How to wean yourself from the college crutch

The life of a homeschool parent means spending a lot of time rejecting the school system, defending  counter-culture decisions to naysayers, and gaining self-confidence to be different in a very public way.

Yet after fifteen years of this behavior, parents make the irrational decision to send their kids to college when it’s clear that college is just a repackaged version of failing schools in the US.

In case you think you have some research that shows a college degree makes for a good life, here is a detailed retort against the people trying to prove the value of college still, somehow, exists.

But you probably don’t need research. You can read the editorial in USA Today about how the board of directors at Penn State has not been able to bring themselves to take down a prominent statue on campus of Joe Paterno. The courts have already heard testimony that he knew about child molestation from his coaching staff and did not report it. And now it’s been shown that the school’s football team benefited immensely from Paterno’s silence on the matter.

You’d think this would be enough to shut down the football program and regroup. But it’s not even enough to take down a statue of Paterno. Because so much of college is about sports. This is a stark example of how the sports culture in college has eclipsed all other values, and when you pay for college, you’re paying for something else besides coursework.

So it might be good news to hear that Open Culture has a detailed analysis on why the university system will not last even another twenty years because the financial structure is a house of cards: Nearly 100% of students are taking out loans and far less than half those students are paying back the loans. Meanwhile, the cost of college is doubling every nine years. So here’s what to do about using the idea of college as a homeschool crutch:

1. Recognize that parents, not kids, choose to go to college.
Yet in the face of all of this, homeschoolers still talk about college as an end goal.

This is true for me, too. The inevitability of college is a frequent backdrop for discussion in our family. But I scoff at the public school system—I’m totally happy to let my kid play in dirt all day. I have one of the most anti-school approaches to homeschooling yet I still tell my kids insidious, indoctrinating things like, “You can have Pepsi with dinner when you go away to college.”

Homeschooler thinking is that the college degree is proof that homeschooling works. People tell me that I should stop writing about how parents should approach college because it’s really the kid’s decision, but really, the parents are the ones pushing college from an early age. It’s like religion—by the time kids are old enough to choose, they’ve been indoctrinated.

2. Admit that college is a crutch for homeschool parents.
But for parents, college is the seal of approval for the parents’ decision to take the kids out of mainstream schooling. Which means that the homeschooler’s we’re-going-to-college mentality is probably more for the parents than the kids.

University of California strategy professor Steve Postrel says that people pay for college precisely because education is terrible. On StrategyProfs, Postrel suggests people are paying exorbitant tuition out of desperation to validate the idea that somehow the seal of approval from an education system still matters and their kid has it.

Parents want to believe that while kids are not employable when they are 17, if they go to college for four years, then they are employable. Of course, this line of thinking has been debunked a million times. College does not make someone employable.  And Will Richardson, speaking at the International Society for Technology in Education said, “While countless Americans can’t find jobs, countless companies can’t find workers.” And Peter Thiel’s foundation to help kids drop out of college is the technology sector’s vote against college.

3. Take responsibility for your kid’s first career instead of dumping the task on colleges.
It’s scary to send a kid out into the world without a college degree. Because then the parents really need a plan to help the kid become employable. If you can’t dump the kid in college and say it is the college’s responsibility to get the kid a job, then homeschooling becomes about the job hunt.

Which is probably what it should be. Parents are big on saying that kids are learning about themselves and learning about the world. But that’s what a good career is, too—learning about yourself and having a challenging learning curve.

If there were less of a black line between the joys of homeschooling and the seriousness of work, then I think more of us could take responsibility for making our kids employable. This would also take a huge burden off of the homeschool parents who spend fifteen years bucking the system that’s free and then paying insanely high fees to get into the system when it costs money.

