Why Not Home College?

After a few decades of advocacy, US home-schoolers now get respect.  Kids who learned high school material at home, under learning plans managed by their parents, can now apply to college on a nearly level playing field with kids who went to ordinary schools.  But imagine a home-schooled college student applying for a job or grad school – he’d be treated almost as if he had spent those years on a job or goofing off.   What is the difference?

The difference I think is parental control.  Because high school kids are legally under the control of their parents, their home schooling is thought to mostly signal parent features, not kid features.  In contrast, since college kids control their own lives more, their home schooling would mostly signal their personal features.  A kid who taught himself college topics at home would be expected to lack discipline and consciousness enough to follow someone else’s plans.  (I avoided this by staying in college while I home-schooled myself.)

Interestingly, this suggests that parental control over kids lives can give kids a signaling advantage.  Kids who do weird things maybe be ostracized less because we assume it was probably their parents who made them do such things.  Being in control of your own life comes at the cost of being more penalized for your weird choices.   What does this say about the best age to let kids run their own lives?

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  • anon

    Colleges bundle two services: a credentialing service and a teching service.

    Much of the value of a college education is in the credentialing. If colleges provided “walk-in” testing and credentialing facilities where “home-college” students could pay to take tests, these would probably be worth just as much as going to a standard college.

    • Michael Sullivan

      No they wouldn’t, at least not if the college was any good at all. Actually going to college has significant networking and social advantages not provided merely by the credential. As long as the academic work and institutional bs isn’t aggressively stupid, it’s probably worth more to actually attend college.

      Even colleges without an exceptional student body usually still have very good faculty that’s worth networking with or being mentored by, as long as the institution is not so focused on serving the extended high-school population that those professors aren’t free to teach to their ability.

      Also, because of this, that kind of degree wouldn’t even be worth as much as a signal. Part of the signaling value of an elite college education is that your social circle is expected to contain a lot of very smart successful people. That affects you and how you perform, and it affects the contacts and resources you can bring to a job

  • Mike

    Could it not be different attitudes about the sophistication of topics learned? I think part of the reason HS teachers get little respect from society is a perception that almost anyone could do it — after all we all went to HS, and many of us learned more since then. (I strongly disagree with this perception.) There is wider belief, I think, that to teach at the college level requires greater expertise.

    Meanwhile, to “self teach” requires a degree of aptitude that, while common among academic types, I think is very rare in the population at large.

  • that would never happen anon because it would expose the inefficiency of their teching service.

  • valter

    It does happen, nazquinarsil, sometime, someplace. For example, I went to college (econ major) in Italy in the ’80s and I, like quite a few other students, went to class for only 20% of the courses I took. Universities were commonly referred to as “exam factories” (though there were, of course, examples of good teachers, too).

  • Aaron

    Isn’t that change starting to happen already? There are a number of traditional 4 years universities offering degrees online, lending more credibility to those degrees.

  • Anne

    Maybe homeschooling has become a more reliable signal of being able to learn. I think that traditional high school diplomas and many college degrees have become noisy signals. My family has been homeschooling (11 and 13y/o sons) for three years. My sons know they can go back to public school whenever they choose. I know that’s a loaded and complicated ethical statement –can any 11 or 13y/o choose to go to school or home school? I think 12plus years of public schooling makes it harder to actually choose anything. Many who go through that have been conditioned out of pausing to think or recognizing when they’re confused (see some of Eliezer’s older posts).

  • Z. M. Davis

    The hell with respect, home college rocks! You can study whatever you want, whenever you want, for as long as you want! Used textbooks are relatively cheap, the county library is free, and the University library sells borrowing privileges for 100 $/year. Sure, you take a status hit, but in a world full of billions of people, many millions of whom are even smarter than you (hard though this may be to fathom in one’s natural overconfidence), you almost certainly weren’t going to be famous anyway—whatever fame could possibly mean in such a world, when different people are interested in different things, and one crowd speaks of hotshot academics the way others speak of star professional football players. (Acutally, it was just today that I started to model this question of whose works are known to whom in a large world full of content-creators as a problem in graph theory, although I am far from done yet, and the details are of course beyond the scope of this comment.) If you can just manage to ignore your primate social instincts which don’t even make sense in the modern environment (this is a difficult transformation that I am still working on), you can simply delight in the vast richness of human knowledge, and thereby be fantastically wealthy (in intellectual capital if not dollars) beyond your wildest dreams! Bwah-ha-ha-ha! I’m going to create many beautiful things, and you can’t stop me! Not even if you exercise that most terrible weapon of ignoring me! See if I—

    *gasps, sobs*


    “A kid who taught himself college topics at home would be expected to lack discipline and consciousness enough to follow someone else’s plans.”

    If the autodidact can produce genuinely good work, doesn’t that actually show more discipline?—that she can do good work without being constantly supervised?

