How Early College Actually Set Me Back: Jo’s Story

CC image courtesy of Flickr, nicoleneu.

Editorial Note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. ‘Jo’ is a pseudonum. Jo blogs at My Will Is Not Broken. This post is reprinted with permission.

I graduated from college a few months after my 19th birthday. I had a Bachelor of Arts from an accredited college (which has recently been granted university status.) Most people around me congratulated me on being so ahead of my peers. The detractors who dared to rain on my parade mostly discussed missing out on “the college experience.” Despite being quite sure that my beliefs no longer aligned with the homeschooling community, I was still a laid back introvert who had no interest in the party scene that I associated with the college experience, so I brushed them off. How could finishing college three years early with no debt be a bad thing?
My journey down the early college path truly began around 7th or 8th grade, when all formal homeschooling began to crumble. My older siblings had all graduated. In the past many of our subjects had been done together and without the ease of preparing one subject for all of the kids, most subjects were simply ignored. It is no wonder that my mother was tired of being attentive to her children’s studies; she had been homeschooling for over ten years already. I did little school for the next two years. I had textbooks that I was supposed to be working through, but if I didn’t like them, I didn’t do them. With no accountability, how many 14-15 year olds would? I continued to score in the top percentiles in the year-end standardized tests, so no red flags were raised. My mother felt that I was old enough to be self-motivated, and if I wasn’t, well, I was only hurting myself.
Despite this attitude, we both knew something had to change for my final two years of high school. I don’t remember how we heard about CollegePlus; I’m sure it was from a homeschool conference or publication. For those unfamiliar, CP is a program where students do large portions of a degree through test credit (CLEP tests and other similar examinations,) then take the remaining courses online from specific colleges that accept large quantities of test credit. I believe they now offer other advising services for using small amounts of test credit toward more traditional degrees, but at the time, they focused solely on distance education. We did a lot of research, emailed CollegePlus a few questions, and decided to go for it, but without using CollegePlus – doing the footwork ourselves.
Through tremendous online research and hours spent poring over degree plans and test schedules, I formulated a plan. During my junior year, I took around 14 CLEP tests: at least two per month. I felt so good during this time. I was accomplishing something. I was very disciplined. After acquiring approximately 60 credit hours that year, I took two years of online classes to finish my degree. Amusingly, I intentionally “slowed down” for an extra year of classes; I could have taken a few more tests and transferred 90 credit hours of test credit, taking only one school-year of classes.
After some debate, I decided to major in Criminal Justice. It was not a choice my mother was fond of, but I didn’t ask her opinion. She believed I should go into a nursing field, despite my unadulterated hatred for everything medical. Any mention of “fun” majors I was interested in, like Biology, Journalism, English, or Psychology, prompted long discussions of “but, what would you do with that.” I loved what I was studying and considered it a fair compromise. I was assured by everyone around me that there were many jobs in the field. If not, I could return to my original plan of attending law school to be a prosecuting attorney. During my last semester, I took a required Constitutional Law class that made me begin to suspect that I did not, in fact, want to go to law school. Further research into the job market solidified this opinion.

After graduation, I began applying for jobs. There were not a lot of related positions, and the ones that existed usually required experience. I applied to every one that I found, but I never got so much as an email in return. I worked many unrelated jobs, often several at a time. I graduated in 2012; approximately a year later I decided to go back to school. After much research into nearly every career field you could think of and many changes of heart, I started taking math classes a bit aimlessly at community college. I thought I might want to study something in science, but everything that I looked at required a lot of math, and the one year of algebra I had completed in high school simply was not sufficient.