37 replies
  1. Joanna
    Joanna says:

    Your first point is so true! When I graduated from high school in 2005, I made the decision to NOT go to college, despite being #1 in my class and being accepted to several prestigious schools. (At the time, I based my argument on not knowing what to study). My parents were out of their minds with frustration and actually went so far as to make my inheritance conditional on graduating from college by age 25. I now have a college degree that I have never used to obtain employment and a mountain of debt that impedes me from saving money, buying a home, traveling, etc. – all of this to please my PARENTS, not to satisfy some actual need for college.

  2. Katy
    Katy says:

    this is what I’ve been struggling with. I want my kids to have employable skills. I know they can’t get hired as an engineer or nurse, for instance, unless they’ve got that piece of paper from a college!!!

    What are we supposed to do about this? It’s the reason that all homeschooling leads to college. Me and my best friend homeschooled (she went all the way, while I went back into public high school). She is now a doctor, and I’m an engineer. But we had to slog through college and she’s got mountains of college loan debt.

    But there isn’t any other way. HR departments determine hiring. HR won’t even look at you unless you’ve got that piece of paper from a college! ESpecially if it’s engineering or medicine. Or accounting. or nursing. or pretty much everything that pays a decent wage.

    So yeah – if my daughter wants to be a chef, than I’m not going to bother paying for college for her. But what if she wants to do something that requires the college credentials?

  3. Debt Free Teen
    Debt Free Teen says:

    I totally agree that College is not always needed. However, a college degree is still considered needed by society to get a solid job.

    Is that thinking outdated?

    Of course, but I still value a college degree while completing mine as fast and as cheap as possible. Its more about playing the game, than trying to get a higher education

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      Great point. I think we end up shooting ourselves (or our kids) on the leg when we forget that what we need from college is a paper to satisfy outdated rules/thinking and then buy into “the college experience.”

  4. Jamie
    Jamie says:

    Needing a college degree to be hired is a complete and total myth.

    I’m 28 years old. I was homeschooled the entire way. With the support of my parents— thankfully!— I got a job straight out of high school working as an entry-level graphic designer. At 17. Despite fielding offers from some prestigious schools, including Duke, I took the certificate program at the local community college to gain some of the technical skills I needed. It was the best decision I could have possibly made. The instructors were low-level and jaded. It was brilliant. It was more real-world experience than I knew what to do with. The entire three semesters of my college career cost me a sum total of $600.

    Because I’m an INTP— needing constant flexibility and challenge; bored once I’ve mastered a task— I’ve worked as a nursing assistant, a rare books buyer, an office manager, and on staff at a film company, among other things. All without a scrap of qualifying credentials. My brother is two years younger, also homeschooled the entire way. As of December, he is the director of product operations at the music distribution company where he has worked for five years. He adores his job. He never set foot on a college campus.

    Unless you want to be a doctor or a sports star: college is a myth and a ripoff. The roadblocks of HR are a myth. Being a sharp, interesting, smart interview full of personality and initiative— that’s the only credential I’ve ever needed. Not one interview has cared about a piece of paper from college.

    At 28 I’m freelancing in graphic design, living on a working farm. It’s my dream life in every way. I worked hard to get here, but with the traditional route of college, there’s no way I would be this age, not a penny in debt, exactly where I want to be, doing exactly what I love to do.

    Penelope, you are so right!

    • Katy
      Katy says:

      this is not right. If you want an engineering gig you’ll have to go to college.
      Right now my company is desperately looking to hire a new engineering manager. They won’t look at anyone that doesn’t have the degree, the professional licensing credentials (that you can only get from the degree and work experience), and technical expertise.

      yeah – if you want a job working in a restaurant or managing a shop, or being a “freelance HTML designer” – you can do it without college. But the jobs in math and science that pay well, require that piece of paper. HR is nowhere close to letting that go. Steve Jobs/Bill Gates are fantastic stories but not realistic for most.

    • Katy
      Katy says:

      and I wanted to add I’m not trying to be harsh or rain on anyone’s parade, I’m totally gung-ho about not following society’s rules on education.

