The motivational/inspirational quote always goes something like this:
“What would you do if you had unlimited time, talent, or resources? Do that!”
If you love that quote, you’re not alone. But you might not appreciate this post very much, and I want to talk to you about how time, talent, and resources fit into the homeschooling for college credit journey.
None of us has unlimited time.
None of us has unlimited talent.
None of us has unlimited resources.
I understand the concept of the quote- it’s not meant to suggest any of us literally has no parameters, but it’s an exercise meant to open up the world of possibilities. What’s not to love?
As parents of homeschooled teens, we have the privilege of also being their guidance counselor. If I were advising your teen, it would be easy enough for me to encourage – inspire- motivate – the sky is the limit…. but that’s only because I don’t know him/her. I don’t know what kinds of problems he loves to solve, his fears about his future, or what makes him tick. I don’t know his heart. Inspirational quotes are meant to encourage everyone, and as such, they aren’t very specifically useful to anyone.
I think homeschooling parents have a unique opportunity that we are almost going to miss if we subject ourselves to the shallow one-liners that guide mainstream teens. Frankly, the “college at all costs” trend of the day is costing our economy and teens a lot of lost time and resources.
- Currently, about 1/2 of the teens that start college won’t finish.
- Of students who finish, the average time to complete a 4-year degree is 6 years.
- Studies tell us that about 1/2 of the teens that start college haven’t selected a major or will change it at some point.
- Finally, we know 2/3 of students are going to borrow money to fund their education.
This is a very informative snapshot of whether or not current wisdom is working. I don’t think it is. Education data is one of the most heavily researched topics in modern history – and we have data! There are big differences between college students in 1940 and 2018. It’s true that in 1940 only about 5% of the population held a bachelor’s degree whereas today it’s much higher, about 1/4th to 1/3rd depending on your source. But, something to note, however, is that graduation rates among those who started college in the 1940’s and finished, was better than 90%. In other words, fewer started, but most finished. Today we get more teens into college, but don’t get many out on the other side with a degree. Instead they come out with debt and shame for “failing.” Why?
The biggest shift I’ve observed over the past 10 years is that the focus of the entire K12 education system is spent focused on one goal: getting teens into college. All effort, all energy, all finances, all must give way to the idol of college admission. In my opinion, that’s the wrong goal. Your teen can get into college. Every community college in the country allows your teen to walk in and enroll. Getting in isn’t the problem. Now, if the question is instead “can my teen get into ABC college?” That I can’t answer. Maybe. Maybe not… but of the 12,000+ college options, that question seems narrow to me.
The better question to ask in 2018 is if your teen can get out of college. When the goal is getting out (with a degree, with minimal debt, and in a reasonable amount of time), then we’re going about the process making better decisions and giving our teens solid guidance. We’ve removed the romance and hype that surrounds the “college experience” and we’re using good judgment and wisdom.
Let’s do a small experiment. Imagine that YOU (the parent) decided to pursue a college degree this August. Given the option, would you study to become a doctor or a nail technician? Even if you’ve never studied either formally, you can guess what each would involve. Would you set a budget, or are you comfortable just borrowing whatever it costs? How much time would you like to spend on your degree? 1/2 year? 6 years?
Though I don’t know you, I’m going to predict the following:
You have a really good idea about what kinds of sacrifices and brains would be required to attend med-school.
You would never borrow $50,000 to become a nail technician.
If you’re borrowing $150,000 you’d be very sure that there is a stable career on the other side of it.
You have a really good idea about your strengths, weaknesses, talents, and type of job you’d like to have/avoid.
If I suggest you become a pharmacist, a chef, or a landscaper- you can understand what that is, and know whether or not you’re a good fit for that occupation.
Why? Why do you know these things? Because adults have a very good understanding of time, a very good awareness of talent and personality, and adults have a very real understanding of debt. Frankly, adults are better at making decisions because we’ve had more time on the planet. Our teens need us to help them rule in and rule out an occupation that is a poor fit.
The Science of Choice
As it turns out, science and psychology study behavior and choice, and how it intersects with happiness, satisfaction, and action. Rather than give you yet another expert who will interfere with your good intuition (because no one scientist is ever regarded as an expert by everyone), I want to highlight one of the key principles of choice that I think is very relevant to parents who are also their teen’s guidance counselor: Fewer choices.
There are several famous studies that follow decisions made by people choosing between a couple options, and many options. As it turns out, when people have a very large pool of options, they are almost always unsatisfied with their decision whereas when they’ve only had to choose between a couple options, they are quite satisfied. The experts believe that this is because we can’t realistically evaluate too many things at once- that if we were trying to choose between 20 of something, it’s harder to trust that we’ve really compared all of the pros and cons, thus an anxiety of missing a piece of the puzzle that may have been important to make the best decision. It’s much easier for our mind to consider 3 choices and select one with confidence.
