Home education success: elite college acceptance!

For modern, middle class American parents of high school seniors, there can be perhaps no better holiday gift than finding out one’s child has been accepted into the college of his or her choice. Getting the financial aid package one needs to make attendance feasible is often a close second.

My own baby-who-is-now-technically-an-adult received the good news this week. He was accepted Early Decision* to his preferred university. The kid certainly did most of the hard work for this achievement… but, as a home educating parent, I’m going to take at least a small bow for my part.

Together, we took the road less traveled by, and that gamble appears to have paid off. It may not have “made all the difference,” but our unique choices do appear to have impressed the admissions officers in question.

About 3% of U.S. students elected home education over the past decade, except during the pandemic, when the rate jumped to an unprecedented 11.1%. (Source: Census.gov)

According to published statistics from my child’s intended university, just over 11% of applicants were accepted in its previous class. I mention this statistic as a nod to my kid’s hard work and success, but also as vindication of the fact that the typical way is not the only way to get into an eliteschool.

My kid never took an AP course or exam… but he did start attending Community College courses as a high school freshman.

If you’re lucky enough to live in a school district that offers a Dual Enrollment program to its students, your children might earn actual college credits for less than the fee required to take an AP exam that only claims to approximate college level learning for the high school audience.

Why settle for the simulation?

My own selective private college did not grant any credit for students arriving even with the highest AP exam result of five out of five. All I got for that expensive test fee ($96 in 2021) was the ability to replace mandatory Freshman English Composition class with the Literature course of my choice. Total savings: $0. A department placement test could have granted the same privilege for nothing but an hour of my time.

AP classes and exams, like the SAT, are products offered exclusively through the “nonprofit” organization, the College Board.

This Wikipedia article gets at some of what bothers me about the College Board.

I’m all for high standards, but I think that an annual gauntlet of standardized tests actually lowers the level of meaningful engagement for most while offering any given student no educational advantage. Does anyone believe kids today find the standard curriculum particularly relevant or intellectually stimulating? Test takers themselves get nothing for the hours they spend sitting these exams.

I also think a test all but required for university admission should be much less expensiveto everyone, without submitting embarrassing financial aid forms–than the SAT is. Not everyone can spare $55 plus all the extra potential fees one could accrue, but we’re all aware that wealthy families typically pay hundreds if not thousands more for “optional” tutoring, multiple test-taking attempts to increase scores via brute force attack, or to flat-out fraudulently pay a ringer to replace their less able children at the desk on exam day.

No, if a test is going to be mandatory for college admission, it should be offered, at minimum, at every public high school for free, perhaps in place of one of the other annual exams our taxes already pay for.

Beyond the College Board’s offensive effect on students’ schedules and pocketbooks, I’d argue that the directors of an education nonprofit reaching its fingers into the pockets of every college-bound student in the country should earn far less exorbitant compensation. The CEO earns well over $1 million annually. There’s no genius required to squeeze money out of a captive audience desperate for the elevating power of a prestigious degree.A red leatherette University degree folio stacked with a black High School diploma case

In case it isn’t obvious, I’m a huge fan of the move toward test-optional admissions that the pandemic accelerated. My child did choose to submit scores because one of his safety schools requires them specifically for home educated applicants. His efforts earned solid, if not spectacular, results. That was “good enough” because home education for high school allowed for the accumulation of more than thirty actual college credits along the way.

What better evidence that one is well-suited to college level work than a 3.96 GPA… at college?

I’d like to see even more options available rather than definitive “test blind” policies dictating against even considering any test results.

Given my druthers, I would let students select for themselves how to put their best individual feet forward. I appreciate startups like the CLT (Classic Learning Test) seeking to disrupt the status quo though I liked them a lot more when the CLT10 alternative to the PSAT was free for all takers. It now costs $44, and the SAT-equivalent CLT $54, while being of interest to far fewer institutions than the SAT or ACT.

As a rule, I abhor most of what the College Board stands for today as a barrier between those who yearn for an education and college admission. Historically, when the SAT was closer to an IQ test than a Common Core final exam, its limited usefulness was more obvious for students whose schools didn’t offer advanced coursework. I’m happy that we engaged so little with that organization, with an October sitting of the SAT our sole act of acquiescence to their extortionist monopoly.

Perhaps it would be better if individual institutions returned to more unique applications and processes, testing would-be students for themselves on exactly what matters to their program. The Common Application (and its cousin the Coalition Application) may have removed the drudgery of filling in repetitive information across multiple similar forms, but the ease of shotgunning applications has also led to ridiculous bloat in the average number of schools considered by each student.