Due to my inconsistent high school education, I tested into a beginning college algebra class. It took several years to finish my calculus classes. I was (and still am) working as a manager in retail. By this time, I had discovered that my long-term perceived dislike of math was not real. In a strange turn from my upbringing, I had done a tremendous amount of reading about the environment and decided that I wanted (I might venture to say needed) to work in that field. The conservative community’s disregard of the environmental crisis is highly convenient and I was honestly pretty disconcerted when, after a brief period of research, I had to acknowledge that I believed it was real. I looked at endless degree programs and researched job prospects. I decided my love of science and apparent tolerance for math was suited to becoming an engineer.
I began to research schools. It was very exciting to me; I had always been academically high-achieving, but in high school that did not open any doors for me. We never considered good colleges; those are secular (read: evil.) For my second degree, I selected a list of schools varying from prestigious highly-ranked schools, including one Ivy League school, to local state schools, all of which promised excellent need-based financial aid. Being a second-degree student makes you ineligible for grants, so any financial aid aside from loans needed to come from the school itself. I had already weeded out many, many schools that do not accept applications from people who already have bachelors degrees, including some of my dream schools. I took SAT Subject Tests because a few schools require them from homeschoolers; I took the ACT and got a near-perfect score. I was physically excited all the time. I had nearly completed my applications when the email responses began rolling in; “I’m sorry, we do not offer any financial aid for second bachelors students,” “While we do not prohibit second-bachelors applications, we rarely accept them, and will not offer any financial aid.” “We do not offer institutional aid, but there may still be federal aid available in the form of loans.” Schools with ticket prices of $40,000-$70,000 per year were telling me that I would have to borrow the entire cost of tuition for as long as it took to finish another degree. To their credit, several included in their email that it would be an extremely financially unwise decision.
I was crushed. I had finally glimpsed what my life could have been like, and it had been snatched away. Again. My degree is useless, but, because I have it, it is difficult to get a more useful one. Many people have asked why I cannot simply go to graduate school. Indeed, that is a selling point offered by many advocates of early college. If you do not like your chosen field, go to grad school for something else! If my degrees were more similar, it might be feasible to merely take a few classes and then enter a graduate program, but in my case (and many others,) there are simply too many classes. Also, there is little evidence that employers would consider you an equal with those who have a more solid foundation in a field like engineering.
This is not a pity party. I will be fine. I am fortunate enough to live very close to my state’s flagship university, incidentally a well-ranked university for engineering. It was by no means my first choice, but I will be able to attend for a few years to finish my degree without outrageous debt. I do not make my experiences public to garner sympathy; I want to make sure other young people or parents considering taking this route to a degree understand the downside.
I think one important reason families should approach any alternative college option cautiously is that some of the kids who will be most excited about this opportunity are also the ones who would most appreciate the opportunities that a traditional university would afford. I was very academically inclined, I was not being challenged with high school curriculum, and the idea of starting college work was exciting. It was only later that I realized all of the opportunities I missed out on. Because of the doctrine I was raised in, traditional universities and even most mainstream Christian colleges were considered worldly at best. There was never any discussion of what colleges I might be qualified for. I had no true metric for measuring my own ability. If someone had told me at seventeen that I could be in an honors program or involved in research, I would have been incredulous. If I had been offered a full high school education, even a mediocre one, I most likely would be attending my current university, or a better one, with a full scholarship. Distance learning is not the enemy in this situation, but it was a tool used to extend the control that my mother exerted over my life past the time when she should have been making that sort of decision.
I have been told many times that it was simply my choice of major, or my lack of initiative in finding internships, or my inflexibility in career choice that caused this situation. All of these are possibly true. But I did not start on an equal playing field. One of the biggest justifications offered for doing distance learning as a homeschooler is that college students waste time and money at universities when they do not know what they want to do with their lives. By some twisted logic, this is used as a reason to pursue college even younger, in an atmosphere that nearly completely removes all the trial-and-error aspects that might discourage traditional students from pursuing an unrealistic career. I have no doubt that there are students who have pursued alternative college methods and have been successful with those degrees. I have discussed this with some of them. I am also aware that many, many traditional students also come out with useless degrees, often with heavy debt attached. However, I believe it is important to bring awareness to the risks involved in this path, especially with the increasing attention it is receiving for being a “godsend” or miracle solution to college for homeschoolers. I met some truly amazing people in the online communities of people following the credit-by-examination & distance learning path. Most of them are older adults who need to get a piece of paper that says they are college-educated for a job they already have. For people in that situation, this method can save years of time and tens of thousands of dollars. For most young people who need to gain experience, education, and marketable skills, these degrees are all but worthless. I learned far more from the process of organizing my degree and disciplining myself to complete it than I did from the actual degree.
I am grateful that I have the opportunity to start again the right way, but I am anxious thinking of all the students currently enrolled or looking into accelerated distance learning who do not fully understand what they are getting into. I cannot think of many situations in which this method is better for a young person than enrolling in community college for two years and then continuing their education at a traditional university. I see so many online claiming that there are hundreds of jobs on the market which just require a bachelors degree, any degree, to get in the door. That has not been my experience. I have seen a handful of jobs that only list a generic bachelor degree as a requirement, but I have seen exponentially more that require a specific degree. Many tout that a bachelors degree is the new high school diploma, but we simply are not there yet, though we may be on the way. Less than 35% of the U.S. has a bachelors degree and employers still do expect them to come with some level of knowledge, which I do not believe most young graduates of accelerated distance learning have acquired.

