Saturday, April 7, 2007

Homeschoolers - Things You Should Know About Diplomas

As we are approaching the May/June graduation season, I thought it timely to post this essay about homeschoolers and diplomas. I hope that it offers you some ideas and is helpful, or at least gives you a few things to ponder.

A diploma is a document issued by a university or other school testifying that a student has earned a degree or completed a particular course of study. Credentials such as this are a way to establish evidence or testimonials attesting one's right to credit, confidence or authority (American Heritage Dictionary).

The value that we place on credentials can be subjective. You may believe certain university degrees are worthless and others very meaningful. For instance, you probably would choose to go to a doctor who has a medical degree from Penn State as opposed to a doctor who has a diploma from some obscure medical school in the Caribbean. This is why we get into the whole issue of accreditation. Accreditation is the granting of approval to an institution of learning by an official review board after the school has met specific requirements. On the other hand, accreditation may mean something to some people and nothing to others.

We can get into a whole discussion about the value of credentials and accreditation, which is why some homeschoolers worry about "the high school diploma". Most people today can see that kids are graduating from traditional high schools not being able to read and write, yet they still possess an accredited high school diploma. Maybe some high schools are trying to rectify that situation by putting in place certain graduation requirements. In some places exit exams have been put in place to try to evaluate what a child has learned from their 12 years of formal schooling.

We all know that exams may not be a very good measure of what anyone really knows, and that the tests can be made easy enough to provide a passing grade to the majority. Indeed, what is considered a passing grade can also be subjective. So how can we really assess what a child knows from 12 years of schooling? This has been a problem for college admissions counselors, and probably a reason why they rely on established and accepted benchmarks such as SAT scores and other standardized testing results. The problem with that however, is that it has not been shown that there is a real correlation between how well you do on the SAT and how well you will do in college. One fact that we do know is that College Board and others are making a fortune on testing, as a result of creating the need for it. Many colleges across the country are rethinking how they can adequately assess their applicants. Should someone who never obtained a diploma and went off to start a successful business, and now wants to do an MBA program be turned away because he never had a diploma? Colleges are seeing that they need flexibility or change in their policies.

There are some points to remember regarding high school diplomas.
1) Not all colleges request that you have one in order to apply for admission.
2) Job applications may ask if you have one, although most do not ask whether you have an accredited diploma.
3) Not all public or private high schools are accredited, and they provide diplomas upon graduation.

You can certainly print up a diploma for your homeschooled child, and that is a valid document stating that they have completed a course of study to your satisfaction and your standards of achievement. Will everyone accept that document as a valid credential? Some may and some may not, and it depends how comfortable you are with that. Suffice it to say I do know homeschooled teens that made it into some good post-secondary schools without the aid of an accredited high school diploma. If your child is already taking community college courses, then possession of a diploma showing high school proficiency should be a moot point when it comes to college application. Truly, just the fact they have already done college level work should be the best indicator and benchmark for college admissions that your child is a good candidate.

If you feel that your child will not get anywhere in the world without an accredited diploma, then you can consider some options. One option for the homeschooled high schooler is to do a home school high school course of study through an umbrella school or independent program. Programs like American School, or Laurel Springs and others, will provide some structured study and upon completion your child will receive an accredited diploma (suitable for framing). Another option is to take the GED (General Equivalency Diploma) exams in your town, and when you pass the exams you will obtain a GED certificate (also suitable for framing). Please be aware that obtaining a GED may have it's own set of issues. While it is an accepted credential, some people see it as having a certain stigma attached to it. Usually that stigma has something to do with being a "drop out". The nice part about these two options is that your child can still do a whole bunch of independent homeschool study along with the pursuit of these other credentials and you can put it all on one transcript and pass it along to the college you are applying to.

In our case, my kids' comfort level in high school was to have some structure, take exams and get grades. My kids did the American School program, completed it and earned their accredited diplomas. They also did a number of things outside of their American School coursework, like language courses, local college courses, online courses and study abroad. I considered all of that to be their overall homeschool high school course of study. In addition to the American School diploma that they earned, I also conferred upon them a home produced diploma from Aron Academy Homeschool (which, by the way, was also suitable for framing). I personally put more value on the home produced one, as it encompasses all of their home school high school study.

When they applied to colleges, we had American School send a transcript, but we also sent our own which documented all of the other things that they did. We probably could have just had American School send a transcript and be done with it all, but we wanted to show the colleges that their other studies were included and important. I believe Rutgers was the only college that one of my kids applied to that did not care about the documentation, all they wanted were test scores. The bottom line is that if you are looking to go on to college, you need to check with college admissions and see what they require. Be careful too, because you might get different stories if you talk to different people in the same admissions office. Don't be afraid to ask a few times and speak to someone who knows for sure. Look at the wording of admissions requirements, it may say that they "generally" or "normally" require an accredited diploma.

College admissions officers use a variety of benchmarks to determine how well your child will succeed in their college programs. You will find that state colleges will be the pickiest about credentials. They are built that way because they support public education and so they are supported by the same system that awards high school diplomas in the first place. They will most likely demand you have an accredited high school diploma or GED. Private colleges on the other hand, may be much more flexible because, in my own opinion, they seem to be more concerned with the true quality of the student and the background that they are bringing with them to college. They may be more apt to look at a portfolio of work, or meet with you in an interview, rather than just rely on a school transcript or credential.

If you are filling out a job application, chances are they will just ask if you have a high school diploma. Even if you have a "home brewed" diploma, you can say yes to that question. Most often they don't ask if it is accredited, nor does it seem to matter. I don't know of anyone who had to bring in a copy of the document in order to be employed. As an adult, can you remember anyone wanting to see the actual copy of your sheepskin?

A final point, from a legislative point of view. Please be mindful of any laws that are proposed, or put in place, requiring homeschooling parents to have an accredited high school diploma themselves. If your child graduates without one, then they will not be able to homeschool their own children! This is done by intention in some states. It is a way to put the brakes on homeschooling. In fact, there should not be any laws that are contingent on possessing an accredited high school diploma, such as being able to drive.