Plans for a new institution of higher education in Virginia little resemble the traditional college or university. And that’s just how the organizers want it.
The two-year postsecondary school would be the nation’s first to cater directly to home-schooled students, according to officials at the Home School Legal Defense Association. Students would split their time evenly between classroom work and internships.
A foundation affiliated with the Purcellville, Va.-based group recently paid about $400,000 for 29 acres of vacant land there, with the hopes of opening the school to about 25 students in 1999. The group aims eventually to serve as many as 300 students.
The organizers say such a school would offer a needed alternative for home-schooled students.
“Home schoolers approach the education of their children differently than a lot of people,” said Michael P. Farris, the president and founder of the Home School Legal Defense Association. “They give their children much of the content of what’s in a classic liberal arts college education at the high school level.”
The school will be nondenominational, but will have a Christian orientation and likely will reflect a conservative ideology, said Mr. Farris. The lawyer and ordained Baptist minister is an influential figure among conservative Republicans in Virginia.
A Policy Focus
The planned school’s emphasis on apprenticeships is modeled, in part, on the practice in some European countries of giving students on-the-job training instead of a regular academic program, Mr. Farris said. But the concept also has historical roots in the United States.
“It’s partly influenced by the fact that the Founding Fathers in this country were by and large apprenticed,” Mr. Farris said. “Very few were educated in the kind of institutions we see today.”
Instead of surveying and blacksmithing, however, the first programs offered in the new school would be in public-policy areas such as government, politics, and journalism.
Some of the seven staff lawyers at the Home School Legal Defense Association, a national group that represents families whose home schooling has put them at odds with public school officials and government regulations, may act as adjunct faculty members, Mr. Farris said.
“Home schoolers have had to fight a very recent battle for their freedom,” said Mr. Farris, adding that for some students this has led to an interest in public policy.
Mr. Farris himself ran unsuccessfully as the GOP candidate for lieutenant governor of Virginia in 1993.
The school’s proximity to Washington also opens up opportunities for internships in government and the media, he said.
A Narrow Niche
Despite the school’s conservative leanings, its purpose is not political but to respond to the needs and interests of the growing number of students who are home schooled, Mr. Farris said.
The population of home-schooled students in the United States now totals as many as 1.2 million, according to the National Home Education Research Institute, a Salem, Ore.-based group that studies the movement and acts as an information clearinghouse for parents interested in teaching their children at home.
A recent survey by the institute suggested that home-schooled students are about as likely to seek postsecondary education as are graduates of public schools. There is scant research on their performance once in college, but some recent studies suggest that students who are home schooled tend to outperform public school students on standardized tests. (“Home-Schooled Pupils Outscore Counterparts,” March 19, 1997.)
A higher education program based on apprenticeships could be attractive to many of the parents of these students, said Brian Ray, who heads the institute. Some of those who opt to home school believe the traditional postsecondary school isolates their children too much from the adult world.
“I think it’s a response to the idea that academia is maybe too cerebral, too theoretical,” he said.
While agreeing that the new school’s concept fills a niche, however, others doubted it would appeal to most home school parents.
“Most parents who home school their kids still want them to be able to live in the world and go out and get a degree that’s marketable,” said David Merkowitz, a spokesman for the Washington-based American Council on Education, which represents some 1,600 higher education institutions.