6 comments

  • What a timely article! This is not just an issue for homeschoolers but many students. It is never a good idea for anyone to start college without any type of work experience. College is for career and when kids have no experience with what a career even is or what is practical to pursue, they waste time and money. As a student who took college courses in high school and was rushed by parents to finish a degree at all costs, it didn’t give me time to figure out a practical degree for myself and left me with an essentially useless degree.

  • So I want to talk, I’m public school educated and I went to a secular university with rigorous academics. There seems to be a myth among homeschoolers that we are all party people and into the party scene. This is not true. Some of us are massive nerds who want to do well academically at our chosen majors. While there are party girls and boys at secular schools, even they aren’t some sort of monolith. Some of them are also pretty good students. There is danger in the us vs. them rhetoric that is taught in the homeschool community.

    I agree with the writer. Going to school early without any kind of life experience is a bad idea. In high school, I was given opportunities to attend summer programs that gave me a chance to talk to adults about career choices. (I chose a business degree and work in IT now because of one such program.) The traditional college experience where you attend classes with other students and have professors to talk to can also help you figure out if this is what you want to do or if this is what you don’t want to do before you get a degree and give you an opportunity to change your mind. So I’m with the writer. Don’t rush into things. Take your time. If you can do it, get out among people and find out what is going on. Even if it is taking classes at a local community college.

  • I went to community college for high school because the public schools were not meeting my academic needs. All of those college credits meant that I was applying to schools as a transfer student. I had to apply for a waiver to qualify for continued financial aid towards the end of my engineering program because I had accumulated so many credits. I think that early college is not always good, and that families considering that path should spend time listening to people who were harmed by starting college in high school. It is usually better to do higher-level academic work without the college credit, for instance through AP coursework, than to go to college early.

    • This may be true. But from a parent’s perspective you can’t beat the price of free. We have early college high schools where you can graduate with up to an associate’s degree, though that’s probably a little ambitious. The community college has set transfer guarantees with most state schools and a couple of local private colleges. I’ll keep this perspective in mind though, and encourage the kids not to rush it.

  • There are definitely many factors to consider. A student who knows what career path they want to take, and had the option to advance on that path, can indeed benefit greatly from early college. Most teenagers are not ready to dedicate to a field of study that way. AP classes can be used to jump to harder courses and often count as credits towards graduation without a student being considered a transfer student. Transferring into elite schools from a community college is nearly impossible, so if your student has any inkling of taking such a path, accruing community college credit will actually be harmful to their goals. Of course, most students will be well served by the local university, and in that case the community college path is a huge money saver. Focusing on courses that meet the general education requirements is best, as it provides both exploration of various fields and some latitude for changing majors if needed. Just don’t buy the ‘more college credits is better’ propaganda. You must be judicious in course and major selection.

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