades relative to other living expenses. It seems to me that the benefit/cost ratio is too high, not sustainable, and we’re headed (if not already there and mired in self-delusion) for a financial crisis similar to the housing crisis. I think the way colleges are structured and administered will change but it won’t happen by their own accord. The market for higher education (in whatever form it manifests itself) will make that decision for them.

    • Mark W.
      Mark W. says:

      Correction – “the benefit/cost ratio is too high” should be “the benefit/cost ratio is too low”.

      • redrock
        redrock says:

        I have no idea how it is possible to learn not-self-directed. How can learning ever not be under the control of the learner? If you sit in class it is always you who decides whether you learn or not, the teacher can not force you. It is your brain which decides whether you retain or not, not the teacher. A brain is not a vessel which the evil school teacher fills with all the stuff one does (apparently) not need. One always has to decide on learning, make the positive step towards actively pursuing it. No-one can do that for you.

  3. Shane Krukowski
    Shane Krukowski says:

    Nice post!

    Although not directly related to the point made, I’d be curious to see how much of the increase in tuition is due to a decrease in state/Fed aid and how much is due to increase in operating expenses at colleges and universities?

  4. TR
    TR says:

    I think even in school students are realizing that the cost of getting an education and the “worth” they are getting is becoming unequal. I am taking classes right now and most of the 19-21 year olds I run into are very focused about what they want out of the degree rather than taking classes just to get any degree.

  5. Karen
    Karen says:

    Thanks for this. While my husband and I still sacrifice to put as much money into the boys’ college funds as we can, just in case, we have already decided that unless they want to be doctors or some such thing that requires a degree, we will use that money to buy them a business when the time comes. What a wonderful thing to be able to do for your kids to give them a great start in life. No way are we sending them to college to get an arts degree that is nothing but a waste of time and money. For the same amount of $ it would cost to put 2 kids through a 4 year degree program we could purchase them a hell of a nice franchise operation, spend a few years helping them to run it, and then let them decide what to do with it. That’s a much better investment no matter how you look at it.

  6. LJM
    LJM says:

    So, even though I completely agree that college is not necessary for success or happiness, you state something that is not only objectively false, but thoroughly insulting.

    “Going to college doesn’t show anything except that the kids or the parents (or both) got scared and gave up on the idea of individualized learning at the most crucial point in a kid’s transition to the adult world.”

    Really? That’s all that going to college shows? So all the unschooled kids who go to college “gave up on the idea of individualized learning?” It’s immediately obvious that this statement of yours is pure nonsense.

    “Individualized learning,” does not mean, by any stretch of the imagination, “not learning at an institution.” It just means choosing what you want to learn in the way you want to learn it.

    This is another example of how your emotion (along with your struggle to see outside your own experiences and opinions) undermines your considerable intellect and sabotages your writing. I think you need to spend some more time looking at what you’ve written, contemplating every assertion, before you post it.

  7. Rose Donnelly
    Rose Donnelly says:

    Actually, you can homeschool your way right into a college degree. And spend less than $10K doing so for a 4-year degree from a fully-accredited college. (State schools, not the for-profits like Phoenix.) You choose your own materials, study independently at home, and cap it off with a college-level exam, such as those provided by the CLEP program. If you want to keep up with the philosophy behind homeschooling and also get a college degree, you can easily do so. And FYI – a growing number of homeschooling high schoolers are doing this, graduating college at 18 or 19 years old.

    Ms. Trunk, I think you need to do a lot more research on the topic. You’ve made some assertions here that are completely false and do a great disservice to any readers who might stumble across this post. You have only touched on “traditional” colleges, without digging any deeper. This is the equivalent of saying the only type of education available for an 8th grader is the public school down the street. I find it remarkably curious that a homeschooler of all people would make such uninformed comments about college, without first taking the time to see if there are other ways of going about it. (Who here, really, has been “brainwashed”? Did you even take five minutes to ask yourself, “Can you homeschool college?” and do a quick Google search on the topic?)

    Start with looking into CLEP testing and find out more about what is known as “The Big Three” colleges in the CBE (credit-by-exam) world. You can find out more here: http://www.free-clep-prep.com/The-Big-Three.html or here: http://www.homeschoolcollegeusa.com.

    A student who lives at home (anywhere in the US, BTW) and works part time can easily pay for his college in full with no assistance from anyone else, graduating with zero debt. He does not need to be a “trust-fund baby” or have any scholarships of any kind. By failing to even mention or explore this opportunity you’ve managed to play into the tired myth that only the rich can afford to go to college and everyone else is stuck with either taking on massive loans or skipping college altogether.

    Does everyone need college? No. But to forgo it merely because you think it costs too much and you can’t be bothered with even trying to find an alternative is far, far lamer than setting yourself the goal of earning a college degree.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      The part about how any student who lives at home and works…. I think that’s not a good decision for lots of people. For example, you cannot do a startup while you go to school. You can only work for someone else. Because the hours that school requires are too much to include a startup as well. And many people are better off figuring out how to make their own way in the world than live with their parents.

      Just pointing out another way to look at it.


