(First published in 2018)
In 1990, I graduated from The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. While working as a young chef in Iowa, I was invited to consult and collaborate with a team of chefs and our local community college district. The college intended to introduce a new culinary arts apprenticeship degree to the area. It would be the first of its kind in our state. I loved This kind of big project, and I loved building programs. My passion shone through in my work, so despite lacking a master’s degree, they hired me to run the program I’d helped create! It was a tremendous job, but it felt like playtime;
I found a sense of purpose in college administration, the perfect use of my skill set.
Years later, when my husband and I started a family, a switch flipped in my head, and, just like that, I knew my most important job was being a mom. So, I quit working full-time and focused on building our family. My college employer was terrific. Rather than let me totally leave, they allowed me to stay on in any capacity I wanted—I could name it. So, I arranged a situation that allowed me to teach part-time while retaining my role as Chairman of Culinary Apprenticeship. At a time before remote work was famous, this was as close to perfect as I could ask for, and I kept that schedule for almost two decades.
Over time, we had more children, and I started homeschooling them. Pre-internet homeschooling was a lonely proposition. I relied on homeschool books and magazines to “connect” me to other homeschooling parents and to keep me inspired. In real life, I knew maybe one or two people who were homeschooling their children. As time went on, and my oldest was in about 7th grade, I felt incredible doubt that I’d have the ability to get him into college. Even though I was a good homeschool mom, I wasn’t sure I’d be a good homeschool guidance counselor. I strongly considered sending our kids “to school” once they hit 9th grade.
I started reading everything I could find about how to get a homeschooled teen into college. The selection was tiny (which just added to my fear), so I started looking for general information on college admissions. I was unfamiliar with much of the “college application process” as it appeared in these books since I’d attended a culinary program, not a four-year university. I discovered that the mountain of information was really for one type of student—the traditional student scholar who wanted to apply to a competitive college.
Every source I found was the same content with a different cover, designed to ensure the student would fit the mold of what colleges expected in an applicant. Alternatives like distance learning, military, apprenticeship, trade school, or community college were always presented in a negative light. Having spent two decades working in the community college system and the world of apprenticeship, I knew that some positives were being left out. Sure, there were pros and cons, but almost everything I found made me feel like a second-class citizen for even considering community college for my kids. I still felt unsure of how to navigate the process, so I kept looking for help.
My research looked like a giant Venn diagram. Set 1 contained mainstream traditional colleges—only relevant to homeschool families with solid academics, a big savings account, or scholarship potential. This set wasn’t very “homeschool friendly” if you were average or didn’t follow a high school recipe perfectly. Set 2 held alternative college options that I didn’t understand. These included correspondence programs, alternative training, unaccredited schools, new “online colleges,” and many less-than-appealing choices. At the time, nothing at the intersection of these two sets applied to homeschool families. I wondered where average homeschooled kids went to college?
When my trusted homeschool magazines wrote about “homeschool friendly” colleges, I knew we’d have an uphill battle due to the limited options this involved at the time. I had to prepare to take what we could get. It looked like the individuality we’d celebrated as a homeschool family was coming to a screeching halt. It was time to play ball.
While I worried at home about how my children would attend college, there was a big problem brewing at work, and I had no idea how it would change my life forever. Our program wasn’t graduating students—at all. We’d admit about 30 apprentices each year, but in a good year, we’d graduate just 1 or 2. You see, our apprentices were required to work full-time during their apprenticeship. Their related education happened on campus each Monday, so this arrangement worked perfectly for them (and me), and almost all of our students made it to their last semester. In their final semester, they all hit a brick wall. The last semester presented an impossible situation. Since our college didn’t offer a special “Monday only” option for their general education courses, our students would save those 4-5 courses for the end. Though not official policy, if an apprentice wanted to graduate with a degree, they’d have to quit their job. It was impossible to be in two places at once, so overwhelmingly, students chose to walk away from their degree. For them, a job held more value than a piece of paper. This was a big problem—a problem that I could fix today, but I couldn’t fix it then. Back then, I didn’t know about CLEP.
Back at home, one of the college books I read mentioned Advanced Placement and CLEP exams to earn college credit without spending time in a classroom. (Credit by exam). Suspicious of the idea, I asked my colleagues in the testing center if this was legitimate. They assured me that it was legitimate, that we were an official CLEP testing center. I also learned that our students could complete 75% of their degree through CLEP exams.
Despite having 14 years of student advising under my belt, I’d never even heard the word CLEP! When I looked it up, sure enough, it was buried deep inside my student advising manual. Why was I left to learn about this on my own? The answer was simple. Colleges have no incentive to offer this kind of information to their students. When students use exams like AP or CLEP, colleges don’t receive tuition dollars, meet student enrollment numbers, or sell textbooks. It’s not that colleges are lying; it’s merely a case of remaining quiet. As I started researching the acceptance of CLEP, AP, and other credit by exam companies, I found that almost every college in the country accepted credit by exam in some amount. Also, the general education courses required of my apprentices could have all been met through CLEP. Had I been trained to talk to my students about CLEP, I could have graduated hundreds of students walking around today as SCNC. SCNC is the official college term for “some credit, no credential,” and about 40 million adults are in that category. This includes the students I couldn’t help.
That day changed everything for me. I was determined to help my students finish their apprenticeships and graduate with their degrees by using CLEP exams for their general education courses. But first, I had to know if they were too hard to pass. I picked up a Psychology textbook from our bookstore, read the book, and took the multiple-choice CLEP exam. I passed. Wow. Did I earn three college credits? In an hour? So, I did it again. And again. Using books our campus was throwing away, I read chapter after chapter while holding my nursing baby or after our homeschool day ended. Since pursuing higher education was outside our family’s budget, I funded my CLEP testing by saving coins in a jar. When I’d saved enough, I emptied my jar and took an exam. After passing an exam, I started saving again. Some people play bridge; I played CLEP. I was hooked!