    • John Maxwell IV

      I agree that self-teaching requires more discipline. I’m pretty successful in traditional school settings; I’ve tried self-teaching a number of times with limited success. Damned internet.

  • J

    1. Anon is correct. And it’s not homeschooling that get’s any respect, because it’s still heavily looked down upon, it’s the credentialing services. Try getting into college without a GED and good SAT and you’ll be SOL.

    2. Colleges are moving towards homeschooling by offering a greater number of online classes. See how much MIT is putting online these days http://ocw.mit.edu/OcwWeb/web/home/home/index.htm

    3. On the other hand many jobs don’t ask for a specific college degree. They want the maturity gained from “the college experience”. The kind of person who would “test out” of college might not be the kind of person they want.

    • Vulgate

      There are economic efficiencies of scale and legal protections in a college environment that cannot be duplicated in an at-home experience.

      Can you imagine the personal cost of being a bio-physics or chemical engineering ‘student’ at your stay-at-home college? Also if a student started mixing chemicals at their own home in the name of ‘lab experiments’ they are more likely to talk to the FBI than a corporation.

      In my opinion, an at-home university would be better structured as a corporate apprenticeship.

  • Doug S.

    A home-schooled college student is weird. Employers generally don’t like to hire weird people.

    See also:

  • Alan

    I think that the scorn against the home schooled/colleged is more likely directed at the perceived or real lack of social contact and context provided by the school/college environment and interaction. Certainly I know that a large part of my college experience was simply meeting new people and entering new situations. I might venture that the value of a college education is more about these “political” and networking aspects than the study skills and learning required to pass exams. This is even more exaggerated at college level where a “gifted” child who was home schooled is likely to meet many other individuals of varying talents and attitudes, and perhaps encounter for the first time people smarter / more capable than themselves. Certainly they will encounter people from very different educational / socio-economic backgrounds, since my guess is that most home-schooled kids are from upper/middle class households (at least in Europe, the US may have more home schooling in lower income brackets due to the larger proportion of the religiously-motivated home schooling (this is my perception, I have no data)).

  • Zac Gochenour

    Why not home college? Because education isn’t about learning, for starters.

    Also, consider that employers for high-paying or technical jobs willing to hire young people without much experience typically expect people to do what Robin did: go to college and educate yourself.

    For the very smart, going to college is simply not that hard. Even if you had classes for 4 hours per day, 5 days per week, and did 4 more hours of study time for those classes (more time than most top students I have known dedicated to their classwork), that is only a 40 hour work week. Even if you went to a top flight school, “I went to school and graduated” is not likely to impress your interviewer when you go for that job at Google.

    You want to be able to signal that not only can you go to college, take the classes they tell you to, do the work they tell you to, and graduate with top marks.. but along the way you managed to teach yourself 4 or 5 times that amount through independent study.

    Outside of these sorts of jobs, I think other commenters are on the mark by saying people who don’t go to college are just weird. Also, employers want to hire people who are high status, as it improves their status. Being a college graduate is higher status than not, although just knowing a lot of stuff from MIT OpenCourseWare isn’t really high status.

  • michael vassar

    Kids don’t want to look bad by doing weird things, but parents are equally unwilling to look bad by their kids doing weird things, and they don’t get to internalize the upside of successful weirdness.

  • “Certainly I know that a large part of my college experience was simply meeting new people and entering new situations. I might venture that the value of a college education is more about these “political” and networking aspects than the study skills and learning required to pass exams”

    This is true. I’d also add that at elite colleges, a big part of the education is taking in smart people and teaching them how to act like members of the upper class. This is very valuable career-wise, and cannot be home-taught.

  • MineCanary

    Ahh, and now I’m depressed.

    How ’bout this: The purpose of going to college (from the student’s perspective) is to be in an environment where you can be weird, isolate yourself from social standards for a few years, find like-minded people, self-teach, and then be able to vaguely support yourself due to your degree while still living in a society that doesn’t fit–the social status of a college degree offsets the loss of status due to your weirdness (experienced by you as “sanity” and “humanity”).

    The employer gets the benefits offered by the credentials and status system that varying university degrees confer on their holders, thus allowing them to quickly sort through possible job applicants with the assumption that any weirdness on the part of the accepted candidate that doesn’t show up on first inspection will at least be offset by the degree and whatever qualities allowed them to get it–they had to disguise themselves in an academic institution for a few years while still living in a society that doesn’t fit.

  • In my experience, it’s possible to teach oneself much of what’s learned in a regular high school, whereas the level of challenge in good colleges can be much higher than one would be able to impose on oneself in home college, particularly in science, math, engineering, etc.

    I’ve noticed this when auditing courses–I never worked as hard as when I was taking the class. It’s hard to be as serious without the pressures of grades, teachers, and other students.