- Good question: “After graduation, do you think you’d like to go straight to college or go on a mission trip for 6 months in Haiti first?” Of course, you’ll tailor the question that to fit your family, but when we start with too many options, the teenage brain just can’t discern between them. This helps the teen evaluate a timeline, gives them a voice in the choice, but isn’t overwhelming.
- Hard question: “Where would you like to go to college? You can go anywhere you want!” Clearly, no person can rationally evaluate “anywhere” and “anything” well. How many of us could do that? How many of us know about “all” colleges everywhere? None of us. Bring down the choices into bite-size pieces.
- Good question: “Since you love music and are so gifted, have you thought about becoming a music teacher?” This uses adult wisdom to zero in on a potential career option that uses the student’s talent in a specific way. Even if the teen isn’t interested in becoming a music teacher, the yes/no decision is not overly complex for a teen.
- Hard question: “I know you love playing music, but it isn’t really a good way to make a living. Can’t you think of something else you could do to support a family?” This is another example of “anywhere” question. Of the zillions of career options, you’ve only removed one. This question is too big.
- Good question: “You’ve earned 27 credits in high school. If you go to ABC College they’ll let you use all of them, but if you go to XYZ College, they’ll only take 23 of them. The difference here is only 1 class, how would you feel about having to retake once class? Is it worth choosing one over the other?” This question is great because it helps the student on so many levels. Besides narrowing it down for them (assuming you’re ok with both college choices) it brings forward a simple decision about time, work, or cost.
If this exercise is bringing you back to raising a toddler, it’s the very same principle! We think that because we prefer to have many choices that it’s better for us, but we develop deeper confidence and security when we can consider a question carefully in smaller bites. Further reading: Too Many Choices: A Problem That Can Paralyze
What Happened to Average?
If you’ve spent a few minutes in any homeschool group, you’ll hear many parents label their teens as “gifted” or “challenged” but when is the last time you’ve heard a parent declare proudly that their teen is “average?” Huh? Average has gotten a bad reputation being synonymous with “not trying hard enough” but the truth is that most of us are average intelligence with average talent.
Statistically speaking, about 75% of us fall into the same category of cognitive ability or intelligence: average. That is to say that while there are degrees of average, most of us are about the same. There are students with profound limitations, just as there are those with profound intelligence, and they are represented on the far ends of a traditional bell-shaped curve. So, within the category of average, what makes someone different? You already know the answer and it has many terms, but they all mean the same thing: hard work. Hard workers almost always out-perform lazy workers; this isn’t news. But as a teen’s guidance counselor, we need to be realistic with our teen’s determination to become a successful student. In short, are they hard-working students? What about talent?
- Academic Work Ethic: By the time your teen is in 10th grade, you already have a good idea of their academic work ethic. We need to be honest – some occupations and college majors require significantly above average work ethic. Medicine, pharmacy, dentistry, engineering. These careers are elite because they require exceptional academic work ethic. Students who are successful in these college paths are those who enjoy the challenge of difficult academic work and rigorous schedules. They enjoy school and strive to be exceptional students, who happen to be using their gifts and talents to pursue difficult subjects.
- Talent: Most of us have a talent or something we are “naturally” good at. As an example, we all know someone who can play anything on the piano, paints or draws well, who picks up new languages effortlessly or can cook anything without a recipe. Within our social circle, these people stand out to us, but, when grouped with other talented people, they appear more average. This makes assessing our own teen’s talent very challenging. As an example, perhaps I’m the best baker you know – but if you were to put me in a room with thousands of talented bakers, I’d be near the bottom. I’m a good baker among amateurs, and that’s only because I went to culinary school. I’ll never be a world-famous pastry chef, but I could work as a decent baker if I had to. It’s not my talent.
How do we, as parents, reconcile having average teens? How do we reconcile being average? I don’t pretend to have that answer for everyone, but I do believe that if we teach our teens to work hard on what they’re doing, and praise their work ethic instead of only their results, we teach them that they do have control over one narrow aspect of their success: their effort. If you can help them match their talent with something that they feel motivated to apply effort toward, you’ll probably be on the right track for guiding them towards success.
Education at Any Cost
The notion of having unlimited resources was unheard of 50 years ago. Once upon a time, students worked hard to earn a scholarship, parents had a college fund, or some students worked their way through night classes. Once upon a time, the cost of college was a significant barrier to a student earning their degree. While that sounds like bad news, the up-side to that barrier, was students weren’t allowed to rack up thousands of dollars of debt willy-nilly.