After six months, I’d passed enough exams to earn an associate’s degree. I’ll skip ahead and tell you that I enrolled as a distance-learning student at Thomas Edison State University (formerly Thomas Edison State College). TESU is a fully accredited state university that is very CLEP-friendly. I already qualified for an AA degree, and in the following months, I took online courses, local college courses, and other upper-level credit-by-exam tests. I finished my bachelor’s degree in 18 months with NO school debt—all while homeschooling, raising four young children, while nursing, and changing diapers.
I knew that some variation of this plan could work with my older son. Still, I realized that the process I’d followed, as an adult with adult experience and time management skills, wasn’t likely to work for high school kids or teens. For my children and my culinary students, I no longer had to experiment to see if it could be done (fast, cheap, and within the parameters of a legitimate degree). Now, it was time to draw wisdom from my experience and be a good steward of the knowledge I’d gained so I could transform it into a usable plan for them. Despite my excitement, many “yeah, buts” came my way. Yeah, but what about science? That’s a good question, so I completed a pre-med science program and earned acceptance into four competitive nursing programs. I didn’t really want to be a nurse or doctor, but I did want to know if virtual sciences, tested-out credits, and distance learning classes were sufficient to gain admission into those kinds of programs—they were.
Yeah, but what about grad school? Surely, you can’t get into graduate school if you use CLEP. Also a good question, so I applied to seven graduate schools. Acceptance letters for all seven followed. Yeah, but what about advanced academics? If I self-studied, could I learn enough to hold my own once I entered graduate school? That question was tricky; I wondered that, too. I decided to apply for a Master of Science program open only to Registered Dietitians (though I’m not one). I made a case for admission in my essay, arguing that I’d taught culinary nutrition for years and that the science courses I took through distance learning should be viewed as equivalent to the sequence taken by dietitians in their undergraduate study. I was accepted, and on May 14, 2014, I graduated from Canisius University (formerly Canisius College) with a Master of Science degree in Applied Nutrition.
My science knowledge was frequently tested in that program (in fairness, my biochemistry knowledge is well below standard). Still, I graduated wearing an honor cord, something my traditionally educated cohorts did not earn. My GPA was in the top 2% of graduate students that year, which earned me entrance to the Alpha Sigma Nu national honor society.
One final test—what about getting a job? Can you get a job if you use CLEP or distance learning? What will employers think? Degree in hand, this 44-year-old homeschooling mother of 4 walked into the most prestigious university in my state and applied for a nutrition research position. With zero research experience, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill hired me to work with their world-renowned scientists at the Nutrition Research Institute (they’ve been on Oprah). The principal investigator told me she didn’t think they’d be able to “get me” for the job given my “impressive background” (side note: my first associate degree was from a trade school with the wrong kind of accreditation, my second associate degree was earned entirely via CLEP in 6 months, my bachelor’s degree was online classes and virtual sciences, and my graduate degree in was earned entirely online) but they did “get me” and I enjoyed my time at UNC-Chapel Hill. I quit after the clinical trial ended. After all, I had kids to homeschool.
This brings me to today. My story may sound like pride or an attempt to impress, but it’s neither—it’s about dispelling myths. Every step of the way, I’ve tested high school myths, homeschool myths, curriculum myths, distance learning myths, employment myths, scholarship myths, college transfer myths, student loan myths, and dozens more. I’ve found that 99.99% of them are full of bull. Scary “yeah, buts” can prevent parents from taking steps in a direction that can help them accomplish great things. Do you know how often people told me something “couldn’t happen” or “wasn’t allowed,” only to find out later that they were wrong? Eventually, testing other people’s myths becomes boring, expensive, and a waste of time! If I leave you with one impression, I hope it is to be brave when other people are trying to scare you. The truth is that most people never challenge any of the myths they believe, yet they’ll impress them on you as if they were the truth.
If you’re a homeschooling family, I already know you’re brave. I also know you’ve made a great sacrifice to line your kids up with a good education and a bright future. You already have the foundation to handle this next season or stage easily; you must find your confidence! Much of the high school to college process is designed to intimidate you into compliance, so by the time you’ve read hundreds of web pages, applied to dozens of colleges, are willing to mortgage your home, and tap your 401(k), you’re so beaten down that you’ll gladly send your child to any college that will take them. Instead of surrendering your authority to the experts, I hope you’ll be inspired to take on the role of the expert in your homeschool. Since founding the Homeschooling for College Credit organization, I’ve met thousands of homeschooling families. Almost every parent fears what I feared and wants what I wanted. We all want to graduate our children from our homeschool, to help them earn a legitimate college degree or trade certificate, to get them on track for a self-supporting career, and not go bankrupt in the process. If those are your family’s goals, they align with mine, too, and you should find this book a tremendous resource for you.
Our family now lives in North Carolina, a fantastic state to Homeschool for College Credit. I’ve graduated four sons from our homeschool and ended my educational experiment. What began as the uncertainty of homeschool graduation, college admission, and college completion is now a reality for us and the 59,000 families in my nonprofit organization. Thank you for reading my story, and when you’ve finished homeschooling your teen, I hope you’ll send me your story to share with our community. There is no end to the happy stories just like mine that I read every day!
The above photos shared by HS4CC families with permission.