The average cost to apply to each college in America was $44 apiece in 2020 (arithmetic mean, most likely), but elite schools more often charge around $75, and some institutions expect more than $100 per applicant just for the chance to be rejected! Here’s looking at you, U.C. San Diego & (bafflingly) Arkansas Baptist College.

Kids are applying to more universities because they are afraid they won’t get in to any of the places they’d really like to attend. A return to specialized applications could ease this inanity.

I tend to be somewhat contrarian, if that’s not obvious, and I made that fact clear to my child as decisions were made during his home education journey. “Typical school enrollees do this,” I would point out, “and here’s how I feel about that, but this other position might make you more competitive.”

My opinions did seem to influence my kid, but the application process was his own. We did not supervise or monitor his application. We didn’t even see it§ until he was finished. At that point, he asked both parents to be proofreaders a day or so before the submission deadline.

That’s the way it should be when a child reaches the cusp of adulthood. That was the underlying foundation of every lesson I sought to teach my child via home education. If he had an idea for a way to reach the goals we’d set, it was his right to try that way unless it proved ineffective or inconvenient.

Modern institutional schools are a mere blip in human history, and learning is available to all of us, from far more corners than educational power brokers would lead the masses to believe. Strict policies and procedures tend to be convenient for bureaucrats, not conducive to individual excellence.

My hat is off to my dear child who did the work, made his choices, lived with their consequences, and seems to be reaping the just rewards of all that effort.

If you’re a potential homeschooler or home educating parent reading this while mulling your own options, I encourage you to follow your instincts and do what feels right for your child or yourself if you are the student. That may look “normal,” or it may give the relatives pause. Where the result is a young person gaining skills and internalizing the value of education for its own sake, damn the optics.

My child is one more data point showing there’s more than one way to get admitted to an excellent college in 2021. Your kid could be the next.

Best wishes to the class of ’22, and may all of your dreams–college or otherwise–come true.

*Early Decision, as the name implies, is an application process whereby a student submits materials early to one and only one college, creating a binding agreement to matriculate to the chosen institution if accepted. “Early” means applying by November whereas the usual deadline is January. In exchange, the student knows by mid-December instead of in the spring if s/he’s been accepted.

Early Action is a similar, but non-binding process, for those who’d like earlier decisions without committing to attend a certain school. Often this is to allow for comparing merit-based financial aid packages, which can make or break a deal for middle class kids.

I’ll use the term “elite” because this university ranks within the top 50 domestic schools according to US News & World Reports. For my child’s privacy, I prefer not to make public his choice of institution.

Dual Enrollment, sometimes called Concurrent Enrollment, usually refers to a program wherein high school students take college courses and earn simultaneous credit toward a secondary school diploma and future university studies. Wikipedia offers a more detailed description, but these programs vary widely in availability and cost between states or even by local community. For example, our district offered full tuition for one course during a single year of of my child’s high school period. Because the state program funding Dual Enrollment was directed toward communities in need, and our city’s demographics improved at the community level, he was only eligible for free tuition in 9th grade. Since then, we paid out of pocket for higher education classes, mostly at our affordable local community college.These costs were significantly lower than private high school tuition would have been.

§As a home schooling parent, it was my responsibility to prepare a letter in place of the usual college admissions counselor recommendation, but I logged on to the application through a separate portal unique to educators. I could only see what the student applicant would normally show a counselor.

Elite public schools SHOULD consider zip code + academic performance

Fourteen families in Boston recently brought suit against the Boston Public School district, alleging that the COVID-19 era adoption of zip code as a determining factor for admission to the city’s elite “exam schools” was a proxy for race.

I’m delighted that these parents lost their suit in federal court, though I’m sorry that the young scholars represented fear for their futures due to the state’s failure to supply appropriate educational opportunities.Boston Globe online edition with Civil Rights suit article circled

My reasoning? Human beings may tend to sort themselves by distinguishing characteristics—skin color or “race” amongst them—but, in spite of its history as a racist city, there are no formal color-based barriers to residence in any Boston neighborhood today. People who would like to improve their children’s odds of admission to the exam schools are free to live in neighborhoods with larger quotas assigned to them.

