What Are They Doing Now — The Answers

– Guest Post by Whitney Muscato


In introduction:The last post was a survey of grown unschoolers and homeschoolers, plus Sudbury school graduates, on behalf of my younger sister Whitney. She is writing a research paper for a college class, and she chose to look at the pursued fields of work and study by adults who homeschooled. As promised, we wanted to share the findings, and invited Whitney to write this guest post.

The tricky thing, of course, is to draw conclusions from a relatively small and self-selecting sample. Still, I think it’s pretty interesting stuff. — Lindsey


I sent out a survey on social media, looking for grown homeschoolers, unschoolers, and Sudbury-type school graduates to answer a few questions about their higher education and career choices. I was particularly interested to find out how many people with alternative educations have gone into STEM fields (Science / Technology / Engineering / Mathematics), and how many have gone into the arts. 

My sister was nice enough to post my survey here on this blog, and I would like to thank everyone who sent their info or sent the survey to others. Also, it is not too late, if you still want to participate. (See the survey here.)

Here is a taste of my findings so far (as slightly edited from my first draft of my research paper):

I received 143 responses, mostly from homeschoolers and unschoolers, but also a few from former Sudbury students. Many respondents did alternative education all of their schooling until college, but others started or ended their school careers in traditional school settings. Respondents averaged 10.4 years of alternative education per person. By necessity, this survey was self-selected rather than scientifically representative of all students of “alt-ed” programs.

Based on my small sample, people with alternative educations have a much higher rate of STEM jobs than do the traditionally schooled population.

According to government statistics, only 16% of high school seniors in the U.S. are interested in going into a STEM career, and only half of those who major in STEM fields actually work in those fields. “Risk ecologist” Robert N. Charette provides similar numbers, writing that from 5.5 to 8% of Americans work in STEM careers, depending on what is included in STEM. In contrast, 35% of the respondents to my survey of homeschoolers and unschoolers have or are pursuing STEM careers. One of the founders of Sudbury Valley School, Mimsy Sadofsky, claims that the SVS alumni also have a higher percentage in computer and mathematical fields than does society at large.

Considering the importance of parents’ interests and careers in creating a family culture, and therefore parents’ influence on their kids’ career aspirations, I asked about the careers of my respondents’ parents. The results were surprising: almost 60% of all of the respondents had at least one parent in a STEM field—impressive when compared to the fact that only 8% of Americans in general work in STEM fields.

I also found careers in the arts in far higher percentages compared to the general public. According to “Planet Money,” in 2012 only 10.2% of Americans had careers in the category called “leisure,” which includes all of the arts but also restaurants and hotels and other recreational/hospitality fields. A more focused (although slightly less up-to-date) statistic produced by a senior fellow of the Center forAmerican Progress, Scott Lilly, is that in 2009 there were approximately two million working artists in the U.S., which is about 1.3% of the total work force.

In contrast, my survey showed 49% of the respondents working in the arts! A formal study on the Sudbury Valley School’s alumni, reported by Daniel Greenberg in Legacy of Trust, reveals a similar number, with 41% of the school’s previous students pursuing careers in the arts.

While collecting data from the survey, I was struck by the wonderful mosaic of careers represented, including careers in the arts and in STEM fields, and all the other careers—law, education, skilled trades, business, and service jobs—which I lumped together as “Other.” About 54% of my respondents are in jobs that fall under this “Other” category.

But it was difficult at times to pigeonhole people and their careers. Adding together the STEM, Arts, and Other categories, I ended up with over 100%, because some people are involved in multiple careers at once, or their careers overlap multiple categories. An example is a young man who majored in software engineering and computer systems; he teaches computer graphics at an art institute as well as owns and codes for his own software company. It is impossible to put him into only one category; his education is obviously categorized as STEM, but his current two careers are a mix of STEM, art, and business (“Other”). Obviously, he could also be categorized as an entrepreneur.

I was interested, as I looked at the survey responses, to see how many self-employed homeschool graduates there were. So I went back through my data to see the percentage of entrepreneurs represented. In various data sets, entrepreneurs are defined as those who are self-employed, freelance, or business-starters; it turns out that many people in the arts are counted in the entrepreneur category, because they are freelance painters, dancers, furniture designers, and so forth. In my survey, about 33% of the respondents are self-employed or entrepreneurs. The Sudbury Valley School alumni survey mentioned earlier found that 42% of SVS graduates have become entrepreneurs (Greenberg 241). These are high percentages when compared to the general public. The Small Business and Entrepreneur Council claims that, in 2011, approximately 9.5% of the U.S. workforce was in the self-employed / entrepreneur category.

chart on careers

(Note that I couldn’t find an actual number or percentage of SVS graduates who work in STEM careers. The lack of an orange bar doesn’t represent zero SVS alumni in STEM, but rather a lack of firm quantitative data.) 

11 thoughts on “What Are They Doing Now — The Answers

  1. This is SO interesting and I would LOVE to see more research into this topic.
    A current goal of Common Core and other education initiatives aimed at school children is to increase the number of kids who go into STEM fields. They are trying to do this by stripping the last bit of variety and individualization out of education in schools.

    Home/Unschooling and Sudbury educations offer kids the most variety and individualization. Looks like the schools are moving in the wrong direction if they want more kids in STEM careers!