      • Rose Donnelly
        Rose Donnelly says:

        I’m sorry, but I’m not following your thinking at all. If a homeschooling high schooler/young adult completes his college degree somewhere between the ages of 18 and 22 by working part time and living at home, what exactly stops him from then “figuring out how to make his own way in the world” by moving out of his parents’ house once he’s completed his degree, or launching a start-up, if he so chooses? Why do you assume these things can *only* happen for those who don’t first go about earning a degree?

        Aside from that, you made another incorrect assumption here as well, when you said, “For example, you cannot do a startup while you go to school. You can only work for someone else.”

        My 16yo cousin has been running his own business for two years now. His 14yo sister recently joined him. They are working toward their college degrees, (He’s about half done and she has earned her first 6 credits this fall.) and they are paying for it out of money from their own company. I have no idea why you’ve decided that this isn’t possible, but I hope you don’t plan to pass such a “can’t be done” attitude on to your own children. You’d really be shortchanging them.

        Getting a degree while still young, paying for it yourself while, yes, living at home, and then launching yourself into the world without debt to hinder you does *not* stop you from learning how to make your own way in the world or from launching your own business (either while still working on your degree or after earning it), but skipping the degree with the idea that a start-up is your only real key to success may or may not come back to haunt you in the long run.

        You said that “…college makes a mess of adult life because it saddles kids with huge debt…”. I have merely pointed out that this does not have to be the case; that it doesn’t have to take trust funds or loans or special hard-to-earn scholarships to pay for a degree. You also made the contention that, “Going to college doesn’t show anything except that the kids or the parents (or both) got scared and gave up on the idea of individualized learning at the most crucial point in a kid’s transition to the adult world.” This is not necessarily true, either. You can very much use an entirely individualized program to earn your degree, you just have to think outside-the-box a bit.

        You keep stating things as absolutes when they aren’t universally true at all. College messes kids up with debt unless they have trust funds…. You cannot run a start-up and earn a degree at the same time. Why are you so determined to limit the possibilities for people? Your entire original post rings of sour grapes. College is too expensive! Oh, who needs it anyway!. If you don’t want your children to go to college, I guess that’s between you and them. (Though, ultimately I hope you do recognize it’s their decision in the end. Not yours.) But to tell people that their dreams and goals are lame simply because you couldn’t think of a way to fund college without debt or believe it’s possible to have your own company and study for your degree at the same time is something you should seriously reconsider. Did you really intend to be so blatantly rude? Are you going to tell your own children their goals are lame if they express a desire to earn a degree someday?

        • Penelope Trunk
          Penelope Trunk says:

          Rose, thank you for your comment. One of the strengths of this blog, I think, is that it brings together people who don’t normally come into contact with each other.

          For instance, I have been entrenched in the college debate for years, as a journalist in mainstream media, and I have never come across someone who pointed out that you could skip a few grades as a homeschooler and get an online degree and be done with college when other kids are starting. It’s an interesting idea that sidesteps a lot of college-debate-issues. And I appreciate hearing that from you.

          But you probably don’t realize that the businesses you are talking about in your comment are not startups. They are small businesses. There is a big difference. The number-one difference being how much you learn. The startup community is fast, top-tier, and modeled in a way that is all about mentoring. Kids learn way faster in the startup world than the small business world. You can learn in both for sure, but it’s a lot like the difference between Harvard and a community college when you talk about learning through business.


          • Rose Donnelly
            Rose Donnelly says:

            Thank you, Ms. Trunk.

            You are right that I do not know much (really anything) about businesses. I do still think, though, that since you said, “You can only work for someone else.” that you need to amend that statement. Maybe you can’t do whatever a start-up really is, but you don’t have to work for someone else, either. And I also still believe there is no reason you can’t do both college and a start-up, even if the start-up has to wait a few years for you to finish school.

            I am a 19yo former homeschooler who lamely enough still lives at home while going to college. I am attending a small school, paid for entirely by scholarship money, but I am also studying for several exams, and I intend to earn my degree through one of the Big Three schools. If I can finish on the schedule I have set for myself, I will be done before my 21st birthday. Not as young as my cousins, but certainly ahead of the average.

            I find your comment that no one has ever pointed this sort of opportunity out to you, even while debating college, interesting. This is nothing terribly remarkable in the homeschooling world. Have you not even heard of CollegePlus? They’ve been around for awhile. You don’t have to register with them, of course, in order to earn a degree by exams, and my family hasn’t, but regardless, all the homeschooling teens I know are at least aware of CollegePlus, even if they aren’t interested or can’t afford it.

            And what about dual enrollment? I think it’s something like 38 states now that offer it. Here in Florida, homeschoolers can dual enroll in their local CCs while still in high school and the only thing they have to pay for is the textbooks. I’ve known several teens who have earned an associate’s this way while only spending a few hundred dollars on books. Most of them have also then used/are using Bright Futures scholarship money to pay for two more years of college and a bachelor’s degree. They’ll have their degrees and no debt, which was the main point of all this, wasn’t it? There are ways to get a degree, without being rich and without having huge loans.