      The problem for me, is that I must live in reality. My children must somehow become productive people that can feed themselves with their work. Everyone cannot be web designers. Somebody’s got to keep the water treatment facilities running, the electricity on, and the bridges from collapsing.

      • Lisa P
        Lisa P says:

        “Somebody’s got to keep the water treatment facilities running, the electricity on, and the bridges from collapsing.”

        My dad is an engineer and was one of the first I ever heard say that college is overrated. Based on his experience both as a student and as an instructor for engineering classes, he has said repeatedly that, in his job, he uses very little if any of the information that is taught.

        While it’s true that you need a piece of paper to be an engineer, that doesn’t make the education any less of a joke. Sooner or later, people will wake up. It doesn’t have to be this way.

        • Katy
          Katy says:

          I agree 1000%. I thought engineering school was a joke as well. I don’t use 75% of what I was taught.

          But that still leaves me with the necessary requirement for a college degree. And let me tell you also: my HR manager sneers at online degrees.

          I hope this changes quickly.

          • redrock
            redrock says:

            did you know beforehand which 25% you were going to use? And just because one might not do the statics calculation for the new bridge by hand any more does not mean it is useless knowledge to know how to do it. Otherwise – how can you judge whether the numbers spewed out by your computer program make sense?

          • Katy
            Katy says:

            redrock: I use my structural classes. Basically, I could have taken statics & strengths of materials – and stopped there (2nd year of college), and be doing the job I have now.

            It was fine to go through all that “extra” learning back when college was affordable. Now you have to mortgage your whole life to pay for knowledge you won’t use.

          • redrock
            redrock says:

            I don’t disagree that college has become ridiculously expensive and it should not be. One of the main reasons is diminishing support by the states, and not the greed of the people running the colleges (sorry, had to through this one in…). The point I wanted to make is that very few people know while they are going to college which part of their education they will use later on. I don’t think everybody should or has to go to college, there are a lot of other great career paths. But 90% of students don’t land exactly in the job they envisaged when they started with their education. Some do, but most do not. There is no way to know beforehand what you are going to use in your job, or in all the jobs you will have in your lifetime. That would be my argument for a broad, well-rounded learning experience in the first two years, and specialization in the last two years of college.

          • Katy
            Katy says:

            I think the general education requirements are what I wouldn’t pay for now, looking back on it. I wasted tons of money taking psychology, sociology, religion, political science —all required to get an engineering degree.
            Like I said – that was fine when college was affordable. But I could have gone to school for two years, taken just the core math and physics + structural and materials courses, and done my job just as well.

            SO yes, college has become unrealistic and too expensive for most people now. Something has got to change. I just don’t see it happening as easily as people are hoping — HR departments would have to radically change their entire world view.

        • redrock
          redrock says:

          there are a few things I find hard to reconcile: unschooling (or very unrestricted schooling) for kids up to 18 or so is the goal, have the kids go free and learn what they desire, pay for tutors in different areas like music or art or other things (I am pretty sure I would have liked this freedom as a kid). But then you require college to be extremely focussed, only teaching what you will later need in an often yet undefined job. College is a big place – there are many opportunities and whether one uses them or not often depends on the individual. And you also pay for the kid-tutors, why not pay for the college teachers? Isn’t college also a place where you can learn as much as you possibly can, either broad or highly specialized, and then go out into the world and use it in your chosen career? If careers nowadays are thought of as constantly changing endeavors why then expect college to teach to exactly one career?

          There is for some disciplines at least a good reason for accreditation (often comes with the college degree in that discipline) and that is quality assurance. If a company hires you as a bridge building engineer they really want to know that you have the knowledge in statics and whatever. Does it work perfectly? No, having the piece of paper is not a guarantee that the person knows all the necessary material, but it is an indication that they have acquired at least some of it. Same holds for nurses and quite a few other professions. If you want to run a ship a.k.a. company you better have people who know how to set a sail and chart a course.

