This post reviews Alexa Wood, “From the Kitchen Table to the Lecture Hall: Reaching an Understanding of the Lived Experiences of Home-School Students in Institutions of Higher Learning” (M.A. Thesis, North Carolina State University, 2011). Available fulltext here.
Wood, who tells us that she herself had been homeschooled for nine years, attending a two-year institution during high school as preparation for college, here seeks to neither provide “an endorsement or criticism of an individual’s choice to participate in a home-school” but merely to provide an accurate account of what it is like to do so and then go to college.
To accomplish that, she interviewed six college students who had been homeschooled during high school at her university. She acknowledges that this is not a very rigorous methodology, as the sample size is small and limited to one school.
Wood begins with a fine review of the literature on homeschoolers and college, canvassing all of the usual topics–attitudes of admissions officers and admissions policies, academic achievement, and social life. Anyone seeking a general overview of this literature would do well to read it through (it’s pages 14-32). The bottom line is that homeschoolers typically do just fine in college in all respects, sometimes even besting their institutionally schooled peers on tests or other measures.
Noting that most of the research on homeschoolers’ college experience had been limited to the students’ freshman year, Wood explicitly sought to focus on more experienced college students with homeschooling backgrounds. She also wanted students who had been homeschooled during high school, not just in their younger years. To get a sample she sent an email out to students at her university. She got eight responses. Of those, five met the criteria she had established (and she let one extra in with special circumstances involving study abroad). So Wood began with a sample of six.
She then interviewed each student for just under an hour, asking open-ended questions about their experiences. Her theoretical framework here is ecological–assuming a qualitative approach that emphasizes the contextual factors in a students’ life, including family, peers, the institution, and the broader society. Her sample included 4 men and 2 women. All were caucasian. The men were all engineering majors. Three of the students were seniors.
Wood began each interview by establishing her credibility among the subjects through sharing her own homeschooling background and then let the conversation happen, working from the subject’s homeschooling experience to the transition to college and finally to the subject’s own conclusions about college life after homeschooling. The interviews were transcribed and coded for common themes.
The common themes that emerged were these. Regarding the homeschool experience itself, most of the subjects’ families chose this option out of frustration with their local public schools’ academic adequacy. Religious motivations were prominent as well for many. Strong family bonds were a common theme. Also common was a sense among these subjects that they weren’t typical homeschoolers. Several of the subjects wanted to distance themselves from the “weird home-school kids” as one subject put it. These students tended to see themselves as more culturally mainstream than many of the other homeschooled children they had known.
Regarding college preparation, dual enrollment was a common theme. Most of the participants had taken college courses as high school students and found the experience very helpful, both for their own development as students and as proof to their university that they could do college-level work. One student did return to a local high school for her senior year so she could take advanced placement courses, which served much the same purpose.
As for college itself, the students were in general surprised at the lack of diversity on their college campus after having experienced much more ethnic variety in their dual enrollment programs. They were also surprised by how much cheating they had seen among their fellow students. The subjects all performed well in classes and enjoyed learning. Socially, though they expected the culture of drinking and coarse language that is typical of college life, it was still rather difficult to get used to it. In most cases the students have found a small group of relatively like-minded friends who avoid such things together. None of the students seem to have strayed from their basic religious outlook on life.
In her conclusion Wood ties these observations to the literature she had reviewed before and then makes a couple of concluding remarks. Her basic insight is that the students she interviewed did not want or need special treatment as homeschoolers from their college. She recommends that student affairs personnel not overemphasize the otherness of the homeschool situation but treat homeschooled students the same way they’d treat anyone else. She also recommends that homeschooled high school students prepare for college through dual enrollment experiences or other formal mechanisms that provide a taste of college coursework.
Throughout her study Wood is keenly aware of just how limited her sample of six students from the same university is. But despite that her clear writing and capable storytelling make me want to do some speculating that goes beyond her evidence. I was intrigued but not surprised by the self-perception of these four-year degree upperclass students as atypical homeschoolers. Though they all seemed to be evangelical Christians of one sort or another, they were clearly not hard core culture warriors or quiverfullers. They and their families seemed to have been motivated more by pragmatic than ideological concerns when they chose homeschooling. It would be interesting to do a similar study of homeschooled college students at other types of institutions and see if the profile is different. My hunch would be that the fact that this study was done at a secular, four-year State institution explains why these homeschoolers were like they were. More aggressively sectarian homeschoolers might not be encouraged to apply to such a school in the first place.
Secondly, her oversample of males might be more significant than she thinks. Could it be that Christian homeschooling families are on the average more willing to encourage their boys to attend a secular university than their girls? I teach at a Christian college whose current student body is 61% female. Our admissions staff every year tries very hard but cannot achieve anything close to gender parity. While women have become the majority at most colleges and universities nationwide, among Christian colleges and universities the percentages are frequently even more skewed. Why? Could it be because Christian families, including homeschooling families, are more protective of their daughters than their sons?
Neither of those points is really all that relevant to Wood’s study, however. Though she’s right that her sample is to small to really give us a lot of insight into how homeschoolers as a group do in college, anybody looking for a tidy summary of most of the literature on homeschooling and higher education would find this thesis a great place to start.