Home College: The Next Frontier

By Debra Bell

It used to be that high school at home was the big question, but that’s already been settled with a resounding “Can do!” Now the homeschool graduates are asking why institutionalized college makes sense. Accustomed to the efficiency and flexibility of homeschooling, they may have a point.

The average college student takes more than four and a half years to earn a degree (often because of poor advising­), graduates with debt in excess of $20,000, and loses several years of earning power in the process. At the same time, universities continue to hike tuition, skew the curriculum leftward, and do business as usual as though they have the only game in town.

These are just the right conditions to inspire the homeschool movement’s pioneering spirit to lead the charge once again: home college—once the unthinkable–is now moving into the mainstream. And it’s not exclusively homeschool graduates who are fueling the demand: technology, the rapidly changing needs of the job market, and economic necessity are converging to create demand for post­high school training in line with twenty­first­century– not nineteenth­century–needs.

What this new kind of college experience looks like is as varied and customizable as homeschooling itself. Many teens are using home college to shorten the time they eventually need to spend on campus earning a degree; others are using home college to circumvent the traditional university system altogether.

And while employers once were skeptical about training and degrees earned through alternative means, they now realize that applicants with these credentials are often more technologically savvy and innovative than those relying solely on the traditional route.

How is it done? Here is a roadmap to some of the options you should know about:

Online College Classes

Almost all colleges and universities are now offering some of their coursework online, and very shortly, completing a degree virtually will be a common practice. “The virtual classroom” is the fastest­growing trend in higher education worldwide, and it’s an option your teen should probably consider taking advantage of.

Online college classes come in every stripe and color, so it is important to search out a source of coursework that is a good fit, especially if your teen starts while in high school. Through their community college systems, many states have created a special program (usually free or at a reduced cost) of virtual classes for rising juniors and seniors, and homeschoolers can qualify for enrollment in these programs. If your teen plans to eventually transfer credits accumulated during high school to an in state school, then this option is doubly valuable—the acceptance of these credits has likely already been arranged. (States want you to spend all your higher education dollars in state, so they have created incentives for you to do so.)

If your teen plans to take a number of college classes online during high school, then do your homework and find one or two schools that are a good fit. Transferring credits is a painstaking task, and you want to do this from as few sources as possible.

There are several critical questions you should answer before selecting an online course:

1. Is the course synchronous or asynchronous? In other words, is the class conducted online at a specific time, requiring your teen to be committed to attendance during that time slot, or can students move through the course materials on a schedule that is convenient for them? There are advantages to both types of online classes, and you will have to figure out which one suits your teen best.

2. Do you possess the technology required to complete the course online? If you are not sure, find out if you can test the technology prior to enrolling. The best online options offer live tech support to help you troubleshoot problems.

3. How much feedback will your teen receive? The most common complaint about online classes is the lack of interaction with the instructor. Unfortunately, many colleges have jumped into the virtual world—a source of new revenue with low overhead—and do not set minimum expectations for their online teachers. These courses can be little more than a correspondence course of self­paced material delivered online. That might be fine for your purposes, but some teens will need more interaction and feedback than that to stay engaged.

4. Is the credit received from this online course widely transferable? If the course is sponsored by a regionally accredited college or university, then the credit likely will be accepted at other colleges and universities similar in status. General education credits (courses required of all students, typically taken during their freshman and sophomore years) are more readily transferable than courses related to a specific major.

5. Is the cost justifiable? The answers to the first four questions should help you evaluate how much you are willing to pay for an online college class.

Turning Credit Into Degrees

Now here’s the rub: to maximize the benefit of earning college credits without leaving home, you have to broker these into a degree that means something to potential employers. To do this, your teen needs to earn these credits through a degree­granting institution or transfer credits from equivalency exams and other sources that are accepted. A handful of reputable distance­learning colleges specialize in turning alternative credits into degrees. One such institution used successfully for decades by homeschoolers is Thomas Edison State College (www.tesc.edu). However, there are many charlatans, so conduct your research thoroughly. A consumer protection site for distance­education providers is www.GetEducated.com. If you would like help figuring out how to turn credits into degrees, College Plus (www.CollegePlus.org) is a Christian coaching organization staffed by homeschool graduates who have earned degrees through college at home.

If your teen wants to transfer credits to a traditional brick and mortar school, you will need to familiarize yourself with the school’s credit evaluation process. Typically, the transfer credits must line up with a specific, mandatory course of study offered by the university. Often a department chair will make the determination, and a student must present the course syllabus as proof of the work completed. Keep the syllabi from college­level courses on file indefinitely. (All four of our kids had to produce those syllabi several times for different reasons.)