          • Katy
            Katy says:

            yes, college should be more focused. Because we have to pay $20,000 to a so-so state college PER YEAR to get skills. Engineering took me 5 years to get through because I was weighed down with a lot of bullsh*t I didn’t need. That was back when I only had to pay $3,000/year in tuition.

            Now my kids (read: ME) would have to pay more than $80,000 to get an engineering gig. They are still forced to learn a lot of crap they have no interest in. It’s not because the classes are super useful – it’s because the college can force you to pay $2,000 to take sociology to get your engineering or medical degree. You have no choice.

            I was never interested in the humanities and I never will be. I can learn all that crap online now, it’s free. So college has become a scam. period.

            Engineering used to be a profession that you entered through apprenticeship. Same with medicine.

  5. karelys
    karelys says:

    wow, this made my brain explode!

    It’s brilliant how all your exploration has ended here!

    (Imaginary hat tip to you)

    The husband and I haven’t discussed the homeschool/unschool route anymore since the first time we yelled at each other and then had a calm discussion about it. I was pregnant with my first before I miscarried and I am about to birth this baby. So it’s been long.

    But I always think of it. I think how I don’t want my kid to go to college unless he/she is convinced he needs it for a career that needs college (think doctor, or some other thing that reeeeally needs the degree to move forward).

    Your post reminds me of parents who become so overwhelmed and are away from kids so much because of work that raising kids and teaching good manners becomes the school’s partial responsibility! I am appalled when parents expect teachers or the school in general to teach kids good manners but it’s gotten to that point that we just gotta meet in the middle before anything can be done.

    College has turned into the place where people “find themselves” and expect the college to give them a job. Because parents are not parenting in a way that prepares the kid to do this without the college experience.

    I have so much to say but not a very clear way to say it properly so I’ll wait.

    In the meantime, awesome post P!

  6. cris
    cris says:

    I am so interested in this topic. The idea that I can just TEACH my kids what they need to know for success in LIFE and leave those silly “standards” to those who are involved with and/or profit from the school model benefit is very, very attractive to me. At this point, I struggle (sometimes daily!) to keep teaching what and how I KNOW is effective, meaningful, and valuable. But if it is not clearly a “standard” that is measured on the golden test series (SAT, ACT, etc), I find myself questioning its worth and the time taken away from the pursuit of more test-specific knowledge. I am left to plan on supporting my kids well into their 20s (college or no college) to be sure they leave the nest with somewhere to land.

  7. Rachel D.
    Rachel D. says:

    I had survival issues to deal with early on, so I learned a marketable skill right out of high school while deciding if I should continue on through to law school. I never ended up going to law school. Didn’t have to since I was already happy doing what I was doing and making a nice living.

    Technically, any skill is marketable. You can start a business doing just about anything. If you focus on initially learning a skill, then you can move forward from there and expand and grow. That’s why college is so over-rated. If you’re good at something, then you’ve got your introduction into the workforce. After that it’s just meeting people, accepting opportunities, looking for options, learning, growing, and taking your career in whatever direction you choose.

  8. Cristen Hamilton
    Cristen Hamilton says:

    A couple years ago I heard a report on the radio about admissions processes at elite universities. The researchers sat in the room with the admissions panels at a few different schools. What I most remember was the account of how absolutely arbitrary the final selection is, when it’s down to the last 20 or so spots, by an incredibly haphazard group doing the selecting. Families base their entire lives on whether or not a 20 year old co-ed prefers their last name. It was then I realized, given how incentivized schools are to charge whatever they want, that college is a complete scam. I would not sacrifice my kids’ childhood to it. My kids are very young, and we had already decided to unschool, but we’re still on board with the college end game. Now we are saving for their “launch fund.” They may have to submit a business plan to get it, who knows. They may choose it to attend university. Until then, it’s play time until they let me know what really floats their boat. Thanks, Penelope, for giving many of us a voice and much appreciated encouragement.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I like the idea of a launch fund as well.