          • clark
            clark says:

            Penelope, I’m not sure how you distinguish between a startup and a small business. I imagine that by startup you mean a company that intends to fund growth, at some point, with capital from professional investors instead of with money from earnings. This definition would exclude, among others, Craigslist and 37 Signals — both good examples, to my mind, of what a startup does. Also, if you start up a lifestyle company, is that a startup unitl it reaches a steady state?

            In particular I am wondering about the Harvard/community college distinction that you have made. There are some venture-funded startups in my region (DC) that I would compare to the weaker departments in a land-grant school, and there are some growing small businesses around here that I would consider comparable at least to a public ivy like Michigan or Berkeley.

        • Penelope Trunk
          Penelope Trunk says:

          @Clark The two companies you brought up are notable exceptions. But they are great evidence that the VC system is much much more educational than a small business.

          Jason Fried, head of 37 Signals, writes a ton about the startup world and how he is outside of it. So does Craig Newmark from Craig’s list. In both cases, what they are really outside is the mentoring system. Craig has had missteps all along with oversight. And Jason has basically set up a VC environment by taking in money from Jeff Bezos specifically in order to get the benefits of investor mentoring.


      • LJM
        LJM says:

        I think there would be less of a disagreement here if you were actually “just pointing out another way to look at it.”

        If that was the case, the title of your post would have implied that college is a lame goal for some people.

        It’s perfectly reasonable to discuss the characteristics and situations that make homeschooling more or less challenging for people. It’s perfectly reasonable to discuss the aspects of school that are inherently flawed. It’s perfectly reasonable to suggest that college isn’t right for many people.

        In my opinion, that’s how you constructively “point out another way to look” at things.

        But the way you consistently write strongly implies, for example, that all schools suck, that homeschoolers who believe that the practice isn’t right for everyone are arrogant liars, and that anyone who chooses college for themselves or their kids have given up on individualized learning.

        And that’s very different from “just pointing out another way to look” at things.

  8. kristen
    kristen says:

    One of the things that I love about this blog is that she puts the fox in the henhouse and then steps out to watch what happens.
    The comments are as good as the posts.
    Thanks everybody.

  9. redrock
    redrock says:

    Yes, college is and does not have to be everybodies choice, but it is a good choice for many. Before you should me out of the comment section, let me make my case and point out a few rarely considered issues in this discussion.
    (1) The success of the billionaires cited in the link is closely connected to the fact that they were also at the right time at the right location. Many of the early computer-tech billionaire had the luck to actually live in an area geographically where they had access to the old clumsy computers. The had the luck of the draw on their side (in addition to be supersmart people). Many people are equally smart, but will not become the billionaire and widely successful person simply because they are born —now, where opportunities are different. And yes, we create opportunities for ourselves but we also live in an environment not defined by ourselves entirely which plays a role. And, none of them are representative or even useful rolemodels being the one in a billion example. Conclusions based on a comparison with Bill Gates are not useful.
    (2) College years coincide agewise with formative years in adult life independent of homeschooling or not, that is just the way human development goes. For many college is therefore a time to sample different aspects of academia and learning and thus contributes to “forming” ideas.
    (3) The increase in tuition is not due to the greed of colleges and universities, it is to a substantial degree due to a huge decrease in the state funding for higher education ( I do know the numbers, this is not only my personal idea and interpretation).

  10. redrock
    redrock says:

    … and spending a lot of money on private lessons is ok, but spending money on a college education is not?

  11. Snakeman99
    Snakeman99 says:

    Might be my favorite post yet. As someone who hated college and a new parent, I love watching the burgeoning field of alternative higher education. For what it’s worth, even at 19, I could easily tell that college was worthless. Had to do it to get to law school (back when it was only expensive in 1995), but there is no reason that a reasonably bright high school graduate couldn’t perform well there without the much-vaunted liberal arts degree.

  12. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I read Pimco’s Bill Gross statements on job creation and college education. However, I thought it was rather lightweight after reading an article by VC Bill Frezza at http://www.realclearmarkets.com/articles/2011/11/28/the_root_cause_of_market_failure_in_higher_education_99387.html . Colleges and universities are being attacked on two fronts … too expensive and underachieving … for students, families, and society. They may start by taking advice from Benjamin Ginsberg ( http://chronicle.com/article/Sarbanes-Oxley-Could-Save/129832/ ). Mr. Ginsberg makes this observation – “Today’s great universities were built by members of the faculty who—contrary to the myth of the impractical professor—often were excellent entrepreneurs and managers. Over the last several decades, however, America’s universities have been taken over by a burgeoning class of administrators and staffers who seem determined to transform colleges into top-heavy organizations run by inept executives.” It makes me wonder what colleges will look like in a few decades.

  13. Raul
    Raul says:

    If all you want out of life is to operate a Pinkberry franchise, then by all means, blow-off college.

    If, on the other hand, you’d like to be exposed to new ways of thinking, new cultures, new friends, new challenges, new lifestyles, new everything-that-your-little-sheltered-world-is-not, then check-out a real, live, bricks and mortar college or universtiy

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