Even at the height of segregation, I’m not aware of any rule that ever prevented wealthier, more powerful groups from moving to areas with lower median income. Most efforts prevented the richest “undesirables” from inhabiting homes viewed as the exclusive domain of the then current “better classes” such as White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs.)NZ Botanic Garden Curator's House - 1

According to the Boston Globe, when the traditional entrance examinations were deemed unsafe due to the pandemic, BPS adopted the following policy for admission to its three elite institutions including the storied Boston Latin:

“…students will be admitted to the exam schools based largely on their grades and in some cases MCAS scores. Seats will also be allocated by ZIP code, giving top priority to areas with the lowest median household income. The number of seats per ZIP code will be proportionate to the share of school-age children living there.”

Quoted from article by James Vaznis updated April 15, 2021, 10:21 p.m. (emphasis mine)

Pardon me for pointing out the obvious, but nothing prevents families from moving to the suddenly more advantageous zip codes. Given that these people must live somewhere with a higher median income, affordability—by definition—can’t be a barrier. Preferring to live in a racially, ethnically, or fiscally homogeneous enclave is a choice; sometimes our choices have consequences we may not enjoy.

Richer families can afford private schools. The least well off families in higher income zip codes have the most reason to dislike the change in admissions criteria. Frankly, though, the truly objectionable reality of this case is that all students aren’t equally able to access high quality classrooms. Now that’s a worthy reason to bring a lawsuit. Backpack with textbooks and school supplies spilling out

But because of the tight link in the United States between home-ownership and wealth, those lower-middle income families are more likely to be renters. Renters can move more readily than people who own their own home. I’d call that yet another benefit to factoring zip code into BPS’ admissions criteria.

The fact that lower median household wealth correlates directly with skin color in America is an embarrassment to our nation. There is no evidence save the easily debunked rantings of white supremacists for any rational basis to this truth; it’s wholly a byproduct of long-standing cronyism and widespread, systemic bias on the part of both individuals and institutions.

In spite of the fairly obvious reality of systemic racism, the BPS admissions policy in question does not in any explicit way prefer to admit children with more, larger, and more pigmented melanosomes* over those with less. It does explicitly tie income to admission, but offering enhanced opportunities to the brightest, hardest working children in a city because they were born with the extra burden of poverty seems eminently reasonable to me.

According to the Census.gov analysis I pointed to earlier regarding household wealth, education is firmly linked to better financial outcomes.

“Higher education is associated with more wealth. Households in which the most educated member held a bachelor’s degree had a median wealth of $163,700, compared with $38,900 for households where the most educated member had a high school diploma.”

—2019 analysis of U.S. Census Bureau report and detailed tables on household wealth in 2015

I say, let’s give more children from our poorest districts the chance to prove their mettle. Let’s offer better tools to help our least advantaged young people outgrow poverty, for their own benefit, and for the benefit of our society as whole. There’s no evidence that education is a zero sum game though admission to Harvard may be.

This new—and, remember, temporary!—policy is admitting the best students from Boston’s public elementary schools into their best public high schools at a rate proportionate to how many children live in given neighborhoods. Those kids may not perform better than the second or third best students at another school in more expensive zones of the district, but so what? They remain kids who show up to class, work hard to please their teachers, and follow the rules. Great students are gaining those coveted admission slots.Binder page listing high school courses for grade 10

BPS is hardly admitting disinterested, failing students from poor schools at the expense of dutiful scholars from richer ones. The real issue is that a few kids enjoy exceptionally excellent free public education while the rest are left to endure in lower quality institutions due to the vagaries of circumstance.

Without extra household funds, the poorest kids in Boston can’t afford private tutoring. Their parents—the financial data from the Census suggests—are less likely to have been highly educated; they’re likely less able to assist their kids with their toughest assignments. In spite of that, these children excel academically at the school their limited circumstances proscribed prescribed for them. I’d argue that their success is the most deserving of acknowledgement and reward on the part of the school system because of how hard won it is.

Policies such as this one finally offer an incentive to encourage our cities to integrate. Integration benefits all of us, not just poor children or students of color. The wildly uneven quality of public schools has driven real estate bubbles and worsened multiple types of segregation, directly leading to many of the upheavals and protests that roiled America over the past year.

I applaud Boston Public Schools for taking this step toward becoming an agent of change in this dynamic. Now they—and the rest of us—should work on offering an equivalent caliber of education to those rarefied, elite “exam schools” to every child who wants it.

* Melanin is responsible for pigmentation of human skin, hair, and eyes; melanosomes are the cells in the body that synthesize the melanin responsible for darker skin tones