Posted in HS4CC

Equifinality and a Degree

Ooooh, do you ever hear a new word and just fall in love with it?  As a middle-aged woman, I’ve got a decent vocabulary, so when I hear a word for the first time my ears perk up.  Last week I heard the word equifinality used in a sentence.  It wasn’t in my dictionary (a 1913 Websters hand-me-down from my mom) so I turned online to look it up.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, this word is worth a thousand ideas.

WOW!  Yes! I love this word. 

Equifinality is a science term coined in 1949 that *technically* relates to decomposition of animals (yuck) but leaked into other academic disciplines like business, management, and psychology before finding its way into pop-culture.  (To mean being used by lay-people like me.)

Webster online defines it as the property of allowing or having the same effect or result from different events” and if you hop over to Wikipedia it says, “given end state can be reached by many potential means.”

Not exactly in original context, but to understand the principle of equifinality, if 1+1=2, then equifinality refers to the endless possible ways you can equal 2, even when you’re using different numbers or operations.

Consider equifinality’s application to education.

How many ways are there to arrive at a bachelor’s degree? More than 1?  Yes, more than 1.  While it’s true that how we get to a degree can differ, some paths are more direct than others, and I’ve watched students successfully and quickly earn degrees while others fall behind and eventually fall off track.

I want to raise your awareness that some of the behaviors that make us great homeschoolers can also get in the way of our ability to execute a successful degree plan for our teens!  You’ve heard me say it before, but getting into college is the easy part. It’s getting out that’s hard.

One thing to keep in mind with degree completion: either you’ve ticked the box or you haven’t – and about half those who start college don’t finish.   Having most of a degree isn’t the goal.  I want your teen to finish!

All Paths are Not Equifinal

At the risk of sounding careless, it is important to emphasize that you must keep your teen moving forward toward a degree if you want them to finish a degree. 

My 20-year old son is finishing up his second degree this year.  Having done this many times, I can tell you that taking a kid through the degree completion process requires different muscles than those that make me a good homeschooler!  In fact, I’ve discovered multiple ways that being a good homeschooler can sometimes make it hard for me to execute a plan that ends in a degree.  These snares still trip me up from time to time.

Problem #1)  Neverending Curriculum

If you’re like me and really love learning, or you spend a lot of time indulging in a topic before moving forward (“…here’s one more book I’ve found! Oh, and this documentary…”) You’re going to have to recognize that this kind of enthusiasm is not a positive character trait of a degree completer.   It is quite possible to dedicate your entire life to studying something without ever earning a single college credit in the subject.  If the degree is the goal, all subjects must have a defined ending.

Problem #2) Lateral Mover

I’m always a little bit sad when we finish a class.  It’s an accomplishment for sure, but that little nagging voice asks, “Is this really his last math class?  Ever?”  It’s always a little bit uncomfortable for me to record their credit and move on to the next thing.  As a rule, I don’t like to stop learning something, but as a result, all of my kids have a lot of “extra” college credit that they won’t need for their degrees.  (That’s pretty much my fault since I have a lot of excess college credit, too.) I really do like to sign them up for classes, but for every minute they spend on something lateral (more courses or credit at the same level, not moving forward) that’s less time they can spend on what they need for graduation.

Problem #3) Deep Diver

Many parents tell me that they’re a little disappointed at how “easy” a college 101 class or CLEP exam is.  Our expectations of depth is probably a bit skewed toward the heavier side, especially if we’re good at homeschooling.  100 and 200 level courses are exposure courses, simply meant to teach an overview of a very big subject.  What most of us imagine to be an appropriate amount of learning may be different from what they actually study in a simple 101 class.  This becomes a problem when the parent builds the course (usually to prepare for a CLEP exam) as opposed to when they take a course through their local college or online.  A literature major will read hundreds of books, while a student in a Literature 101 class will only read passages of a book, not the whole book.   A desire for deep learning in a subject may alert you to a possible major or career option for your teen, but for students enrolled in a college course, there simply isn’t time.  It’s impossible for a Literature 101 student to read every novel, play, or poem covered in the class because the teacher will simply demand that you move forward with only a surface knowledge of the work or suffer a poor grade.

To complete a degree, you must allow yourself permission to put limits on learning.  This includes time limits and depth limits.  

Make it Happen

A bachelor’s degree usually requires the successful completion of 40 courses.  (An associate degree the completion of 20.)  The slowest pace a full-time college student can follow to complete a bachelor’s degree in 4 years is 10 courses per year.  Homeschooling for college credit doesn’t demand that kind of pace, but it’s still a good idea to consider how many college credit courses your teen completed this year, and how that plays into your overall timeline.

As you move your teen forward, appreciating and celebrating the equifinality of the process, I’d like to leave you with 3 important ideas to keep you on track as you plan your teen’s schedule. 

  1.  Don’t move the goal post. It’s easy to start adding to a plan (“Oooh! You could double-major!”) but keep the goal clear, and as you start to approach it, don’t sabotage your teen by moving it back and out of reach.
  2.  Slower is almost never better.  The longer it takes your teen to complete a course, exam, or degree, the less likely they will finish.  If you think they might be ready to take their CLEP test, pull the trigger.  Pass the exam and move forward.
  3. Measure twice, cut once.  If you’re planning your high school courses to count toward a degree, it’s doubly important to understand the degree requirements, understand the policies and rules that govern credit transfer at that school, and know that every time you change majors or change colleges, you’ve added months or years to the process.



Executive Director of Homeschooling for College Credit