Philip Stark, a senior economics student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a Germany native, was homeschooled by his mother up until high school.
“We really enjoyed the freedom it gave us to explore a wide range of subjects and have some great extracurricular experiences without being constrained to a typical school schedule,” Stark said.
When the time to choose a high school arrived, Stark, along with many rural Nebraskan students, international students, Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake chose to continue this education style and enroll in the University of Nebraska High School.
In early September, a video containing Britney Spears talking about her experience with the University of Nebraska High School made its rounds on Twitter. In the video, Spears said she opted to use the program as a substitute to high school, given the intensity of her career at the time.
According to its website, the University of Nebraska High School was established in partnership with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1929 with the initial goal of providing a reliable form of distance learning to rural Nebraskans who lived in a community that couldn’t sustain a high school.
Distance learning has been a strategy in education long before the internet.
In the days before the web, correspondence through the postal service was a helpful alternative for many students, particularly those living in rural areas without access to a public school.
The innovation of online education over the last decade, especially at the collegiate level, has seen people from all over the world obtain valuable degrees solely through studying and learning remotely from a computer.
UNHS aims to bring the success of online education to the high school level. As an accredited institution, UNHS now serves diplomas not only to rural Nebraskans but to students from all over the world.
Barbara Wolf Shousha has been the director of UNHS for the past seven years. Shousha said the mission of the university’s partnership with UNHS was that students anywhere deserve a high-quality college preparatory diploma.
“We help students get these college prep experiences so that they aren’t facing any barriers when going to college,” Shousha said.
According to Shousha, the high school currently offers 115 total courses, which include all the core educational fields of study. Shousha said these include science, math, social studies and English, as well as a range of extracurricular courses, and are all aligned with the Nebraska state curriculum.
“Regardless of where you work with us — you might get a diploma from us while you’re living in Cape Town, South Africa — your diploma will be a state of Nebraska diploma,” Shousha said.
Students can enroll at any time of the year and are given 52 weeks to complete their courses. This gives students like Stark the ability to work at their own pace, a pace he said provided a freedom not found within a more traditional high school schedule.
“If I wanted to work ahead one or two weeks in my classes so that I could take a trip with my family during the school year without falling behind, I was able to do so,” Stark said. “It takes a certain degree of motivation and self-discipline to work that way, but for me, it was an ideal arrangement.”
Stark said while he didn’t miss out on socializing with friends or getting involved outside of school, not attending a physical high school did have drawbacks. He said he enjoyed getting more chances to meet new people once he started at UNL, as well as more personal interactions with his professors — something he felt was occasionally absent when taking online courses.
“I felt like they were mainly there to grade assignments,” Stark said. “Most of the actual learning was done just by reading the course material rather than hearing from the teachers.”
With students working at their own speed remotely, Shousha said UNHS uses a system that allows teachers to also work remotely when giving feedback and grading assignments.
“In any week, a teacher might be working with 30 students in a social studies course, but all of those students could be at different points,” Shousha said. “Some could be finishing the course and others could be just starting an assignment.”
Shousha said UNHS attracts a broad range of students, but said athletes or performers with heavy travel schedules benefit greatly from obtaining a diploma while still competing and performing.
High-profile performers and athletes such as Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and former Omaha-native tennis star, Andy Roddick, have all taken courses with the online high school.
Shousha said they and others chose UNHS due to its flexibility, but also because the school is unique in that it operates as an accredited online institution which offers full high school diplomas in cases when primary careers don’t pan out.
According to Shousha, a student of UNHS who performed around the world as a successful ballerina suffered a career-ending injury. Shousha said the student and her parents were very glad she had received a full diploma and could pick right up and move on to other places in the world.
“Students go on from our program to colleges all over the world,” Shousha said.
Shousha said the main aspect and skill students take away from UNHS is the ability to be self-directed and create their own structure.
“[Students] really learn to manage their own educational process,” Shousha said. “Our hope is that by the time they go through the course with us, they don’t wander onto a college campus hoping someone will tell them what to do.”
For Stark, that level of independence gained from UNHS is invaluable.
“Working in that manner helped develop my ability to be a self-starter, which has served me well in college and life in general,” Stark said.