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Rethinking Higher-Ed
Home-Schooling for Higher Ed

Here’s a new idea for the thousands of underemployed PhDs competing for the dwindling tenure-track jobs: college by homeschooling. Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, JHU’s Hollis Robbins proposes that students, either alone or in small groups, hire trained PhDs to be their own private professors. This is basically tutoring at the collegiate level:

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. […]

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.

This may seem like a fringe proposal, but we see several advantages: for starters, more one-on-one access to professors and tailor-made lesson plans. Depending on the specific arrangements between teachers and students, there could be major cost savings as well. If the student lives at home, he wouldn’t need to pay for room, board, facilities, administrators, or whole academic departments whose halls he would never darken over four years in a traditional college. Students could boost their savings, at a relatively small cost in one-on-one time, by grouping together to hire teachers.

This approach may not be for everyone, but for many it would be a smart twist on the standard college model. To us, it sounds like an interesting way of addressing a reform goal we’ve talked about frequently: the need for colleges to move away from a system that rewards students based on the number of credit hours they rack up (the time-served model), and to move toward a system that rewards them for what they know (a stuff-learned model).

We would love to see some enterprising students or academics take a chance on this idea, or something like it. One of the keys to making it work is a standardized, college-level assessment that would make it easy to measure the performance of home-tutored college students against that of their traditional college peers.

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  • Vadim Pashkov

    Than in the next generation we will have even more uneplyed Ph.D

  • Jim__L

    It’s scary that it would be more cost-efficient for a small group of students to hire a professor than would be for those students to pay tuition to attend a university.

    But, if you think about it, how much does an adjunct make, per class? $5k? (How many hours does that take up, for them?) How much does a years’ tuition cost? $40k? That’s eight classes. And that’s if one student is paying one teacher.

    Have ten students pool their resources for a year to support two professors. Say that each student pays half price — $20k per year. That’s still $100k per prof, per year. Not great when you consider the amount of overhead they have to cover out of that cash, but keep that low, and they’re a heck of a lot better off than adjuncts.

    Why in the world was this ever considered a “fringe” proposal?

    • Should have read your comment before I posted mine… ah well. Of course, the real issue is the accreditation barriers to getting student loans. The way things are set up, money flows to the legacy model, allowing them to pay more to the university president and football coaches in one year than most brain surgeons make in ten.

  • qet

    Is the US university-industrial complex really going to sit by and permit students (in non-trivial numbers) to spend their freshman tuition dollars on privatdozents and then enter university as sophomores or juniors obligated to pay only 3 or 2 years’ tuition? HA!

    • Jim__L

      Well, we just have to make sure we ignore their attempts to make their “permission” required.

  • DirtyJobsGuy

    Just remember 1 name “A. Lincoln” and you must conclude that much formal education is not required when the student is truly motivated.

    • CombatMissionary

      “Never let your schooling get in the way of your education.”

      -Apocryphally attributed to Mark Twain

  • Another twist on the proposal: what if students pooled the money they would pay per credit hour for a quarter, and hired a professor directly? Ever see a class with 200 students in it, each paying $1000 for the quarter? That’s $200K of buying power for acquiring the best tutelage, and the cost of the meeting space/supplies. Gone are administrative bloat and programs directors, the homecoming banquet, manicured lawns, but maybe all of that isn’t worth years of debt?

  • catorenasci

    This idea harkens back to the origins of the universities in the medieval world. Students paid professors fees directly to attend their classes. Moreover, it recalls the tutorial system in Oxford and Cambridge. And, it recalls the ‘private educations’ that the upper reaches of European aristocracies gave children in the 18th and 19th centuries when those young men did not generally go to universities. It probably gets considerably closer to the essence of a good, traditional liberal arts education than anything in any of our contemporary colleges and universities.

    One suspects individual tutoring would be prohibitively expensive for all but the wealthy – since this wouldn’t be eligible for any financial aid or loans – but if a group of half a dozen or a dozen students got together to arrange a course or series of courses, it could work quite well with fees that would be reasonable to the students and reasonable to the professor when aggregated.

    I know people in the home schooling movement in New York City who have done something quite like that with particular courses – a decade or so ago, dozen or fifteen families hired PhD holders or doctoral candidates working on their dissertations to teach a courses in political philosophy, history, and mathematics. I understand that this sort of thing is more and more common in the homeschooling movement.

    It’s only a matter of time

  • InklingBooks

    Sounds marvelous, but don’t forget that the more well-off British have used private tutors for many generations. C. S. Lewis was tutored by W. T. Kirkpatrick and always said that he benefited greatly from it. Today, it’s no longer necessary for the tutor or student to live-in. They could be half-the-world apart.

    These tutors could also take advantage of flipping class and tutoring time. Student could take online courses for the equivalent of lectures, and spend one-to-one time discussing them and their readings with their tutors.

    Just don’t forget that established universities may resist this by refusing to give accreditation for this tutoring. There’ll probably need to be some formal structure with standards and tests to get around that.

    –Michael W. Perry,

    • Nate Whilk

      Bertrand Russell, 3rd Earl Russell, philosopher, mathematician, and sometime pacifist, is another example of someone educated by tutors. This is a quote from his “The Functions of a Teacher” (which can be found on the Web):

      “Something called education is given to everybody, usually by the State, but sometimes by
      the Churches. The teacher has thus become, in the vast majority of cases, a civil servant obliged to carry out the behests of men who have not his learning, who have no experience of dealing with the young, and whose only attitude towards education is that of the propagandist.”

      Of course, one man’s propagandist is another man’s truth teller, and today’s teachers learning is sometimes less than that of his students’ parents.

  • As others have said, this is a “back to the future” notion in a number of ways. People who find the idea attractive should look at the “house model” of organization (just like Harry Potter) as a way to group “home-colleged” students together. That’s the missing component, and what would make these independent learning proposals take off. The Collegiate Way website ( is the central resource on the house model. Here are some links to particular pages there that would fit well with this home schooling proposal; the first one is called “From Charter Schools to Charter Colleges”:

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