Freedom to Learn

The roles of play and curiosity as foundations for learning.

Survey of Grown Unschoolers II: Going on to College

Can people with no K-12 schooling go to college and do well there? If so, how?

Can they go to college?  If so, how do they get in and how do they adjust to it? Can they do the work?  Can they follow the rigorous schedule?  Such questions are often asked by people who have heard of “unschooling”.  In this post, I will address these questions, in the words of adults who were unschooled and then went on to a formal bachelor’s degree program or beyond.

This is the second in a series of four posts concerning a survey of grown unschoolers that Gina Riley and I have recently conducted.  The first post presented a definition of unschooling and an overview of the methods and the statistical findings of our study.  Please look back at that post to review them.

Unlike so many others in the general population, most unschoolers do not consider college admission, or college graduation, or high grades in college, to be in any general sense a measure of life success. Nor do we. Our main concern in asking about college in this study was simply to find out about the experiences of those who, for whatever reason, did choose to go to college. These questions have practical ramifications, because many potential unschoolers would be reluctant to take the unschooling route if it precluded the possibility of college and therefore the possibility of careers that, at least today, more or less require college as a stepping-stone.

To learn about their college experiences, we asked the following as Question 5 of the survey:  “Please describe briefly any formal higher education you have experienced, such as community college/college/and graduate school. How did you get into college without having a high school diploma? How did you adjust from being unschooled to being enrolled in a more formal type of educational experience? Please list any degrees you have obtained or degrees you are currently working toward.”

In this series of posts I use the term schooling to refer to attendance at an out-of-home school, homeschooling to refer to academic lessons at home that are supervised or enforced by a parent, and unschooling to refer to the situation where children are not sent to school and are not homeschooled (by the definition just given).  In other contexts, and for legal purposes, unschooling is considered to be a branch of homeschooling—and in some of the quotes, below, respondents use the term "homeschooling" as an umbrella term that includes unschooling—but for purposes of clarity I use the term homeschooling, here, in a more limited way that does not include unschooling.  Again, for more on the definition of unschooling, for the purpose of this study, look back at the previous post.

As noted in the previous post, 62 (83 percent) of the 75 grown unschoolers who responded to our survey had gone on to some form of higher education, and 33 (44 percent) had completed a bachelor’s degree or higher or were currently full-time students in a bachelor’s program. The other 29 who pursued higher education most often did so to gain particular knowledge or a license related to their vocational interest, for which they did not need a bachelor’s degree. Also as noted in the previous post, the likelihood of pursuing a bachelor’s degree was inversely related to the amount of previous schooling: Fifty-eight percent of those in the always-unschooled group had pursued a bachelor’s degree compared with 44 percent and 29 percent, respectively, in the other two groups (look back at the previous post for details).

The always-unschooled group not only had the highest percentage who went on to a bachelor’s degree, but also the highest percentage who did not go on to any higher education.  Indeed, of the 24 respondents in that group, 18 went on to a bachelor’s degree and the remaining 6 did not pursue any form of higher education.  The latter generally said that they did not need formal education to learn what they wanted to know or to pursue their chosen careers. For example, one wrote, “I’ve continued to unschool into adulthood and will continue throughout my life. I think internships and apprenticeships would be the natural extension of unschooling into the traditional workplace. If I become interested in a field that seems like college would be a good resource for, I would look into it—but I would still consider it part of the unschooling journey, which for me simply means following curiosity wherever it leads.”   Another simply stated, “As an adult, I realize that unschooling helped me see that college wasn’t necessary to have a successful, fulfilling life”.

I also reported in the previous post that the most common route to admission to a bachelor’s degree program, for our respondents, was to take community college courses—typically beginning around age 16—and then use that transcript to gain college admission.  Twenty-one of the 33 had taken that route.  Most went on to college without any sort of official high school diploma, but seven reported that they had received a GED by taking the appropriate test and three said that they had received a diploma through an online procedure.

The great majority of respondents who went on to college reported no difficulty doing the academic work. Indeed, most said they were at an academic advantage, primarily because of their high motivation and their high capacity for self-initiative, self-direction, and self-control.

