So how are homeschool graduates prepared for social life after high school? Our results raise some concerns for a majority of homeschool graduates, who are likely to feel a lack of direction and sense of purpose in life, feel helpless to deal with their own problems, and a lower sense of efficacy to make an impact on public affairs (all in comparison to public school graduates). We also find that homeschool graduates have lower levels of trust in other people and in social institutions, which we expect helps explain the finding that their frequency and amount of charitable donations are lower than for graduates of other sectors.
The findings on homeschooling outcomes in young adulthood provide only broad directions, which will have to be honed and confirmed in future research. To begin, the experience of homeschooling appears to reinforce skepticism about dominant institutions in American society. The lack of confidence in public institutions is one result. That may also explain why educational attainment is lower among homeschoolers and why the universities they attend are smaller and less selective. The lower levels of involvement in civic organizations and churches are consistent with relatively high boundaries that homeschoolers place between themselves and dominant institutions. Second, family and immediate personal relationships take precedence over other life goals for homeschoolers. Perhaps this explains why congregational involvement is lower among homeschoolers. And it may explain why homeschoolers are less enamored with public and prosocial goals pursued through a job or career.
Third, homeschoolers are in many ways alienated (both structurally and culturally) from dominant public institutions and conventional norms and life trajectories, and the corollary of this is the homeschooler experience as a cultural minority, which helps to explain some of homeschoolers’ democratic citizenship strengths. Together, the social factors of alienation and minority status may explain lower levels of personal well-being among homeschoolers, though this is more difficult to determine conclusively. It may also lie behind the lower levels of social trust and civic participation of homeschoolers. Regarding citizenship, the dynamics set in motion as an embattled cultural minority somewhat alienated from dominant institutions and life trajectories appears to lead to stronger support for other cultural minorities as well as support for freedom of thought and expression. And the result is that homeschoolers are quite active in political life given their sense of alienation from public institutions. Rather than see homeschooling as entirely privatizing and harmful to democratic citizenship, this research reveals that a particular structure of schooling can generate conditions that teach democratic life lessons. This is certainly a public good enhanced perhaps surprisingly by schooling at home.
We have presented results from a study that gives us multiple methods for evaluating how homeschool graduates fare after completing high school. Using one of the traditional methods of evaluating institutional schools’ success is assessing college enrollment, graduation, and income data. On these measures, we find that homeschool graduates are at a disadvantage compared to graduates of other types of schools. However, using the criteria used to evaluate conventional schools is at best an incomplete and at worst an unfair assessment since homeschoolers have different educational goals and intended outcomes.
When we examine how homeschool alumni are doing on measures that are more relevant to the educational experiences they have had and the goals set forth for their education in the first place, the picture is more positive. We find that by and large, homeschool graduates are retaining religious identity and beliefs, and are generally maintaining strong familial bonds, in line with two of the primary goals of the religious homeschooling movement.
On a third set of measures related to personal and social well-being, we find that homeschool graduates are at a disadvantage compared to graduates of other types of schools. We suggest that this could be partially due to the potentially isolated nature of the homeschool experience—the intentional boundaries drawn by homeschooling families and public institutions, the lack of easy access to peer groups, the exhausting work of meeting 100% of children’s needs in the home, etc. However, we suspect that another part of this story is that homeschooling families do not benefit from social support for their educational choices, either from social networks and general social sentiment, but also from social institutions, which has resulted not only in homeschooling families separating a bit from the social fabric, but in their sense of embattlement with a culture they experience as hostile to their beliefs, values and decisions. It is possible that the advent and growth of hybrid homeschool/online and other alternative education programs might build bridges for some homeschooling families that will introduce a greater level of social support while allowing these families to maintain their focus on the goals that are most important to them, remaining generally unimpeded by the constraints of conventional schooling.
There are several limitations of this study that must be noted. First, we must be cautious about concluding that these findings reveal universal effects of homeschooling in all times and places. Of course, averages for all homeschoolers can miss important sources of variation across types of homeschools. Little is known about whether different homeschooling approaches or homeschooling pedagogies have different effects on student outcomes. Nor do we know whether homeschooled students would have had different outcomes if they had been in other types of schools. It is possible that parents (and children) have deeper insight into whether a particular child would better thrive in homeschool versus institutional school. Moreover, we know that homeschooling effects vary considerably across societal contexts. For example, analysis of the 2013 Cardus Education Survey results in Canada leads to different conclusions about several areas of young adult life outcomes, including civic engagement.
We should remember too that the averages and associations discussed in this paper represent a particular time period of homeschooling. The “early adopters” of homeschooling in the late 80s and 90s may be quite different on average than graduates from more recent years. All of this to say that it is difficult to generalize about homeschoolers since the family context and even the societal context can considerably modify the effect of homeschooling experiences. Additional research with larger samples of randomly selected homeschoolers will be necessary to chart these important potential differences in the effect of homeschooling.
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