      The fact that the elite schools are often arbitrary in their selection is actually so irrelevant to most kids. But I think it’s really hard for parents to let go of that dream – that their kids are somehow going to be qualified to get into a very top school.

      The conversation about college is really about the kids who are normal (which is a nice word for mediocre) and parents don’t think about that until it is stark and in their face when the kid is actually applying.

      So the college discussion seem oddly skewed. Like, there is no one talking about is college useful for the majority of kids who have no chance of going to a great school.


      • redrock
        redrock says:

        this is an interesting discussion: are only elite colleges worth it? I think all college has become horribly expensive, no doubt about this, and there are great alternatives out there. But I don’t think that teaching (and thus good learning) only happens at the top end of the college spectrum. MIT is notorious for its lousy undergraduate teaching, they have done some work to improve in the last few years, but they are renowned for their research not their superb teaching. There are many arguments now connected directly to Udacity and Coursera: just get the best teachers from the super-schools (Standford, MIT etc.) and then we have the best teaching and everybody will benefit. I registered for two Coursera courses supposedly with the world experts – they were so boring, the teaching was uninspired (slowly developing power point slides, no demos….) and it would have been more exciting to watch grass grow. Check it out: many of the lectures are that way… so, just getting the superstar from the elite school is not a guarantor for quality in teaching.

        • liz
          liz says:

          I agree, the college rankings are another part of the myth, for sure. There’s something for every price point, and there are good and lousy teachers and reasons for being there everywhere too. Total myth! The Ivy League is a complete joke to me….it’s just the class system, not an educational system.

  9. Sam
    Sam says:

    I went to a prestigious liberal arts college and majored in psychology. I enjoyed my classes and learned a lot about topics I may not have otherwise been exposed to, at least not at that early age (behavioral neuroscience, queer theory, film theory, etc.). I’ve always been a voracious reader, but there is something to be said for a well thought-out syllabus and a stirring and illuminating lecture on the given material. I met interesting people both from the area around where I grew up and from other areas of the U.S. and the world. I learned how to navigate living by myself- everything from buying my own groceries and toiletries to making my own health care appointments at the student health center. It was “adult life light.” It wasn’t always easy- there were feelings of lonliness, social challenges, and lots of social comparison. But I feel like I had an important experience. Now I am adamittedly more academically-oriented than many students (and also went to a very good school), but I absolutely would not have had the same quantity or quality of different learning experience were I left to my own devices. (Perhaps I would have been more productive and developed more specialized knowledge- who knows? But why rush to specialize when I am going to hopefully be alive for another 60+ years and now have more of a background to interact with more people, more situations, more texts, etc.?)

    I also feel like my years in public school were also a worthwhile experience, though maybe that’s best saved for another post.

    I understand that for many kids, and their parents, career is the end game. But we are doing kids a diservice if we forget that college is also a learning experience on many levels. It is absolutely not for everyone, and those who don’t want to go shouldn’t feel like they have to go. But to write college off because it usually doesn’t automatically lead to an awesome job or because many people have not been savvy about selecting an institution they can reasonably afford seem very short-sighted to me.

    • Judy
      Judy says:

      Well said Sam!

      As a parent, it’s hard to imagine other parents NOT wanting their kids to be exposed to world literature, art, history, political science, psychology, sociology, gender studies, anthropology, ethics, world religion… hopefully led by those who are well versed in their fields, who assign thought-provoking reading and lead eye-opening discussion with students from a variety of backgrounds.

    • Lily
      Lily says:

      $20-40K yearly to learn to “buying my own groceries and toiletries to making my own health care appointments at the student health center.” Really?

      My 9 year old already knows how to budget and compare prices by unit. The same amount of money for one year at a prestigious college could support a lengthy RTW trip where your kid could meet people from around the world in a unique environment, and maybe even pick up a few languages.

      College can be a great experience but it is a very expensive one that has long term negative repercussions for those who really can’t afford the $100K price tags.