The best way to convey the college experiences of the respondents is through their own words.  The rest of this post consists of quotations from the surveys. The quotations are selected, but are quite representative of the whole sample, with the exception of two who described difficulties with their unschooling and pursuit of higher education and whose experiences will be discussed in the fourth post in this series.  The themes that emerged from the sample as a whole are these: (1) Getting into college was generally not particularly difficult for these unschoolers; (2) The academic adjustment to college was generally quite smooth for them; (3) Most felt advantaged because of their high self-motivation and capacity for self-direction; and (4) The most frequent complaints were about the lack of motivation and intellectual curiosity among their college classmates, the constricted social life of college, and, in a few cases, constraints imposed by the curriculum or grading system.

To preserve the respondents’ anonymity, I have identified each only by gender, age at the time of filling out the questionnaire, and extent to which the person had been unschooled. I’ve also removed potentially identifying information from the quotations, especially the names of the colleges attended. The preponderance of women in the sample below reflects the high ratio of women compared to men who responded to our survey (see previous post).  I have chosen quotations primarily from among those who had the least schooling or homeschooling before college, and I've ordered them in such a way that those with no K-12 schooling or homeschooling are first. 

Age 20, no K-12 schooling or homeschooling.  This woman, at age 20, had already earned a BA degree and had gained what, for her, was an ideal job in theatre production. She had taken some community college courses between age 13 and 16 and then transferred to a four-year BA program at her state university, which she completed in two and one-fourth years, graduating summa cum laude.  She wrote, “It was not a rough adjustment for me. I found that because I had not been in school before attending college, I was much less burnt out than my peers and had a very fresh perspective. I learned basic academic skills (essay composition, research, etc.) very quickly…  I struggled some with time management, but eventually developed a means of staying organized.” 

Age 21, no K-12 schooling or homeschooling. This young man was in his third year of a four-year BA program, majoring in philosophy at a selective Canadian university, about to declare honors status and with plans to pursue a master’s in philosophy.  In explaining how he was admitted, he wrote, “I set an appointment to talk with someone in the admissions department, to find out what I would need to do to apply as an unschooler. After I talked briefly about myself, my achievements, and my style of education, and after he read a sample of my writing, he said ‘I can't see any reason why you shouldn't be here’, and proceeded to hand me the forms to become a student.”

Concerning adjustment, he wrote, “It was a bit hard to adjust to the amount of skimming-over that many introductory classes do: I can't bear it when ideas are left unexplored.  Mainly because of the depth of the material covered, I've found that my best grades, and some of my best work, have come from 4000-level courses.  I've always learned in a passionate way and don't want to stop the flow of an idea until it runs its course.” 

Age 24, no K-12 schooling or homeschooling. This woman, who had received a BA from a highly selective liberal arts college, wrote, “In contrast to [my classmates], I found great inspiration from my teachers.  At [name of college deleted] the teachers must also be practitioners in their fields of study, so I was working with people who were actively interested and participating in their areas of expertise as a teacher and as an actor, writer, director, translator, and so on.  Having someone with such a wealth of knowledge looking over my shoulder at the work I was doing was revolutionary.  It was not something I wish I had earlier, not something I felt had been lacking my whole life, but it was something that inspired me for my four years at school.” 

At one point in her college career this young woman was asked to lead a meeting of students in order to provide feedback to the instructor of a course. She wrote,  “I discovered that people wanted the teacher to tell them what to think. ‘l wish he’d told us what to think when we read Macbeth’ someone said. ‘I wish he’d let us know what he wanted us to do in our Hearts of Darkness essays’ and on and on.  It had never, ever occurred to me to ask someone else to tell me what to think when I read something.”

This respondent also wrote that the biggest drawback to college, for her, was the lack of a normal, age-mixed social life—with people who are not all students. To achieve that, she joined the local Unitarian Universalist church where she served as religious educator while still a student. 

Age 24, no K-12 schooling or homeschooling.  This woman, who was currently a full-time student working for a master’s degree in English, wrote:  “I began attending a community college when I was 16 and enjoyed every second of it. I did not feel as though I had to adjust to anything. After my first psychology class, which was the first time I had to take notes during a class, I went right home and began typing and organizing my notes. I continued going part time for two years until I was 18. The community college accepted my diploma, which I created myself and my parents signed, along with my transcript, which I also created. I turned my interests and activities into ‘courses’ for the transcript and included a list of books that I had read over the last 4 years.”

