School Choice & Charters

Home School StudentsAdjust to New HomesOn College Campuses

By Mary Ann Zehr — September 10, 2003 6 min read

Colleges and universities have come a long way in overcoming their suspicions of home schoolers’ ability to cope with college life, and they are readily admitting students who have received nontraditional educations.

About three out of four institutions of higher education now have policies for evaluating home schoolers’ applications, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, based in Alexandria, Va. Increasingly, colleges are assigning at least one admissions officer to specialize in processing the applications of home schoolers.

Home-schooled student John R. Bressler.

Home-schooled student John R. Bressler of Severn, MD, sits with other incoming students during freshmen orientation at the University of Maryland.
—Photograph by Allison Shelley/Education Week

“Colleges have a much better grasp of home schooling than they did five years ago,” said Barmak Nassirian, the associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. “Overall, their experience with home schoolers has been so positive that the kinds of misgivings that were quite commonplace five or 10 years ago are no longer real issues.”

Colleges often discriminated against home schoolers by requiring them to provide information in applications, such as scores on SAT II tests or proof of having earned General Education Development certificates, that they didn’t require of traditional students, said Chris J. Klicka, the senior counsel of the Home School Legal Defense Association, in Purcellville, Va.

“I’m pleased to report that as of today,” he said, “home schoolers are not facing that type of discrimination across the country.”

Mr. Klicka attributes the change in college admissions practices to successful state and federal lobbying efforts by home schooling parents, and to a strong college track record established by home schoolers themselves.

Solid Credentials

If several home schoolers starting classes here at the University of Maryland are any indication, it seems clear why colleges are reaching out more to this group of applicants.

The 19 home schoolers who joined the freshmen class at the university’s main campus this year, for example, include John R. Bressler of Severn, Md. Before last week, the last time he set foot in a classroom was in 5th grade. During his “high school” years, Mr. Bressler said, he pretty much taught himself. He taught himself enough mathematics, for example, to qualify to take Calculus 1 at the University of Maryland in his first year.

Unlike some home schoolers, he didn’t take any courses online or through home school cooperatives or community colleges.

Officials at the 25,000-student university, located just outside Washington, had enough faith in Mr. Bressler’s ability to adjust to college academic life that they gave him the university’s top scholarship: a four-year free ride that includes room and board.

It probably didn’t hurt that he scored a perfect 1600 on his SAT I exam—though that score wasn’t enough to get him into Princeton University, where he also applied.

Other home schoolers who enrolled this year at the University of Maryland include 18-year-old Liz Doby. Home-schooled through the primary and secondary years, she took enough courses at Central Virginia Community College in her hometown of Lynchburg, Va., to earn an associate’s degree in science.

Then there is Daniel K. McCormack, also 18, who is from Ellicott City, Md., and has been home-schooled since 6th grade. In his case, home schooling meant taking a fair number of courses at cooperatives formed by home schooling parents and at a local community college in Columbia, Md.

All three students were involved in a wide array of activities outside their homes— from teaching swimming to learning karate—and all garnered combined scores of at least 1240 on the SAT.

Such strong credentials aren’t unusual among home- schooled applicants, said Shannon R. Gundy, the associate director of admissions at the University of Maryland.

“On standardized tests, they are extremely competitive,” she said. “They’ve rounded out their curriculum by participating in activities through church, the community, or a community college.”

About five years ago, the university fine-tuned its admissions practices by designating an admissions counselor to study home schooling and to work particularly with that group of students, Ms. Gundy added. That counselor then helped the university write a policy for reviewing the applications of home-schooled students.

The admissions process for home schoolers differs little from that for other students, Ms. Gundy said, except that the university asks for more details in some areas.

Home School Lobby

Mr. Klicka of the Home School Legal Defense Association says it’s taken some hard work on the part of parents and associations to get institutions of higher learning to give home schoolers a fair shake.

Mr. Klicka’s organization estimates the nation has about 2 million home schoolers. In 1999, the most recent year for which data are available, the U.S. Department of Education put the figure at 850,000, or 1.7 percent of the school-age population.

Getting Congress to consider a home school diploma as valid for receiving federal financial aid was one of the movement’s biggest victories, Mr. Klicka said. That happened with the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act in 1998, he added. In a few states, however, he said, home schoolers still don’t have the same access to state financial aid as traditional students do.

A more recent victory came in Texas, where home schooling advocates persuaded legislators to pass a law barring public colleges and universities from making requirements of home schoolers in the admissions process that they didn’t make of traditional students. In May, Texas joined three other states—New Mexico, North Carolina, and Illinois—in having such legislation on the books.

Blending In

Once home schoolers get on a college campus, for the most part, they blend in with other students, admissions officers say.

Only in a couple of minor ways did Mr. Bressler say he felt a little out of sync with other freshmen while settling in to a new life on the sprawling University of Maryland campus. For one, all students seemed to have cellphones—and he hadn’t brought one to campus. And his roommate seemed to know about 20 other students whom he’d met before arriving on campus, while Mr. Bressler had only previously met three youths who are on campus this year.

The unassuming and well-mannered Mr. Bressler chose front-row seats when they were available last week in his classes. By the end of the week, he had the feeling that he’d be able to stay on top of things academically. In economics class, for instance, he recognized some of the concepts from the textbook he had read in his high school years.

In general, Mr. Bressler was most preoccupied his first week of school with extracurricular activities. As a home schooler, he’d wrestled on the team of a Christian school near his home. He’s hoping to make the cut for the University of Maryland’s wrestling team, in part, he said, because being on the team would help provide a social life.

While wrestling has put Mr. Bressler in contact with students who went to public schools, his primary social connections have been with youths from his church and other home schoolers.

So last week, he was consciously looking for ways to connect with a group of students that was more diverse than the circle he has usually hung around with.

He noticed, for example, that two of the students in Calculus 1 also lived on his dorm floor.

“Maybe I can study with them,” he said. “That could be kind of cool.”

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