    Of course we already knew that schools have been moving in the wrong direction for decades – but I love this little bit of info that illustrates it so nicely!!!

    Well done! I hope you or someone gets to expand on this research!

  2. Interesting results – I’m an unschooled software engineer who responded to the survey. Just wanted to point out that the fact that the survey was conducted ‘online’ essentially may skew the results in favour of those in STEM careers. It depends on how the figure for percentage of people in the general population with those careers was obtained – obviously if it was in the same way than my point is moot.

    Again, very interesting results.

    • Brendan – Hi, I am Whitney and Lindsey’s mom. Since Whitney is so busy, I thought I would take it upon myself to answer your valid point.

      This post is an excerpt from Whitney’s research paper. In the paper, she makes and emphasizes the point that the survey is not a valid sampling tool, and in this excerpt she points out:

      “By necessity, this survey was self-selected rather than scientifically representative of all students of “alt-ed” programs….Based on my small sample…”

      I don’t see how even the government or a trained statistician could do a proper scientific study of grown homeschoolers and unschoolers, since their names are not gathered together on any database. I understand that the self-selected nature of Whitney’s survey results puts a large question mark next to them, but at the very least her results refute the assumption many people seem to have that kids who are free to – and even encouraged to – discover and develop their own interests will tend to stick to “easier” fields.

      Thanks for participating in the survey!

    • We are homeschoolers, mostly unschool, and I think it is important to emphasise the self-selection point, and also how the format of the survey may skew the results toward STEM. From my own experience (small sample size), people are very willing to share when homeschooling is going well or to extoll the virtues of homeschooling fairly idealistically, and less willing to share when it does not go so well. (Likewise with conventional school, when you come to think of it.)

  3. The research is interesting to me because our family was homeschooled. However, I am interested in the embedded idea that STEM careers/jobs are somehow superior; why is this brief underlying the discussion? My intuition is that the direction pursued by conventional sciences, for many years now, is not good or healthy for humanity or the planet. I am rather disappointed that there seem to be more homeschooled people in these fields than conventionally educated people. Media frequently bemoan the fact that young people don’t want to pursue STEM life-paths; but I believe that a lot of the reason for this is (a) they feel the same instinctively as I do, that the ultimate ends of STEM pursuits are not commendable (b) the whole scientific construct is something of a tautology, with many unquestionable tenets on the margins having become dogmas, thus preventing progress (c) Its boring

    • Hi Carmel, the focus of this blog post and the research paper it was drawn from came out of a longer conversation. If you’re interested in the larger dialogue, check out these proceeding posts: http://www.homeschoolretrospective.com/what-are-they-doing-now-survey-adults-after-alt-ed/

      Regardless of your opinion about STEM fields, the fact that it is a focus of conversations about education in general makes it a relevant topic to look at in the context of homeschooling and unschooling. Also, the actual research paper, although much longer than this blog post, had to be fairly short and therefore tightly focused on just a few aspects of the topic of alternative education.

      I personally disagree with your opinion (your Point “a”) of the direction and ultimate ends of STEM fields. Science is the study of life, the universe, and everything, and in my opinion it is one of the best things that people do. I marvel at the fact that this multi-generational worldwide effort we call science has been able to unlock so many mysteries about ourselves as well as animals and stars, trees and diseases. Mathematics is the language with which the universe is written (shameful steal from Galileo there) – again, nothing could be more beautiful or noble than the study of, discovery of, and invention of mathematics. Tech and engineering fields certainly can create and have created things that harm people and the biosphere – but these fields also can create and have created things that help people, other creatures, and the environment. There is nothing inherently bad about the applied sciences, and I have a generally positive attitude about their contributions, past and future.

      I am not sure what you mean in your Point “b,” but again I would defend science; dogmatism is counter to the spirit and process of science, and science is the best tool we have to inspect statements and tenets and dogmas to see which (if any) match up to reality. I don’t know what you mean by “the whole scientific construct is something of a tautology”; science and math generally frown on extra, unnecessary assumptions (both science and math strive for the simplest, most elegant explanations and equations), and many scientific findings are startlingly counter-intuitive (relativity, spacetime, dark matter, quantum physics, etc.).

      As for your Point “c,” that STEM fields are boring – again, I heartily disagree and am so glad that so many people coming from alternative education disagree as well!

      • Hi Cathy

        thank you for taking the time and giving the energy to reply to my comment.

        I appreciate and affirm the research that you have done. Its good that you have examined the contribution of people educated at home to society, and what happens to homeschoolers and what choices they make as adults.


        Carmel Duffy

  4. In reference to Carmel Duffy’s comments regarding STEM, I am stunned to hear such commentary about STEM. Just make a list of your life over a 24 hour period and examine how STEM has positively impacted your life and that of your loved ones. Boring? Just observe kids delight in discovering the beauty and wonders of the physical world around them. They are enthralled. STEM is the way we humans have made sense of our observations of our physical world and made it useful for ourselves and our word. Carmel’s comments seem extremely ill-informed and unexamined.

  5. I just wanted to say we’re really happy this post was so widely shared, and that it reached new people. Glad that people are contributing feedback to expand the conversation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>