Do you have a homeschooled teen who’s trying to decide whether to take college classes under Minnesota’s PSEO program? Perhaps a teen who’d like to explore PSEO, but wonders how many and what type of classes to take? We wrestled with those questions recently in our family. This article gives a brief overview of the PSEO program, highlights some of the issues our family ran into on the PSEO path, and explains how we dealt with those issues.

What is the PSEO program?

The Post-Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program allows Minnesota high school juniors and seniors to take college classes. The students get an opportunity to work at the college level while also earning college credits. The Minnesota Department of Education pays for tuition and books. Many homeschoolers have participated in PSEO over the years, including our son Andy, who’s currently enrolled in the PSEO program at the Twin Cities Campus of the University of Minnesota.

There are many good resources for “nuts and bolts” information about PSEO. A simple Google search of “PSEO Minnesota” registers over 10,000 hits. However, it’s probably easiest to start with the Minnesota college you’re interested in. Colleges are not required to participate in the PSEO program, but many of them do. If your college of choice participates in PSEO, it’s likely to have information about PSEO on its website. Each college sets its own PSEO admission requirements. Application forms are often available online, or can be ordered by telephone. The University of Minnesota maintains a website with general information about the PSEO requirements of many 4-year colleges and universities, community colleges and vocational/technical colleges. It also provides links to the statutes governing PSEO, and provides application forms and other information specific to the University of Minnesota. The address for that site is http://www.cce.umn.edu/ahs/.  (Update 8/13: The U of M has since changed the web address of its PSEO information. It is now located at: http://www.cce.umn.edu/Post-Secondary-Enrollment-Options/)

You’ll want to take a very close look at the PSEO admissions policies of your potential colleges a couple of years before your teen is eligible for PSEO. Some colleges require scores from certain standardized tests that are generally given in the fall (e.g., the PLAN, PSAT, ACT or SAT). If your teen wants to attend a college requiring such test scores, he or she may need to take the relevant test a full year before starting college classes. To avoid a time squeeze, check now on the PSEO admission requirements for the colleges you’re interested in.

Why take PSEO classes?

We had an awkward start with PSEO. Our son Andy wasn’t very interested in taking college classes when we first broached the subject. I guess this shouldn’t have surprised us. Our family believes very strongly in interest-led learning. We’ve found over the years that all of us – kids and parents alike – learn best when we’re pursuing something we really want to know, as opposed to something society thinks we ought to know. Andy had found that he could learn very well without taking formal classes, so he wasn’t thrilled with the idea of taking college courses through PSEO. Given our philosophy of interest-led learning, we (his parents) weren’t in a great position to argue that Andy “should” take college classes even if he wasn’t interested in doing so. We could, however, try to get him interested in college-level work, so that’s what we did.

We tried to look critically at the college experience and explain why we thought Andy might find it useful. Each family will have its own perspective on the merits of taking college classes, but we found it helpful to think about the following.

College degrees can be an important “ticket” in our culture. The academic knowledge you acquire in college may or may not help you earn a living. However, a college degree is often required to gain entry into certain occupations. The PSEO program can either help a student get that ticket, or help the student make an informed decision not to get that ticket.

The experience of a college education and all that it entails (academically, socially, financially, etc.) may help broaden a student’s perspective. Our view is that college is often far more valuable for the exposure you get to new people, thoughts, and experiences, than for the “academic knowledge” you gain in the classroom.

There is a fairly strong cultural expectation that someone who is able to get a college degree will actually do so. Personal experience with college helps in dealing with that expectation. When the subject comes up, it can be much more satisfying to say “I’ve tried it and found that it didn’t suit me,” than to say “I’ve never tried it.”

PSEO classes are essentially cost-free, and college is very expensive. It makes some sense to take advantage of the PSEO cost savings while they’re available to you, whether or not you ultimately choose to get a college degree.

In fairness, we also spoke with Andy about the risks we see in pursuing a college degree. First, it’s not clear whether the benefits of a college degree will outweigh its substantial cost. For some a degree will pay off handsomely, and for others it will not. Second, we’re concerned that college may funnel some people into work situations or lifestyles that may not be as satisfying as those they would have created if left to their own devices. Many graduates leave college with high financial goals and equally high debt. Understandably, this can fuel a desire for a high-paying job to service the debt, whether the work is satisfying or not. Some have trouble stepping off the treadmill of debt, work, more debt, more work, and so on. This situation is not unique to college graduates, and it will vary greatly from person to person. Nonetheless, our belief is that college can increase the risk of getting caught in that trap.

We had an interesting discussion with Andy. Mom and Dad made it clear that they thought he would benefit from taking some college classes. He was not particularly interested at first, but became more so as we talked about our college years and the various issues outlined above. What finally appeared to sell him on the idea was that he realized he could try this for a semester and simply drop it if it didn’t work out. If nothing else, he figured, he would at least see for himself what his parents were talking about!

What type of classes should you take, and how many?

After Andy decided to pursue PSEO, he had to decide what type of classes to take, and how many of them. There are probably as many views on these subjects as there are families. Some feel that homeschooled students should use PSEO for subjects that require specialized equipment or knowledge, like chemistry or physics, since those subjects can be challenging to learn at home. It’s also often said that students should take a “full load” of PSEO classes, since this can save two years’ worth of college tuition, and cut two years off the typical four-year bachelor’s degree program.

We talked about those options, but found that they didn’t fit with Andy’s reason for participating in the PSEO program. He decided to take college classes largely because he became interested in finding out about college life. He wanted to continue to pursue his existing interests, but in a college setting. Once that goal was clear, it was obvious that Andy should start with subjects that he was already interested in and comfortable with. This reduced the likelihood that he would be put off by the experience, and helped ensure that he wouldn’t be overwhelmed by unfamiliar courses in an unfamiliar environment. We also suggested that he get some college experience with one or two classes, and decide later whether he wanted to go full-time.

This strategy has worked well. In his first semester, Andy took a one-credit on-line course on “campus life” that the U recommends for in-coming freshman, and a 3-credit introductory course in environmental science – a subject he cares deeply about. Neither of those classes put him in uncharted waters. Since he didn’t have to wrestle with subjects that were foreign to him, Andy was able to comfortably get exposure to college life at the age of 16. He also had time left over to be with his friends and pursue his other interests.

Andy has chosen to continue taking classes at the U because he finds college life and college coursework … well … interesting. This semester, he’s taking a 3-credit course called “Indigenous Peoples: A Minnesota Perspective.” Perhaps he’ll eventually get a college degree, and perhaps not. In our view, though, he’s already gotten from PSEO what we hoped he would get: personal experience that will help him make informed decisions about college when he’s done with high school.

(This article was written by Ken Pearson and published in The Grapevine in 2005.)