If you graduated high school in the 80’s or 90’s like I did, teens who borrowed for college (like I did) were faced with an “annoying” student loan payment of $50-$100 that lasted for 5-10 years. Today, student loans aren’t annoying, they’re crushing. Teens today who borrow face repayments of $300-$1200 per month for 10+ years. Further, those debts, unlike our mortgages or credit cards, aren’t dischargeable in bankruptcy. Borrowing rules changed in 2008. Your teen, unlike you, will be allowed to borrow through the government guaranteed student loan program the first $57,000 for their degree without any restrictions or your consent, and then they can continue on to graduate school and receive funding until they reach the cap of $138,500. Once at that cap, they’ll have to seek alternative sources like parents, banks, or credit cards. Parents, who usually have some collateral, are tapping into their 401K funds, IRA retirements, and home equity to pay college tuition. As such, colleges haven’t much incentive to keep costs in line with inflation, and we’ve seen a huge rise in tuition and student loan debt. To make matters worse, many people are entering into marriage, each bringing their own student loan debt into the family.
If you think this is an exception, you might be surprised to hear that 2/3 of students are borrowing money to follow their talents, passions, and dreams without the wisdom and counsel of their parents. The young lady caller phoning Dave in this clip was probably encouraged by her coach, but as she soon found out, that passion has a price. Be sure to hang around through the end.
I’ve written here before about my own son’s scholarship opportunities that we deliberately didn’t pursue with him after high school (diving) because the scholarships would have created significant long-term debt for him. In 4 years, we never met another parent in the league that that thought the way we did. Everyone we met was quick to mortgage their home or tap their retirement to fund their teen’s education. If we’d had a large college fund, we may have considered the situation differently, but the point is that we each have limitations. Having the ability to borrow nearly unlimited amounts of money allows us to pretend those limits don’t exist, but it’s our teens who pay the price.
College budget tips you can start today:
- While you’re still teaching them at home, inject college credit opportunities into your curriculum. There are “easier” and “harder” ways to do this, but there is something for everyone.
- Encourage your teen to earn low-cost college credit in high school. Some states allow reduced or no cost tuition to teens that qualify. Join your state’s Homeschooling for College Credit Facebook Group to help navigate the process.
- If your teen doesn’t qualify for reduced or no-cost tuition, DIY a plan using credit by exam resources that you can arrange on your own. The tabs at the top of this website provide free planning help. By using CLEP, DSST, and Advanced Placement exams in high school, your teen can complete 1-2 full years of college credit at home.
- Just because your teen graduated high school, that doesn’t mean they can’t use credit by exam to finish maxing out their 100 and 200 level credits. Even if it takes another year or two, keep making smart financial decisions. I tested out of an AA degree using CLEP at age 36 just for fun!
- Unless your teen has an exceptionally high PSAT, ACT, or SAT, do not expect a full ride academic scholarship. Partial scholarships should be evaluated against the cost of all 4 years, not just freshman year.
- Parents who work for a college or university in a full-time job usually get free tuition for dependents. Besides being a teacher, colleges hire cooks, secretaries, janitors, IT professionals, electricians, and safety workers. It’s worth looking!
- Many companies will pay for your teen’s tuition. I have a good list of 100 employer scholarships here.
- Some schools have guaranteed scholarships for teens who meet academic or geographic conditions. I have a good list here.
- Almost every traditional state university in the country offers distance learning. If your teen doesn’t need a “hands-on experience” for their degree, consider using your state university – but as a distance learner. By living at home, your teen can save at least $10,000 per year.
- Help your teen research the “ROI” for costs that they will spend on their degree. ROI is a business-school term that means “Return on Investment.” Some degrees have exceptional ROI. As an example, nursing, which can still be started at a community college for about $8,000 returns an average annual salary of $68,000 per year based on last year’s census by The Department of Labor. Additionally, while nurses are encouraged to earn a bachelor’s degree, many hospital employers will pay the tuition for nurses to do so while working.
- Even for teens who are on the lower-average side academically, there are opportunities for college classes that can be done at home in a self-paced setting with online proctoring. This allows teens (like mine) to make enormous progress, but at their own pace without barriers like taking notes during a lecture, or memorizing huge chunks of content. General degrees in liberal arts or business are easy to complete this way and can be very affordable. (about $15,000 total)
- Talk with your teen about the budget, their responsibility, and what you plan to contribute to the process.
In closing, I urge parents to understand that you an say “yes” to a college degree while also saying “no” to the snares that trap young students, especially those that result in student debt without the credential to repay it.
If you’ve homeschooled in high school, your teen has already witnessed that education and learning don’t have to look the same for everyone. Your teen has an opportunity to follow your lead by being resourceful and open to thinking outside the box. There are dozens of different ways to make a college degree affordable!
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