This post reviews Cynthia K. Drenovsky and Isaiah Cohen, “The Impact of Homeschooling on the Adjustment of College Students” in International Social Science Review 87, nos. 1&2 (2012): 19-34. [available here]
Drenovsky, a sociology professor at Shippensburg University, and Cohen, a former undergraduate student of hers, here present the results of a survey comparing the levels of self esteem and depression between homeschooled and conventionally-schooled college students. After an overly long introduction, Drenovsky and Cohen explain their approach. The crucial factor in surveys like this aiming to compare two populations is the way the samples are obtained. Drenovsky and Cohen’s methodology in this respect is weak. They basically just contacted “a state homeschoolers’ organization” (I presume in Pennsylvania) and obtained the names of 1,500 college students over the age of 18 who had been homeschooled and affiliated with this organization. They tell us nothing about this organization directly, but we learn later that the sample is not exclusively Protestant, so I would guess that they got their names from PA Homeschoolers, a longstanding statewide organization run by the Pennsylvania legends Howard and Susan Richman, who are Jewish.
In addition to the 1,500 surveys sent out to college students in Pennsylvania who were homeschooled, they also sent out 80 surveys to non homeschooled students at “a public four-year university in the Mid-Atlantic region,” which probably means Shippensburg itself. Of this 1,580, only 185 surveys were returned, a dreadful response rate of 11.7%. 150 were homeschooled and the other 35 were not.
So from the outset we have serious problems. An extremely limited sample of homeschoolers from one organization in one state, 90% of whom didn’t even bother to complete the survey, is compared to an even more limited sample of non-homeschooled college students who all attend the same university. To what extent can the results they’re about to report be generalized to the entire population of homeschoolers and non-homeschoolers? In my view, very little.
Regardless, here’s what they find. On the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale, the homeschoolers scored about the same as conventionally schooled students. On the Center for Epidemiological Studies-Depression Scale (CES-D), homeschoolers did better than the conventionally schooled students. The homeschooled group also reported that they had higher grades and were more satisfied with the college experience generally than the conventionally schooled students. The survey also included questions about various activities the students participated in, and the big finding to emerge out of this data is that students who had been in the boy scouts had way lower self esteem and were much more likely to be depressed.
Usually articles like this end with caveats and admissions of weakness in the data. As this article doesn’t, let me provide that for them. First there are the obvious difficulties with self-report data given in online surveys. The authors don’t say much about their method, but they do say that the representatives of the state homeschoolers’ organization they used “recognized the benefits of this research for the homeschooled population.” (p. 23) Does that mean that when the emails were sent out, this organization (perhaps PA Homeschoolers) talked it up, explaining to the potential subjects that this would be a great way to make homeschooling look good? I don’t know.
And let’s recall that these students were attending all sorts of colleges and universities. Are these schools on average easier or harder than the one institution (presumably Shippensburg) to which all of the non-homeschoolers attended? It’s simply meaningless to compare the grades and rates of satisfaction between homeschoolers attending all kinds of institutions with non-homeschoolers attending only Shippenberg. It would have been better methodologically if Drenovsky and Cohen had limited their homeschool sample to the same university, like Marc Snyder did in his fine 2011 dissertation.
Finally, a word about the Boy Scouts. How many of the students in their sample of 185 had been boy scouts? We are not told. We are told that 72 of the sample were boys. Relatively few boys stay with boy scouts very long. Let’s be really generous and speculate that 15% of the sample were boy scouts. Rounded up, that would be 11 boys, and I really doubt there were even that many. But even if there were, if just two of these boys for whatever reason really struggled with low self esteem and depression, it would bring down the sample enough to incriminate the entire Boy Scouts of America. One would think that a responsible social scientist would point this sort of thing out, but all we read is that
The results from this study also show that college students who participated in scouting before attending college had lower levels of self-esteem and higher levels of depression. The relationship between scouting and well-being was not hypothesized, but it should be examined in greater depth in future studies. (p. 30)
Let me conclude by saying that these shortcomings ought not to be blamed on Drenovsky and Cohen alone. The International Social Science Review should hold its publications up to more rigorous standards. Any decent peer review process should have pointed these sorts of things out, giving the authors the chance to tighten and nuance their presentation.