A growing number of parents are home schooling their elementary and high school-aged children. But college students? Experts say that so-called "higher ed at home" will be the next trend to reshape postsecondary education, but skeptics ask what's next: home work?
By Cole Walters
CAHOKIA, IL—Brandon Hamer is a typical college student. His days are crammed full of classes in English, algebra and biology, and at night he has just enough time to grab a quick bite before it's back to his room to study some more. But unlike his contemporaries, Brandon doesn't go to parties or even to a campus. In fact, he rarely leaves his house. This college freshman is being home schooled.
Home School U
While an estimated 1.1 million students were home schooled last year, no one knows precisely how many of them are remaining at home all the way through college, even graduate school. But experts and advocates of the stay-at-home movement are already predicting that higher education at home is shaping up to be the biggest trend since distance learning.
"This is an area that has potential for enormous growth," says Ray Strickland of the National Center for Home Education. "Parents who worry about the information and ideas that their kids are being exposed to in elementary and high schools, have much more to worry about once those kids have left home."
That's precisely what Earle Hamer was thinking when Brandon began to consider applying for college last year. "We took a look at some of the things being taught on these campuses and we said 'whoa.' Queer studies, gender studies, film studies. There was no way we were going to subject Brandon to that," says Hamer.
So instead of sending their son off to school, the Hamers turned their home into a university. Earle Hamer quit his job as an electrical contractor in St. Louis to serve as his son’s on-site professor. While he schools his son in science, math and engineering—Brandon hopes to be a structural engineer—Joyce Hamer handles the liberal arts. Today, the family depends on Brandon’s Pell Grant, and on the income Mrs. Hamer brings in as a nurse’s aid. But any sacrifice is well worth it, she says. "In college we wouldn’t have had any control over what Brandon was reading. This way we can approve a curriculum as a family."
To make the at-home college experience feel more real, the Hamer's even helped Brandon create a dorm room. They stripped his existing bedroom of everything but a bed and desk, then gave him $100 to furnish the space as he chose. "It's pretty cool," says Brandon, sitting on his bed beneath an enormous poster of tennis player Anna Kournikova. "It's just like a real dorm room."
After graduation, questions
But once Brandon and other graduates of home school universities matriculate, they may face questionable futures. While the vast majority of public and private schools are accredited, meaning that they meet standards set by the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, home colleges are unaccredited. That means that when 'Home U' grads enter an already tough job market, prospective employers may refuse to recognize their degrees, leaving them at a distinct disadvantage.
Advocates of home schooling say that the hurdle of accreditation could be overcome, however, if the movement in favor of home colleges becomes big enough—and strong enough—to demand it. Gail Hernstrom, author of "The Home Schooled Hero and Other Revolutionary Ideas," predicts that in coming years, living room learning will become an accepted practice for all sorts of professional training, from law school to pharmacology, even gynecology. "These post-institutional students are going to help us prove that we don't need bureaucratic standards governing what it takes to be a professional in America," says Hernstrom.
A minor in social awkwardness?
The most potent criticism of the home college movement isn't about what they're learning but how they spend their time out of the classroom. Critics say that by preventing students like Brandon Hamer from interacting with people his own age, home university proponents may be doing the cloistered class of '08 the greatest disservice of all.
But Brandon has an easy answer for such skeptics. He and three other home "freshmen" recently established an online fraternity house called ΟΊΚΟΣ ΣΧΟΛΕΊΟ, the Greek words for 'home' and 'school.' On weekend nights, the young men log-on to their virtual hangout spot and kick back, chatting about music, movies, video games and anything else that interests them. "One of these days we're going to have a dance," says Brandon. "If we can find some girls."