This post reviews Mary K. Saunders, “Previously Homeschooled College Freshmen: Their First Year Experiences and Persistence Rates” in Journal of College Student Retention 11, no. 1 (2009-2010): 77-100.
Saunders here uses results from a survey of 261 college freshmen at Wheaton College to argue that first year students who previously homeschooled tend to report positive social experiences and commitment to the college. Such students are just as likely as are students who went to institutional schools to stay at the college.
Saunders begins with a survey of the literature on academic achievement, uncritically accepting the Ray and Rudner studies I’ve discussed so many times in this blog. Since academic achievement is a no longer a contested issue, she turns to socialization. To try to measure how well socialized homeschooled children are, Saunders compares their first year of college experience to that of traditionally schooled kids.
Saunders grounds her discussion both in the literature on homeschoolers and socialization and in the literature on college retention rates. For the socialization literature she again uncritically accepts the glowing reports of homeschooler socialization without mentioning any of the serious methodological limitations the studies she cites contain. For the college retention literature she relies heavily on the work Vincent Tinto and of John Braxton and his colleagues, who explicate six factors that contribute to students’ decision to stay at or leave a college.
Saunders mailed a social experiences survey to the entire 2004-2005 freshman class of Wheaton in May, just after they had finished their first year of college. Of the 596 she sent, she got 261 back, for an overall response rate of 43.4% (a good response rate for a survey). Respondents skewed a bit more female and white than the whole of the freshman class.
Without going into the details of Saunders’ survey instrument and data here, I can summarize that she did a sophisticated “least squares regression” analysis of the data in order to separate out the variable of type of schooling from other important variables contributing to a student’s decision to remain in or leave the college. Doing so, Saunders found “no significant effects on the student’s integration” into college life based upon previous schooling, and a slightly stronger intent among homeschooled students to remain with Wheaton. Her moral is that “colleges/universities with similar demographics as Wheaton College…need not be concerned about previously homeschooled students finding ways to socially integrate and persist on their campuses.” (95)
Saunders’ methodology in this study is excellent, and she herself points out its limitations. She notes that Wheaton is not a secular university, so it makes sense that Christian homeschooled kids will have a fairly easy time feeling at home there. She acknowledges other limitations to her research design as well.
The only real weakness to her study in my view comes right at the end where she momentarily slips out of her carefully circumscribed discussion (where she repeatedly admits to the limited generalizability of her findings) to say that her study “provides data that supports the belief that the process of homeschooling does not negatively affect the ability of the student being homeschooled to integrate socially into his/her environment upon leaving the parents’ home.” (97) Immediately after letting that slip she reminds readers that her study only considered one group of students at an elite Christian college, but I can easily imagine a pro-homeschooling editorial or PR piece quoting that one sentence and reducing Saunders’ excellent article to apologetic material.
Let me explain briefly why I’m uncomfortable generalizing from Saunders’ findings at Wheaton. I attended Wheaton college myself. It is the most academically selective of all of the Christian colleges in the United States. Any student who can get into Wheaton is going to have had an excellent secondary education no matter how it was delivered. Homeschoolers who were accepted to Wheaton are some of the best educated homeschoolers in the country. Saunders acknowledges the religious limitations of a Wheaton sample, but not this academic component.
The real problem here is that there is no such thing as “homeschooling” in the abstract. Just as there are some great public schools and some horrible public schools and many schools somewhere in between, so some parents are able to provide amazing homeschooling experiences for their children and some are less able to do so. Rob Kunzman’s recent bookprovides rich and detailed examples of both extremes. As with the academic achievement homeschooling literature, I think what Saunders is studying here is not so much the work of homeschooling itself as the family background of Wheaton students. Almost all the Wheaton freshmen she studied are from well-to-do, white, two-parent households with highly educated parents. Kids born into privileged families like this are typically going to shine whether they were homeschooled or not. Her study, which finds no real difference between homeschooled and traditionally schooled kids, bears this out.
Having said all of that, Saunders’ study certainly shows at the very least that homeschooling does not by definition ruin a child’s social future. I’d hope that by now nobody still thinks it does, but just in case, here’s a fine study that shows that far from handicapping a child socially, homeschooling turns out to make hardly any difference at all! Kids from wealthy, stable, successful homes who are homeschooled have just as positive an experience at a college that shares the family’s values as do kids from wealthy, stable, successful homes who went to school in a building. That’s the take home message of this excellent article.