Home schooling poses challenge Admissions officers forced to find ways to evaluate applicants

November 30, 1997|By Taylor Lincoln | Taylor Lincoln,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Because she was home schooled from the age of 14, Rachel Nugent's application to the University of Maryland lacked a central element: a high school grade point average.

When Nugent's ACT scores came in at the low end of the university's acceptable range, admissions officers at College Park said they needed more evidence of her abilities. They asked her to enroll in freshman English and pre-calculus courses at the two-year Montgomery College.

"They made her prove herself a little more," said Nugent's mother, Elisa Carbone.

Nugent, an aspiring medical student from Silver Spring, posted grades of A and B for the two classes. Maryland accepted her.

The hands-on attention paid to Nugent's application was indicative of how colleges are responding to their small but growing number of applications from home-schooled students.

Because home schoolers either lack high school grades or are graded by lesser-known correspondence schools, colleges are considering a mosaic of factors -- including standardized test scores, essays, interviews, recommendations and performance in community college courses -- to evaluate their applications.

"The real proof ... is in the standardized tests," said Robert J. Massa, the Johns Hopkins University's dean of enrollment, who noted that his school pays significantly more attention to home-schooled applicants' scores on a supplemental battery of subject tests called the "SAT-II" than it does for students from traditional high schools.

Other factors are also given heightened attention, such as essays from home-schooled applicants. Descriptions of the curricula home schoolers followed and projects they completed can also help fill the "grades gap."

"The home-school candidates I've seen have all had records of their work," Massa said. "Instead of a letter grade transcript it's more like a narrative transcript."

But admissions officers also say that home schoolers need to take steps to introduce themselves to prospective colleges, including scheduling interviews -- even if the school doesn't require them.

"It's important for home-schooled students to show up at the admissions office, meet face to face with admissions officers and lay it out in front of them," Massa said.

Despite the challenges, most colleges say the door is open. The University of Maryland, College Park, for example, recently assigned an admissions officer to specialize in home-schooling issues. All of the Ivy League schools and service academies have accepted home schoolers, according to the Purcellville, Va.-based Home School Legal Defense Association.

Perhaps reflecting the religious overtones sometimes associated with home schooling, Liberty University, a Baptist college in Lynchburg, Va., founded by Jerry Falwell in 1971, offers $2,000-a-year scholarships to all home-schooled students it accepts.

"It would be easier to make a list of schools that don't accept home schoolers than those who do," said Rich Shipe, spokesman for the legal defense association, noting that the University of California-San Diego is the most prominent university known to shun home-spun scholars. (An admissions officer there said the university only accepts students who have graduated from accredited high schools.)

Harvard's 1983 decision to accept Grant Colfax, a home-schooled student from remote Boonville, Calif., is often cited as a seminal point in the home-schooling movement. The effects were amplified as Colfax went on to graduate magna cum laude, become a Fulbright scholar, then graduate from Harvard Medical School. Both of his younger brothers, also home schooled, attended and graduated from Harvard.

Though the Colfaxes' success was exceptional, others colleges report faring well with home schoolers.

"The ones we have here have generally fit in quite well," said University of Maryland, Baltimore County Vice Provost Charles M. Woolston, noting one in particular -- the editor of the school newspaper -- who has maintained perfect grades.

Sometimes, being home schooled can work to a student's advantage in admissions decisions, according to Stanford admissions officer Jonathan Reider.

"The most obvious thing is intellectual depth. Home-schooled students can challenge themselves to go beyond a high school curriculum," Reider said. "A lot of kids [from traditional high schools] are smart -- they have good grades, they have good test scores -- but they are not particularly deep."

Home schooling began achieving acceptance in the early 1980s, and has been growing steadily since. The number of home schoolers in Maryland rose from a mere 93 in the mid-1980s to nearly 8,100 in 1995-1996, according to figures from the Maryland Department of Education -- the latest available.

Varying estimates place the numbers nationally at 600,000 to 1.2 million -- 1 percent to 2.5 percent of the roughly 50 million school-age children across the United States.

While colleges, for the most part, report seeing fewer than 20 applications a year from home schoolers, Stanford's Reider forecasts that the group will continue to make up a small, but distinctive, part of the overall picture.

"I think it's always going to be a fringe thing," he said. "But sometimes the fringe is very interesting."

Pub Date: 11/30/97

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