“When I began looking for a four-year university to transfer to, my decision not to take the SATs had a minor effect on my choices for schools. One school refused to even open my application without SAT scores, even though I had written them a letter detailing my success at the college level for the last three years. I chose a university that allowed me to register as a part time student for my first semester and then transfer into a full-time program without having to provide SAT scores.”

Age 29, no K-12 schooling or homeschooling. This woman, who had graduated with high honors from a selective private women’s college and then gone on to a master’s degree, wrote, “On top of accepting me, they put me into their freshman honors class. I definitely felt strange going into a formal school, especially being in an honors program. I spent long hours studying and doing my homework—way more work than my classmates were doing. After I got straight A's for the first half of my first semester I started to relax a little more, and I realized I was working way too hard. So I learned how to learn like my fellow classmates were—by memorizing everything just before a test. I still kept getting straight A's but was doing hardly any work at all. Eventually I learned how to balance it—actually delving into material I enjoyed and memorizing the stuff I wasn't interested in. It wasn't hard; it mostly just made me really appreciate the fact that I hadn't been in school my whole life.” 

“I definitely experienced a [social] transition in college. I wasn't into frat parties, drinking heavily and the like, so my first year/first two years I was a bit of a loner, with only a few friends. My last year in school I finally started drinking and going to house parties, so I ‘fit in’ a little better and got a wider group of ‘friends.’ I realized this was how everyone else in college was socializing and it felt off to me, not genuine or a way to really make lasting connections. Out of school I returned to how I had always functioned socially, and lo and behold, that was what everyone else was doing. I met friends through my jobs, through theatres I worked in, through other friends, and at coffee shops.”

Age 29, no K-12 schooling or homeschooling.  This woman, who had earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts at an unnamed college, wrote, “I did have a high school diploma. There would have been greater challenges without that, but for me the transition was logistically really easy.  Despite the completely unschooled nature of my upbringing, my mother had our home registered as a private school with the state of CA, so on paper I looked ‘normal’ in the system.

"I went to Community College part time between the ages of 16 and 19 years old. I transferred to a four year school, which I attended for three years before receiving my BFA with High Distinction at 22 years old. I loved college—it stands out as one of the most focused and fulfilling periods of my young life! When I began community college, I was younger than other students, and I was concerned that I would feel behind, but I wasn't. I didn't like taking tests, and I still feel a lot of anxiety about tests to this day, but I excelled in most ways and graduated with a high GPA.”

“Growing up, I understood we were outside of the norm, and that was met by kids and adults alike with a lot of skepticism at times. Despite my mom’s great confidence, I was concerned about whether I had what it took to succeed in the ‘real world.’ College was the time in my life where I confronted the unknown and decided I was probably OK!”

Age 30, no K-12 schooling or homeschooling.  This man took classes at a local state college beginning at age 16, and then transferred to a small, selective, progressive private college where he completed a BS in conservation biology and ecology. After that, he earned an MS at a state university and completed one year of a Ph.D. program at another state university, before taking a leave of absence from school because of a serious illness. Concerning adjustment, he reported no difficulty with the academic work, but objected to the constraints imposed by the system of evaluation. He wrote, “Even the requirement-free environment of [name of college omitted] felt stifling to me (e.g. its perverse grading incentive to avoid one's own directions within a field in favor of the professor's predilections, formal academic bias to the near exclusion of experiential learning, and emphasis on tangible academic products rather than learning/applying process), and grad school has been many times worse (not only in terms of more structured and formalized educational paradigms, but also of lower-level educational opportunities).”  He nevertheless plans to return to the Ph.D. program when his illness is brought under control, as he is committed to a career aimed at restoring and maintaining biodiversity.

Age 32, no K-12 schooling or homeschooling.  This woman, now a mom on the brink of unschooling her own children, wrote: “I took a course in Emergency Medicine and worked a couple of odd jobs while I researched college options, selected my preferred school, and went about the application process. I was scholarshipped for a large chunk of my undergraduate education due to a portfolio that I assembled and my college interviews. Applying for college didn't seem to be too difficult without an official diploma, because I had SAT scores to submit and high-school transcripts that my mom prepared from all of her years of journaling our unschooling exploits. I remember being very restless for the first one to two years of college. I didn't feel very challenged by the core classes I was enrolled in and was itching to move on to my major and minor classes. College was fun, but I was stunned to realize that the majority of the other students didn't work or pursue any other areas of their lives apart from their studies and partying. I supported myself throughout my four-year degree typically working at least two jobs while taking well above the minimum class/load requirements so that I could graduate on time. Two years into my degree I took a full time job in the creative department of the local newspaper, where I continued to work after graduation.”

