Friday, June 4, 2010

I'm starting to dislike Running Start

Up until recently, Running Start (RS hereafter) was a pretty good idea for homeschooled students who wanted to knock off two years of college at state expense. Now, new restrictions that let the local high school decide eligibility have pretty much trashed the program, and I'm going to advise you homeschoolers in WA to think carefully about your participation.

I teach at a local community college.

I've always had some cautions about RS. Sixteen-year-olds in an adult environment is something you parents need to think carefully about. Assignments can get tossed their way and presentations in class might be something you would wish could wait to have your teen exposed to. And you don't get to ask the instructor how your student is doing, because Federal privacy laws prevent instructors from communicating with anyone but the student about grades. Community college instructors are generally of a liberal bent, and are pretty careless about family and spiritual values. There's a college-wide embrace of rabid environmentalism and Darwinism. Be prepared. In some cases, it's like tossing your kids to the lions. Daniel was about 80 when he got tossed to the lions, and VERY few 16-year-olds (well, let's say I've never met ANY) have the spiritual foundation that Daniel had spent a lifetime accumulating. Don't do it just because Christians should be 'in the world but not of the world'. Your teen will likely get devoured.

But some thrive. They find the good instructors and take more courses from them. They show up in my classes, looking and acting like they are 22 years old. They are focused, wonderful students, and a joy to have in class.

Some don't thrive. I took a phone call recently from a parent of a student who needed RS credits to graduate from a local high school. The student didn't care much about the college classes (not ones I teach) and trashed his GPA. Now the student is stuck with a college transcript that doesn't look too good.

For these reasons, I've advised homeschoolers to wait until the student is at least 17, and even 18 or 19, because RS quarters could be paid for by the state until the student was 21.

That's the rule that's changed.

The local high school, which must sign off on the homeschooler going to RS, determines eligibility. If the parent has registered the 14-year-old with the school district as a freshman, then that child at 16 years old is a junior. Since RS quarters must be taken by the senior year, you must start at 16 if you want the state to pay for those first two years.

Before I make a recommendation, let's look at a statistic.

At the community college where I teach, there are over 800 students enrolled in RS. Half of them should be receiving an Associate's degree this spring term, but the total number of graduates this quarter is 33. That's less than 5% of students who are participating in RS. Generously presuming that there will be RS students graduating each term, and the maximum number is 15%. Not that many students in RS are actually finishing an AA degree in two years. This doesn't surprise me. Despite opinions I've heard, community colleges are NOT glorified high schools. It's harder here. Some high schoolers drown. Some just need from 1 to 3 quarters to finish, but suddenly someone has to pay for those credits, and it won't be the state.

So here's my recommendation.

1. Your focus on using RS should be to get the best education possible for your child. It is one of several educational options you have available, and your focus should be the quality of the education that is appropriate for your child, not the possible cost savings of college, which I will tell you is very expensive these days. Preparing your child to do well in academia is a much more important goal than knocking off two years of college by age 18. A well-prepared student will have doors and scholarships and grants open to them that a student with a lousy track record does not. Do not, DO NOT saddle your student with a bad college track record because their maturity was not up to the work required. Even if you have a gifted student, be cautious and selective about the courses you choose at the community college. Find out who teaches the best classes and take those classes because that's the best education you can find for your student.

2. Do not, DO NOT consider RS as a way to pay for college. As stated above, that less-than-stellar track record accumulated during RS can actually COST you money in the long haul. Those students will have to pay for re-taking classes before they can move on, even if that's years down the road. It would be better to have NO record than a bad record, or even just a moderate record. The university to which the student applies cares nothing for the age of the student at the time s/he earned a C in college chemistry.

3. Four year colleges often have integrated courses of study for freshmen and sophomores designed to help them get to know themselves. At private religious colleges this will include some solid coursework in Biblical studies. If your student comes in as a sophomore or junior, s/he will miss some or all of this very valuable foundation. This is perhaps less important for older students who have a focus on a degree from their experience from work or having traveled or served in the military, but I don't recommend bypassing this for students under age 20. Plan to go to a 4-year college, especially a private college, as a freshman. Spend four years there.

4. Avoid the possibility of that bad college record and use the local public and private high schools more. Again, if you're homeschooling, stay in charge of your child's education, but find the best instructors and get your child in front of them. These folks can inspire students dramatically, and end up setting a life's course for them. You remember who they were from your own education. Even if it's just a single course, get your student in front of that teacher. These can be just as demanding as college courses, but your student won't be stuck with a college transcript if they give a less than stellar performance. They could instead end up gaining the maturity they need to perform in those college classes.

Running Start? Please don't be enchanted by possible dollars saved with this program. Study the possibilities, evaluate your child, and choose wisely.