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College or Not?
by Peter Kowalke
The ongoing dilemma has been whether or not I
should return to college. I have been experimenting, these last twelve months, with “unschooling”
my way through college. Frustrated by both the pedagogical and practical aspects of college,
last year I left my small, liberal arts school for the familiar unschooling environment I had
known as a child and teen. Rather than be a college student in a school, I decided to be a
college student out of school, apropos unschooling (“unschooling” being defined as
learning through the process of following one’s own interests).
delighted with the results, by and large, sans one key aspect that I knew would be problematic:
social acceptance. As with the homeschooling movement two decades ago, the world at large is not
ready for homeschoolers who bypass college. Most undergraduate admissions offices have policies
for homeschooled students. How many medical or law schools have policies for the homeschooler,
however? Many professions are willing to bypass a degree if skills, knowledge and experience are
present. But, not all professions accept skills that are uncertified by the education industry—at
least not without an ongoing fight.
So to reframe the dilemma: Do I choose to make
college my struggle, or do I save energy for a different battle?
Typical unschooler that I
am, the issue totally consumed me this summer.
To answer the question – and a
few additional, related issues – in April I decided to make a documentary about grown
homeschoolers. My father teaches television production on the high school level, and I’m a
journalist by trade, so producing a feature-length video had been a longstanding (and much
delayed) goal of mine. Needing role models and guidance on the question of college, making a
documentary would help me with my dilemma while I continued to broaden my skill set and
contribute to the world at large. I couldn’t find what I needed elsewhere, so I created
what I needed myself.
The documentary began to take shape in May. I started by shoring
up addresses and mailing letters to every homeschooler I knew who was my age or older (as of
2000, I’m 21). Then I wrote a loose, mildly vague formal proposal and began to pour over
video theory, documentaries, and documentary texts I ordered from inter-library loan. Each week
the documentary took further shape, expanding to encompass much more than just the question of
college. By June, the documentary was a 107-minute exploration among 10 grown homeschoolers.
Eight different topics would be addressed, from entering the workforce, to college, to the
lasting influence home education has on the homeschooler. Interspersed among discussion would be
short vignettes of each homeschooler.
While preparing for the documentary, now known as
Grown Without Schooling (in reference and homage to the venerable homeschooling publication
started by John Holt, Growing Without Schooling), older homeschoolers began to write and call in
response to the project. The response was phenomenal and, by July, as I prepared for a
month-long recording schedule throughout the Eastern half of the United States, most of my time
was spent talking with homeschoolers between the ages of 19 and 32.
Seth Smith, a
Columbia, Missouri unschooler in his early thirties, aptly described what it felt like to talk
with so many grown homeschoolers. During one of our telephone conversations, Seth remarked that
talking with other grown homeschoolers was cathartic. When two homeschoolers get together,
certain homeschooler-specific issues rise to the surface, issues that are not addressed, or
perhaps not even encountered, by those who have attended school.
Indeed, the lives and
attitudes of those I interviewed was intrinsically familiar territory. A few grown homeschoolers
had even encountered my dilemma with college. But, not many of my small sampling of grown
homeschoolers had opted to skip an undergraduate degree. Was I surprised? Just a bit.
Eight out of the ten grown homeschoolers to make it into Grown Without Schooling chose college,
which reaffirmed what I was already sensing; swallowing four years of college was easier than
fighting for respect and recognition the rest of one’s life.
Prior to the
documentary, I had probed and questioned “successful” didactic adults who had gotten
through life without a degree. The nearly unanimous conclusion from such conversations was that
college had made life easier. Put another way: lacking a college degree created a social
weak-spot that frequently needed to be overcome – no matter how old the person was who
didn’t have the degree.
That in mind, it wasn’t startling that the older
homeschoolers in my documentary chose college. What surprised me was that most had not
realistically considered the alternative.
Before I began the documentary, one of my
base assumptions had been that I would find many homeschoolers who seriously questioned the need
for college. If homeschooling had worked for the adolescent and teen years, why start relying on
institutions later in life, I reasoned. The theory behind homeschooling, at least its
unschooling incarnation, still made sense in the post-secondary years. If anything, the high
cost of college made homeschooling more appealing during the college years!
assumption proved wrong. Most of the grown homeschoolers did not seriously consider skipping
college. Either college was the natural step after homeschooling, or they intuitively knew that
they needed the degree.
Only after I pressed the point did I find that I was not alone
when I imagined an unschooler alternative to college. Most grown homeschoolers in the
documentary had thought about it, but most had not listened to the side of themselves that
contemplated raiding the library instead of attending college, or procuring their own mentors
and internships as they continued to do what they loved. Why? Because it wasn’t socially
acceptable to unschool college. It isn’t even socially acceptable among many
homeschoolers. The hassles would be large, and they were tired of swimming upstream. So, they
didn’t focus on the alternatives to college.
The world wasn’t ready for
unschooling in college, at least not when they were presented with the choice. So, they
discounted the option and continued with their lives.
Listening to homeschoolers who
had decided to attend college made me wonder if the world was still not ready for college
unschooling. Mae Shell came to mind, a 23-year-old homeschooler from Vermont who was one of the
few in my documentary not to attend college. Mae worked at a library and lived at home with her
family. While seemingly content, was she living up to her dreams? Was the library job a
compromise, at least a little bit? Regardless of Mae’s true feelings, would I compromise
the opportunity to engage in challenging journalistic work if I didn’t finish college?
Would other candidates appear more qualified for the editorial positions I wanted? Would I limit
myself by not feeling qualified?
Making Grown Without Schooling has provided guidance
and some perspective. I think that homeschooling has expanded to the point where home education
is no longer a frontier crossed only by the bold. Society is starting to understand
homeschooling, or at least appreciate it as a viable alternative. The next frontier is college
homeschooling. Eventually we’ll see many homeschoolers who continue their studies while
choosing not to attend college. In the year 2000, however, college homeschooling still is a
So, prompted by my findings from the documentary, and after much soul
searching, I have begun taking classes again at the community college. Next year I’ll
transfer to one of the Ohio universities (assuming they let me in). Maybe two years from now
college won’t be an issue for me at all and, like the homeschoolers in my documentary, I
can continue my life. That is the promise.
Were I still 17, however, I might not make
the same decision; I might not attend college at all. Unschooling is a lifestyle that only
requires college because there’s little alternative. With a few more role models, and a
few more resources, I think the frontier will be forged. Ten years from now, unschoolers will
make a different choice than the one I am making – and the one chosen by most of the
adults in Grown Without Schooling.
After that, maybe unjobbing will be next.
Peter Kowalke is a lifelong homeschooler and
producer of Grown Without Schooling, a documentary about grown homeschoolers and the lasting
influence of home education. This essay originally appeared in the November-December, 2000
issue of Home Education Magazine.