Age 35, no K-12 schooling or homeschooling.  This woman, who had earned a BA at a small progressive college and then a master’s degree, wrote, “Through my whole college experience I balked at students who didn't do the work, even in the courses that were less than desirable or exciting for me. I think my educational background set me up for thinking ‘why are you there, if you aren't going to participate?’ This was frustrating for me to see. For I have always chosen myself to pursue education, and even though this personal choice meant that there were some courses I had to take that I wasn't excited about, I still knew what my motivation was for being there. Over time I have learned that these fellow students who were frustrating to be around had been exposed to a drastically different relationship with learning and education.”

Age 19, no K-12 schooling or homeschooling past second grade. This young woman had been diagnosed with dyslexia when she was in second grade at school and was taken out of school because of her unhappiness there.  As an unschooler, she learned to read at her own pace and in her own way. Later, she was tested and diagnosed with other learning disabilities, but these did not hold her back. During her last two years of unschooling, she took community college courses and then transferred to a bachelor’s degree program at a selective private liberal arts college. She wrote, “I enrolled at [name of college omitted], where I just completed my freshman year. I maintained a 3.9 GPA through the whole year, and I am returning there in the fall.

"I think that unschooling actually prepared me better for college than most of my peers, because I already had a wealth of experience with self-directed study. I knew how to motivate myself, manage my time, and complete assignments without the structure that most traditional students are accustomed to. While most of my peers were floundering and unable to meet deadlines, I remained on top of my work because I have always been an independent learner. I know how to figure things out for myself and how to get help when I need it. While I struggled to adjust in the beginning, it was purely due to the difficulties caused by my learning disabilities. By the end of the year I had overcome my struggles and excelled in school. I am currently working on my BA in English from [name of college omitted], and after that I intend to go on for a Masters in Library Science.”

Age 24, no K-12 schooling or homeschooling past second grade.  This man, more so than most of the others, found that he had to jump through some hoops to get into community college, as a stepping stone to a bachelor’s program at a selective state university, but had no difficulties adapting academically. He wrote, “At first I did not want to attend college. When I graduated from homeschooling/unschooling in 2005, I worked at a gym selling gym memberships for two years. Ultimately I figured out that I needed to go to college so I attended a local community college. It was difficult getting in without a high school diploma, and basically I had to go to the county school board office to obtain a 'homeschool completion affidavit' to prove to the college that I actually finished the 12th grade. After a bunch of red tape, they accepted it. Since I never took the SAT, ACT or other standardized test for college prior to enrolling in the community college, I had to take a placement test before I could enroll in classes. After all of this was out of the way, I was viewed as a regular student.

"I went on to graduate from [name of college omitted] with my Associate’s degree and a 4.00 GPA. Then I attended [name of university omitted] and obtained a Bachelor’s degree, also with a 4.00 GPA. Most recently I just finished my Master’s degree at [name of university omitted].”

Age 24, no K-12 schooling or homeschooling past second grade.  This woman, who earned a BA from a large state university, wrote, “There is an adjustment period going into ‘school’ from unschooling, but you also have the huge advantage of not being burned out and hating school already. Learning is still something you look forward to.” This respondent went on to say that she received nearly all A’s and then a full scholarship to law school, and added: “I'm not trying to brag, so much as prove that unschooling works. We took a lot of crap from friends, relatives, and strangers during the entire time we were unschooling. So now, I like having the credentials to prove that unschooling is a legitimate way to educate and indeed, in my book, the preferred way to educate.”