You may also need to coach your teen on how to advocate for the acceptance of these credits—you will not be attending these meetings. The acceptance of transfer credits is often a matter of negotiation. Even if you get a “yes” at the department level, there is still plenty of paperwork to be completed at the administrative level. In addition to the course syllabi, you will need to submit an official transcript from the institutions where credit was earned or from the College Board if you are submitting AP and CLEP exam scores.

When Can You Start?

One of the key advantages of college at home is that teens can start converting their high school work to college credit at an early age—as soon as they are academically ready for college­level work. For the past ten years I’ve helped homeschooled teens, including our own four kids, earn college credit during high school. Here are three characteristics I have found to be important:

1. Your teen is reasonably self­motivated and organized—or at least headed in that direction. 2. Your teen is comfortable with technology—or willing to get comfortable. 3. Your teen is reading on a post­high school level. (A quick rule of thumb for this is scoring above the 50th percentile in critical reading on a college entrance exam.)

If your teen doesn’t possess these qualities yet, then focus your efforts around these goals so you can take advantage of college­at­home options as soon as possible. The high cost of a college education is being dealt a deathblow by pioneering homeschoolers once again, and you want to make sure you don’t miss that boat. I know scores of homeschooled teens who have successfully completed a degree in short order and at a reasonable cost—and with a bit of planning, yours can too.

Debra is the author of The Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling, The Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling Teens, and The Ultimate Homeschool Planner (for moms and students), published by Apologia Educational Ministries. She also offers online classes designed to prepare students for CLEP and AP testing at www.DebraBell.com. On her website, she blogs regularly about homeschooling, brain science, and digital education. A retired homeschool mom, she is near completion of a Ph.D. in educational psychology.

Equivalency Exams

Students who score well on equivalency exams (also known as “credit by exam”) can earn college credit and be exempted from the corresponding coursework. The most widely accepted equivalency exams are the College Level Examination Program (CLEP) and Advanced Placement (AP) tests developed by the College Board (the same organization that brought us the SAT college entrance exam). Each college and university determines which CLEP and AP exams they will accept, what score must be reached, and how much credit will be awarded. Equivalency exam policies are published on a school’s website and at www.CollegeBoard.org. Overall, AP and CLEP exam credits are more widely accepted than transfer credits from other institutions. This is also the least expensive route to college credit at home: both the CLEP and AP exams cost less than $100 apiece.

Our oldest daughter, Kayte, took five AP exams in high school, beginning in tenth grade, and scored well enough to receive twenty­four credits toward a degree at the university where she eventually enrolled. Because she was our third college­bound child, we knew a bit more about what we were doing. We first researched the AP policies at her schools of interest, and she then took the exams that earned the most potential credit. For three of the exams, her high score was worth six credits (or two college­level classes apiece). Even more beneficial, Kayte’s success on the AP exams demonstrated her scholastic aptitude and contributed to full­tuition scholarship offers everywhere she applied.

Our sons, on the other hand, took a CLEP exam in marketing between their junior and senior years of college. With several semesters of business courses under their belts, they realized they probably already knew much of what would be covered in this required course. They were right—after a weekend of study they took the CLEP exam and scored high enough to earn the credit toward their degrees this way.

Both our sons and daughter used credit by exam to shorten the timeline to a degree, reduce their costs, and—this I had not anticipated—make room in their schedules for several study­ abroad experiences. These examples highlight some of the differences between the two types of equivalency exams and how you might use them. Here’s a simple comparison chart:


Thirty­four exams are offered; they include general and lower­level coursework. Must be taken prior to college Rigorous, three­hour exams High scores factor significantly in merit scholarship consideration. Each exam is offered only once a year, in May. Must be taken at an approved AP test site (a local public or private high school) Homeschooled students may have difficulty gaining permission to be tested at a site. (Just try another site.) Most students score higher if they take a full year AP course aligned with the exam; www.APHomeschoolers.com is one well­established source of online AP courses.


Thirty­three exams are offered; they include general and upper­level coursework. Can be taken in high school or during college Not as rigorous or prestigious as AP exams Shorter than AP exams. Most consist of fewer than seventy­five multiple­choice questions. Less expensive than AP Can be taken at will at a local college test center Designed to measure knowledge gained through self­study or professional experience Selective universities often do not accept CLEP credits.

In general, your teen cannot earn a four­year degree solely through equivalency exam testing. You must find a school that accepts CLEP and AP credit and combine equivalency exam testing with other methods accepted by the school.

Copyright, 2011. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, Fall 2011. Visit The Old Schoolhouse® at theoldschoolhouse.com to view a full­length sample copy of the magazine especially for homeschoolers. Click the graphic of the moving computer monitor on the left. Email the Publisher at Publisher@theoldschoolhouse.com.