Record:  Mary K. Saunders, “Previously Homeschooled College Freshmen: Their First Year Experiences and Persistence Rates” in Journal of College Student Retention 11, no. 1 (2009-2010): 77-100.

Summary:  Saunders here uses results from a survey of 261 college freshmen at Wheaton College to argue that first year students who previously homeschooled tend to report positive social experiences and commitment to the college.  Such students are just as likely as are  students who went to institutional schools to stay at the college.

Saunders begins with a survey of the literature on academic achievement, uncritically accepting HSLDA-funded studies by Ray and Rudner that are often interpreted incorrectly as evidence that homeschoolers outperform public schoolers on standardized tests.  Since academic achievement is a no longer a contested issue for Saunders, she turns to socialization.  To try to measure how well socialized homeschooled young adults are, Saunders compares their first year of college experience to that of traditionally schooled freshmen.

Saunders grounds her discussion both in the literature on homeschool socialization and in the literature on college retention rates.  For the socialization literature she again uncritically accepts the glowing reports of advocacy-based research without mentioning any of the serious methodological limitations the studies she cites contain.  For the college retention literature she relies heavily on the work Vincent Tinto and of John Braxton and his colleagues, who explicate six factors that contribute to students’ decision to stay at or leave a college.

Saunders mailed a social experiences survey to the entire 2004-2005 freshman class of Wheaton in May, just after they had finished their first year of college.  Of the 596 she sent, she got 261 back, for an overall response rate of 43.4% (a good response rate for a survey).  Respondents skewed a bit more female and white than the whole of the freshman class.

Saunders did a sophisticated “least squares regression” analysis of the data in order to separate out the variable of type of schooling from other important variables contributing to a student’s decision to remain in or leave the college.  Doing so, Saunders found “no significant effects on the student’s integration” into college life based upon previous schooling, and a slightly stronger intent among homeschooled students to remain with Wheaton.  Her moral is that “colleges/universities with similar demographics as Wheaton College…need not be concerned about previously homeschooled students finding ways to socially integrate and persist on their campuses.” (95)

Saunders’ methodology in this study is excellent, and she herself points out its limitations.  She notes that Wheaton is not a secular university, so it makes sense that Christian homeschooled kids will have a fairly easy time feeling at home there.  She acknowledges other limitations to her research design as well.

Appraisal:  The only real weakness to her study in my view comes right at the end where she momentarily slips out of her carefully circumscribed discussion (where she repeatedly admits to the limited generalizability of her findings) to say that her study “provides data that supports the belief that the process of homeschooling does not negatively affect the ability of the student being homeschooled to integrate socially into his/her environment upon leaving the parents’ home.” (97)  Immediately after letting that slip she reminds readers that her study only considered one group of students at an elite Christian college.

It would be a mistake to generalize about the entire homeschooled population from a sample of Wheaton College students.  Wheaton is the most academically selective of all of the Christian colleges in the United States.  Any student who can get into Wheaton is going to have had an excellent secondary education no matter how it was delivered.  Homeschoolers who were accepted to Wheaton are some of the best educated homeschoolers in the country.  Saunders acknowledges the religious limitations of a Wheaton sample but not this academic component.

Almost all the Wheaton freshmen she studied are from well-to-do, white, two-parent households with highly educated parents.  Kids born into privileged families like this are typically going to shine whether they were homeschooled or not.  Her study, which finds no real difference between homeschooled and traditionally schooled kids, bears this out.  Kids from wealthy, stable, successful homes who are homeschooled have just as positive an experience at a college that shares the family’s values as do kids from wealthy, stable, successful homes who went to school in a building.  That’s the take home message of this article.

Milton Gaither, Messiah College

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