      • Sam
        Sam says:

        Practicing independent living was just one facet of the experience. I also stressed how enjoyable and stimulating the academics were. I am glad that your son knows how to budget and compare prices- that’s great.

        A RTW trip does sound fun, though I would not want to spend a year traveling. I enjoy a more structured environment, including having a schedule. Part of college is learning how to manage one’s time (which can also be said for homeschooling). I would have not have been ready to travel independently for an extended amount of time at age 18, and truthfully it doesn’t sound that appealing to me now. Additionally, at most colleges there are at least some safeguards in place to keep students safe (how effective these are, and what level of control is best, are debatable) and to provide guidance and services.

        And really, there is no reason to pay $100k for college if one cannot afford it. The decision has to be justified by the academic prowess of the student, how much money he or she anticipates earning in his or her future career, and how much money his or her family can contribute/what the financial aid package will look like.

  10. Zellie
    Zellie says:

    I’d be surprised if your kids are truly unschooled and you are able to “send them” to college if that’s not what they want. Even if money is not an issue, unschooled kids value their time and life and don’t want to waste it on something they don’t feel is worthwhile.

  11. liz
    liz says:

    I agree that general ed is a problem, even more for those who have been through jr high and hs, even more filler and really getting in the way of what you want/hope to learn at college. I also agree that the indoctrination toward college is like a religion. It was the only religion I got and once I got there, it was really, deeply disappointing. I would have been better off forging my own path, even if it was harder. I had to anyway, and with student loan debt.

  12. virginia
    virginia says:

    So. just to be clear… you are going to discourage your children from attending college?

  13. Lily
    Lily says:

    I am a single parent homeschool mom. I went to vocational school, then community college, and then got a bachelors degree. The last was a huge waste of money.

    My vocational and community college degree are what I use to get employment. The bachelors degree has had zero impact on the amount of money I make.

    My plan is to encourage my daughter to get a cheap vocational education (blue collar) that has sustained viability. Health care or some other service oriented job. If she wants to spend money on college after that, it’s her call and her money although I’ll strongly discourage that. You can get the same education in the library and online for free.

    • Sam
      Sam says:

      I disagree that you can get the same education in the library and online for free that you can at a good college or university. If you have the opportunity to study with the experts in a field, the ones who are doing important research and really defining the field, this cannot easily be replicated by independent study. I think that Penelope would agree with me on this, as she is all about paying experts for assistance and guidance. Now this argument does not fully apply to most students, who are admittedly attending mediocre institutions and not studying with the “experts” in the field. But in-school learning also provides opportunities to take courses in areas in which most people do not have the background or resources to do much independent study- such as laboratories, statistical modeling software, access to journals that require academic affiliation, etc.

      • redrock
        redrock says:

        whether college is worth it for someone depends on many things: which level of academic knowledge do you want to achieve? Which career path are you looking for? Do you want training or education? Do you want to have one highly specialized skill set or a broader one? Are you intellectually curious or is your strength in html programming? Do you want to have kids and unschool, or become a professor? Do you love cars and want to tinker all day? Then the college physics degree is utterly useless, but if you want to become a scientist it will the thing for you. College does not fit all sizes, and it can not accommodate all ideas and ways of life. If you have no idea what you want, then you cannot blame college for not giving it to you.

  14. Katy
    Katy says:

    We can blame HR departments for demanding college degrees in the humanities just to get a job in sales.

    My babysitter is trying to get through college to be an elementary school teacher. Even spending the first couple of years at community college, she’s still going to come out with more than $40,000 worth of debt. I’ve begged her not to do it but she thinks there is no future for her if she can’t get a degree.

    It’s a nightmare. At this point college is for those who can afford to just be “intellectually curious” — the rest of us have got to work. Penelope – I’d post a link but i don’t know if it will go through. A recent article interviewing college grads on the student loan debt and how it is affecting their lives. People don’t want to marry someone with 80k in school loans and making minimum wage

    . No woman graduating from college right now is gonna be having babies when she’s 24, that’s for sure.

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