Home College: an Idea Whose Time Has Come (Again)

“Maybe you should home-college,” I joked to a highly educated Ph.D. friend—doctorate in medieval history, two master’s, several years of adjunct teaching experience in three fields. She was worried about how she would pay for her own offspring’s eventual college education on her tiny salary, if she did not soon land a full-time job, preferably on the tenure track.

As the words hung in the air, the idea’s utility seemed obvious. Thousands of qualified, trained, energetic, and underemployed Ph.D.s are struggling to find stable teaching jobs. Tens of thousands of parents are struggling to pay for a good college education for their children. Home-schooling at the secondary-school level has proved itself an adequate substitute for public or private high school. Could a private home-college arrangement work as a kind of Airbnb or Uber for higher education?

I don’t think I am overstating the qualifications of many of my fellow academics in the humanities to say that any one of them could provide, singlehandedly, a first-rate first-year college education in the liberal arts. The colleague whom I kidded about home-colleging is qualified to teach expository writing, multiple languages (introductory Latin, French, and Italian), medieval history, European history, art history, and a variety of literature courses. Another colleague could  teach American history, introduction to political theory, introduction to philosophy, African-American literature, and expository writing. Another could teach Surrealism, intro to cognitive science, film, neuroscience, linguistics, and Spanish. I know others who could teach calculus, the history of science, European history, classical literature, film, and art history.

These young, versatile scholars know their fields. They know the latest scholarship. They know the arguments, debates, intellectual divisions, discredited ideas, and trends. They know the publishers, the textbooks, the thought leaders, the disciplinary boundaries. They know how to write.

If MOOCs offer a high-tech alternative approach to brick-and-mortar higher education, home-colleging represents a radically different, more human approach.  The instructor would be a new iteration of the old-fashioned tutor: a highly educated personal instructor to the offspring of royalty, aristocracy, and gentry in centuries past. Nicholas Hans wrote in New Trends in Education in the Eighteenth Century, “The post of a private tutor to scions of a famous house was both honourable and lucrative. Many outstanding men of science readily accepted such posts which brought them the income and the patronage of some influential statesman or a peer.” John Locke was tutor to the young philosopher and freethinker Anthony Ashley-Cooper, third Earl of Shaftesbury. Locke later wrote, in Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693):

“I am sure, he who is able to be at the charge of a tutor at home, may there give his son a more genteel carriage, more manly thoughts, and a sense of what is worthy and becoming, with a greater proficiency in learning into the bargain, and ripen him up sooner into a man, than any at school can do. Not that I blame the schoolmaster in this, or think it to be laid to his charge. The difference is great between two or three pupils in the same house, and three or four score boys lodg’d up and down: for let the master’s industry and skill be never so great, it is impossible he should have fifty or an hundred scholars under his eye, any longer than they are in the school together: Nor can it be expected, that he should instruct them successfully in any thing but their books.”

Jumping to the present day, students in large lecture courses recorded for online learning may find themselves forbidden to ask questions. Home-tutored students can ask all the questions they want.

As a matter of economics, why not consider the option of hiring a single professor to teach a first-year curriculum to a small number of students? At the level of the individual student, it may make sense to some families. Rather than spend $50,000 for a year of college at a selective private institution, one could hire a single Ivy League-trained individual with a doctorate and qualifications in multiple fields for, say, two-thirds the price (far more than an adjunct professor would make for teaching five courses at an average of $2,700 per course).

The idea becomes more attractive with multiple students. A half-dozen families (or the students themselves) could pool resources to hire a single professor, who would provide all six students with a tailored first-year liberal-arts education (leaving aside laboratory science) at a cost much lower than six private-college tuitions, and at the level of a real salary for a good sole-proprietor professor.

A low-cost, high-value first-year education would allow students to transfer into a traditional degree-granting institution at a second- or third-year level, saving a year or more of tuition. Home-colleged students would have a year of personal attention to writing skills, research skills, oral-presentation skills, and the relationship of disciplines in the liberal arts.  The attention to oral and written skills may be particularly valuable to non-English-speaking students looking to succeed at an American college or university.

Accreditation is key, but if the problem has been solved at the secondary-school level for home schooling, why not in higher education? A licensed home-college professor may very well be more qualified than a university department chair to demonstrate student learning. A home-college “transcript” system would record every student and every syllabus, accompanied by a graded final exam or final paper. There would be no slipping through the cracks for home-colleged students.

Home college may be an idea whose time has come again.  I’m putting together a list of highly qualified, underpaid, underemployed, gifted instructors now. I’ve even got a platform:

Hollis Robbins is chair of humanities at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University.

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