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The Coming of K–12 School Choice Will Also Change Higher Education

School choice at the primary and secondary levels will have salutary effects for colleges and universities.

Little,Boy,Reading,A,Book,Under,Big,Linden,Tree
Credit: Soloviova Liudmyla

Ever since June of 2022, when Arizona became the first state to legalize universal school choice, the adoption of this K–12th grade reform has accelerated beyond even its longtime boosters’ wildest dreams. Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, and West Virginia have all enacted policies that fund families to educate their kids, not just at the local public school, but at a private school, a homeschool, an online academy, a tutoring service, or a parent-run micro-school.

According to recent polling from RealClear Opinion Research, which surveyed 1,000 registered voters, the legalization of school choice is no longer just a conservative or Republican priority; 66 percent of Democrats and 69 percent of independents now say they too are in favor of it. Eight states with partial school choice programs—Alabama, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Wyoming—are seen as likely to make them universal within a year, and Governor Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, is working to expand choice for purple Pennsylvania.

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As school choice policies proliferate, education experts have naturally focused on associated K–12th grade issues. How, for example, can the growing number of families who want to homeschool, either on their own or in neighborhood collaboratives, evaluate the effectiveness of various online courses? Should private tutors be certified? And to what extent should homeschooled children and those in small private schools have access to public school athletic and science facilities?

In any case, over the coming decade, the growing number of children who are being educated outside of a traditional public school—or even outside a conventional private or parochial school—will be headed for the next level. The changes which are now happening to primary and secondary schooling will have profound implications for higher education.

Take admissions, for example. It was one thing for college and university admissions officers to deal with applicants from diverse academic backgrounds when that meant the differences between a traditional independent school and the typical public school. But with the rise of micro-schools, online academies, and other programs using curricula matched to the unique learning styles and interests of each child, identifying those students who are ready for college becomes a very different challenge.

According to the National Microschooling Center, there are already an estimated 125,000 micro-schools operating across the U.S., collectively teaching around 1.5 million students. As Kerry McDonald, Education Fellow at the Foundation for Economic Freedom, has observed, the education one may provide is “nothing like” what another may do.

At the very least, the emerging K–12 landscape will require many colleges and universities to reverse their position on objective testing, which has become increasingly unfashionable in recent years. Beginning in 2022, MIT took the lead in requiring applicants to once again submit their SAT or ACT scores, saying the university views these exams as the most effective way to identify talented students in today’s environment.

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If one thing will likely be different about the coming return to testing, it is the availability of more diverse assessments, allowing admissions departments to define for themselves what they mean by “prepared” for college. Already more than 250 religious and mission-oriented schools, such as Hillsdale, accept the 8-year-old Classical Learning Test (CLT), which emphasizes mastery of ancient literature and history, in place of the SAT or ACT.

As for the college experience itself, it will likely be shorter for many applicants. With so many K-12th grade students now being educated in ways that best match their interests and learning abilities, many will arrive on campus far more advanced in their knowledge of college level material than today’s freshmen. A recent graduate of a STEM focused micro-school, for example, could easily be ready for upper-level courses from day one. Just as someone who has come from one of the increasingly popular “forest-sited” micro-schools across the US may already know more about ecology than someone with a bachelor’s in it.

While a more condensed undergraduate education, reduced from the equivalent of four years to perhaps three or even less, means fewer nights and weekends for the lighter side of college life, it also means the cost of a degree will be significantly less than it otherwise would have been. And for the more elite colleges and universities, it means the ability to accept a larger number of applicants without having to expand the school’s physical plant.

Research suggests that more students going to college from K–12th grade placements suited to their individual learning styles will significantly reduce the current high percentage of undergraduates suffering from anxiety, depression, and other emotional disorders. In a recent study titled “The Effects of School Choice on Mental Health” for the journal School Effectiveness and School Improvement, Western Carolina University Professor Angela Dills found that high school students in states with school choice were less prone to suicide and had a lower likelihood of mental health problems later in life.

The ability of school choice to accommodate diverse learning styles also promises to restore the lopsided gender balance which has developed at most colleges and universities, with the ratio of women to men averaging 60 percent to 40 percent. A major reason for this, according to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, is that the structure of public education, which requires students to sit quietly for long periods, academically favors young girls, whose ability to concentrate develops much sooner than boys’. The result is that young males not only do less well in class but are therefore less qualified for financial assistance when they apply to college.

Finally, school choice will enable colleges and universities to realize their desire for a more diverse student body without having to violate the recent Supreme Court ruling declaring affirmative action policies unconstitutional. According to a 2021 study by Albert Cheng of the University of Arkansas and Paul E. Peterson at Harvard, minority students from lower-income households who have publicly funded access to alternative K–12th grade placements are 30 percent more likely to go onto college and, once admitted, 70 percent more likely to get a degree.

People may think of school choice as a conservative policy, says Peter Murphy, vice-president of Albany, New York’s Invest in Education, but it “is one of the most progressive policies I can think of. It gives low-income families access to the same kinds of schooling as rich kids.”