  • ado

    Setting up a public evaluation scheme for professionals, so that anyone –regardless of academic background and job experience— can prove his or her competence in a particular field or discipline, seems like an obvious answer to me. That is, assuming that one can gauge a person’s proficiency in a subject in a way that is logistically sound. Standardized testing comes to mind; yet, most importantly, there would have to be a way for those who do well in the tests to then prove their knowledge in action by getting a short internship (in, say, an investment firm) where they’d be under the scrutiny of their peers –and therefore subjected to the forces of professional competition.

    After this, it seems responsible to give a self-taught pro a gleaming diploma. Right?

    Moreover, if autodidacts turn out to be as prepared as college graduates, then colleges would be forced to step up their game and humanity would be served well.

    In the end, determined individuals only need guidance and guidance flows aplenty in the Internet. An institution cannot optimally educate an individual as it does not have enough insight about the individual’s cognitive quirks, interests and motivations. It is therefore important to respect the individual as the best source of knowledge on how this individual can become more adept at what his or her interests turned him or her to.

    Be that as it may, I love academia.

  • I think home college has some advantages but the weakness is obviosly. Home studying let the boys and girls stay away their friends and social network. This is unhelpful to their growth. Our hot forging department employed some home coolege boys. Most of them is not good at communication with other tema members. Obviously they need more social activities.

  • Granite26

    1: Standardized Testing (ACT and SATs) verify HS in ways that college is too broad to do.

    2: In my experience, positions that require actual skills (programming, etc) won’t care as much about the signalling aspects as the potential employees ability to do the work. It’s only when ‘I gradubacated’ is a useful metric that it counts (I.E. it takes a lot of work and money to separate home college from unqualified. If you have to do that work to determine skills that not all college grads have, the degree becomes less important.)

  • tg

    At the University of Arizona, due to budget cutbacks, there will be classes offered in the concert hall to upwards of 1,000 students at a time. These are not televised or internet based. These are bodies in the seats. Do we really believe in the authority of the teacher so much that we are willing to suffer this charade? Is there some transmission of knowledge that can only occur in person? The University believes so, apparently, and that is laughable.

    • Tracy W

      As someone who has a tendency to procrastinate, I think there is some benefit. It is easier to make myself go to a lecture for an hour and pay attention than it is to sit there in my own personal room with 100 distractions and make myself pay attention to a difficult book or a difficult computer course for an hour.
      It is of course possible that I am uniqe in my failings. But that would mean that the word “procrastination” was made up entirely in preparation for my birth, which strikes me as overstating my importance to the universe. If there are other people like me, then the lecture model will continue.

  • Doug S.

    At the University of Arizona, due to budget cutbacks, there will be classes offered in the concert hall to upwards of 1,000 students at a time. These are not televised or internet based. These are bodies in the seats. Do we really believe in the authority of the teacher so much that we are willing to suffer this charade? Is there some transmission of knowledge that can only occur in person?

    There’s actually reasons why the school would do this. First of all, it’s harder on a professor to give a televised lecture. The standards for performance are higher; any flaws in the professor’s public speaking ability, such as stumbling over words and such, stand out more when it’s on a recorded video. Second, if you’re physically in the room with a professor, even if it’s a huge lecture class, you can still raise your hand and interrupt the lecture to ask a question, or otherwise interact with the professor directly. Yes, it’s still basically a charade, but it’s not *completely* pointless.

    • Granite26

      I’m a big fan of recorded live lectures. Get 30 people in the room so that the professor is teaching TO somebody, which makes sure he makes sense and isn’t being crazy boring, but still allow the majority of students to not show up at the appointed place and time.

      I’ll go on the record, though, as saying that remote learning =\= home college

  • I followed the normal college and grad school route, but along the way I dabbled in some uncredentialed work. In particular, in high school I worked part time as a programmer, and I received an unsolicited offer for a reasonably-attractive-sounding full time job offer (from a different firm) as an alternative to going to college.

    Also in college I also knew various pure science majors, typically physics majors, who went directly into engineering jobs upon graduation.

    From my anecdotal experience, my guess is that if you were prepared to show that you understood half a dozen relevant engineering-ish texts well — texts at the level of _Introduction to Algorithms_ and _Mathematical Methods for Physicists_ and _The Art of Electronics_ — and you could show off a nontrivial demo project or three, it would be straightforward to find good engineering jobs. Most companies would ignore you, true, especially big ones with human resources bureaucracies, but a significant fraction of less bureaucratic companies would be impressed, and such a fraction is all you need.

    • ado

      good point… niche-seeking auto-professionals would model neatly if we had the metrics.

  • tg

    Good points, Doug, regarding the 1,000 student class. Agreed, Thanks.

  • Kids who do weird things maybe be ostracized less because we assume it was probably their parents who made them do such things.

    Meanwhile, in my world, this sympathetic calibration of ostracism has never, ever happened.