Age 26, no K-12 schooling or homeschooling past second grade. This woman, who had graduated with honors from a highly selective liberal arts college, wrote, “The transition was a difficult one for me, not for the academics, but for the feeling of being trapped within a system. The college bubble felt tiny to me and I was in a constant state of simmering frustration at being told even simple things like which classes to take and when. As someone who had made those choices myself for years, I felt disrespected that it was assumed that I didn't know what level of study I was ready for. It took most of the first year for me to come to a place of acceptance, remembering that this, too, was a choice that I made that I could change if I wanted to. I never loved college like many people do and never felt as free as I had before college or in the time after I graduated.” This respondent subsequently attended graduate school in a medically related field and reported that to be a better experience, because of the real-world setting of the clinical work.

Age 35, no K-12 schooling or homeschooling past fourth grade. This woman, who had gained a degree from a highly selective liberal arts college, wrote, “I applied to eight colleges and was accepted at all of them [in 1995]…I interviewed at all eight colleges; for most of them I was their first ‘homeschool/unschooled’ applicant. Several colleges told me I was accepted at the conclusion of the interviews, right after they informed me that I was ‘surprisingly’ well-spoken and bright. I did take (and did very well on) both the SATs and the ACTs, which probably offset the lack of transcripts.”

“The transition was fairly easy, though I was homesick. I think college is a lot like unschooling—you take classes that interest you, do most of the work on your own, and are responsible for getting it done and turned in on time. You are really responsible for your own education!”

“From [name of college deleted] I received a BA in both computer science and mathematics.  It proves something: I never had any formal math training beyond 5th grade, but ended up tutoring other students in Calculus 1, 2 and 3. I never had a computer of my own until my junior year of college, but majored in computer science where I wrote extensive computer programs, and programmed my own robot.” This person then went on to a BS and Masters’ in nursing, became a nurse practitioner, and, at the time of the survey, was contemplating going back to school for a doctorate.

Age 32, no K-12 schooling or homeschooling past seventh grade; mix of schooling and homeschooling before that.  This woman, who had received a bachelor’s degree from an Ivy League university, was a mother unschooling her own children, a yoga instructor, and a student training to do yoga therapy when she filled out the survey. Concerning college admission and adjustment to college, she wrote, “When I was 15, I wanted to take community college courses.  At that time, dual enrollment of homeschooled students wasn't really accepted, so I was told I needed to get a GED to be allowed to enroll. Although I think it disappointed my parents for me to get my GED, it has helped to have that paper that shows I completed some sort of high school education. That said, I refuse to take standardized tests now (because I believe they aren't a measure of intelligence or even what a student has learned), so I did complete my associate's degree before I attempted to transfer to a four-year university (some schools will accept a two-year degree in place of SAT/ACT scores.) I graduated from [the Ivy League University] with my BA in psychology in 2003. I think unschooling helped me adjust to college; I was so used to being able to study whatever I wanted that it seemed natural to take classes that interested me.  And unschooling also follows the premise that if a child has a goal, they'll learn whatever they need to in order to meet it. For instance, I don't like math, but I knew I would need to learn it in order to graduate.  So that's what I did.”

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As I noted in the first post on this study, we must be cautious in interpreting the results of this survey. By necessity, as we had no way of forcing people into the study, the sample here is a group of grown unschoolers who chose to participate, and they may well be among those unschoolers who are happiest with their experiences and most eager to tell about them.  However, at minimum, we can conclude this: The college option is very definitely available to unschoolers. Those who want to go to college and take the steps required to get in have no particular difficulty getting in or doing well once there. Moreover, the similarities in responses within this relatively diverse sample suggests a certain common groud of experience. The grown unschoolers who went on to college had good reasons in their own minds for doing so, did not want to waste their time there, seemed to work harder and achieve more than did their schooled classmates, and generally felt advantaged because of their previous experiences controlling their own lives and learning.

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What are your thoughts and questions about this aspect of our survey?  What unschooling experiences or college experiences—positive or negative—have you had that you are you willing to share? This blog is a forum for discussion, and your stories, comments, and questions are valued and treated with respect by me and other readers. As always, I prefer if you post your thoughts and questions here rather than send them to me by private email. By putting them here, you share with other readers, not just with me. I read all comments and try to respond to all serious questions, if I feel I have something useful to add to what others have said. Of course, if you have something to say that truly applies only to you and me, then send me an email.

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For much more about the human nature of self-determined education, see Free to Learn.

Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor at Boston College, is author of the newly published book Free to Learn (Basic Books) and Psychology (a textbook now in its 6th edition).

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