When Jennifer Alexander starts classes this fall at Purdue, it will be the first time she has been in a classroom since the sixth grade. John Senac understands what she’s facing. The first time Senac, a rising junior at Franklin College, walked into a classroom, he was a high school junior, arriving to take classes at an Indiana Wesleyan commuter campus.
Jennifer and Senac are among the growing number of homeschool students who are enrolling in colleges across the country. The situations that homeschoolers face, from admissions hurdles to social assimilation to an abruptly-altered learning environment, are myriad. Most indications, however, suggest that the students are not only handling the challenges that college life presents, they are thriving.
Homeschooling has only been legal in all 50 states since the early 1990s. But that doesn’t mean the practice is new. Homeschooling is a loosely organized grass-roots movement that has been part of this country’s educational landscape since the pilgrims hit Plymouth Rock. Early settlers, with gritty nails and calloused hands, gathered around candles to teach their children reading, writing and arithmetic long before there was ever a schoolhouse promising to do the same.
It was in the free spirit counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, and the subsequent backlash against it — often conservative and religious — that provided homeschooling the avenue to re-emerge as an option for many American families. For some, safety was the issue; for others it was quality or subject matter. Not satisfied with the education public schools provided their children or the environment in which it was offered, some parents decided that they could better educate their children at home.
Today, homeschooling is a broad, diverse movement. It draws from all socio-economic levels, and despite the fact that a greater proportion of homeschoolers are white as compared to non-homeschoolers, it is a multiracial and multi-ethnic movement.
The reasons parents cite for their decision to homeschool are as varied as the parents themselves. While some feel that they can give their children more personalized instruction with a more focused curriculum than they would receive in a public school setting, others view homeschooling as a creative alternative to the expense of private education; and certainly, for many, it is a religiously-based decision.
The spiritual aspect
It was for John Senac. Affable and well-spoken, Senac is the second of five children. He listens when asked a question and considers it before responding. He is polite without being obsequious, animated without being hyper. His hands are covered in ink, evidence of his full and active schedule: homework assignments, meetings, phone numbers. His day planner has an opposable thumb. He participates in a student mentor program at Franklin, and is a member of the student congress and the hall council of his dormitory. He works part-time.
Senac’s older sister, a Bethel College graduate, attended kindergarten at a Christian school before their mother decided to try homeschooling. Each of the four younger siblings has been homeschooled exclusively. “A big part of [the decision] was the spiritual aspect,” recalls Senac, whose homeschooling included instruction on creationism. “We could have been in a church school environment for a good part of the time, but eventually you are going to get into different school situations that a lot of people don’t want their kids in.”
For Jennifer Alexander and her family, the decision was more immediate, though not necessarily more important, than philosophical preference. Alexander is quiet enough that she seems bashful at times, but she has the spirit of a great conversationalist. She has a news junkie’s understanding of current events. She makes jokes — good, spontaneous ones — and then punctuates them with her own laughter. She kiddingly rolls her eyes when talking about her two younger siblings.
Shy or not, Alexander isn’t afraid to challenge herself. She holds herself to a high measure and has an honest understanding of what she will have to do to make the mark. But, by the time Alexander reached the sixth grade, she had become frustrated and withdrawn and it was taking a toll on her, both socially and in the classroom. Once in a homeschool environment, she relaxed and, free of distractions, rediscovered a zest for learning. Among the many scholarships Alexander has collected are a National Merit Scholarship, the Purdue Top Scholar award, which covers full tuition, and the Dean’s Engineering Scholarship for freshman engineers.
Critics may claim that education is best left to professionals, that children benefit from immersion in a group of their peers, but clearly, for Alexander and Senac, homeschooling has worked.
A tricky sell
No one is certain exactly how many homeschoolers there are in the U.S. They’re a hard population to count for a spectrum of reasons, not the least of which is that after deciding that the public services being provided to their children are deficient, many families are reluctant to cooperate with a public audit or census of home education. In Indiana, there are comparatively few obstacles in the way of parents intent on homeschooling, but many still view the school board and, by extension, government as adversaries.
The National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI) estimates that between 1.5 and 1.9 million students, kindergarten through high school, were educated at home in 2000-2001. The U.S. Department of Education puts the number much lower, at 850,000. In Indiana, where the data is incomplete at best, the DOE estimates the home student population at 9,000.
What everyone can agree on is that the number is significant. And it’s growing. NHERI estimates that two out of three homeschool students continue on to college, so as the population of home-educated students swells and ages, the number of homeschooled graduates matriculating to colleges continues to increase. However, many colleges are understandably skeptical of a homeschool diploma. It lacks a reference point, a means of productive comparison. It is much easier to rank the accomplishments of a traditional high school student who navigated a standardized class load and may have had hundreds of classmates.
In Indiana, there is no state-approved curriculum for homeschool students and the uniqueness of each homeschool education makes comparisons difficult. “The numbers of homeschoolers are growing exponentially in Indiana and everywhere else,” says Gary Mason, assistant director of admissions and homeschool liaison at Ball State. “At college admission counselor meetings, both here and in surrounding states, it is becoming recognized as a growing trend that needs to be addressed by professionals … We have become a lot more intentional about not just letting them come to us, but actually trying to recruit homeschool students.”
The National Center for Home Education conducted a survey of college admission policies in each of the 50 states. Of the responding colleges, only 44 percent had policies in place for admitting homeschool applicants. Nevertheless, 96 percent of the schools counted homeschoolers among their student population.
Change is often slow, but many colleges are reviewing their admissions policies in light of the growing number of homeschool applicants. According to the publishers of both the SAT and ACT tests, the two most commonly required college entrance exams, homeschoolers consistently test above the national average. As a result of the good test scores and growing numbers, many Indiana colleges and universities have begun to make themselves more attractive to homeschool students.
The Huntington College Web site proclaims the school is “homeschooler-friendly.” At the Marian College Web site, students are told that “Marian College reaches out to homeschooled students and their families.” The Indiana Department of Education Web site also identifies Hillsdale College, Indiana University, IUPUI, Taylor University and University of Indianapolis as schools “interested in recruiting homeschoolers.”
“The vast majority of homeschoolers are easily admissible,” Mason says. “We look at the schools somewhat, which is hard to do with homeschools, obviously, each one is individual. But also, the classes taken. Did they take earth science along with biology or did they take biology, chemistry and physics — three good years of solid lab science.”
“When I went to apply for colleges a lot of schools already realized how many students from homeschool backgrounds were looking to go to college,” says Alyssa Guthrie, 22, a senior at Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio. “I think they also recognized that those students had higher test scores and performed better academically. So, my policy, generally, was that if a school wasn’t willing to cater to my needs then I wasn’t willing to look at them.”
It isn’t that easy for all homeschoolers, however. Many larger schools, especially state-funded ones, must carefully follow a prescribed evaluation process for all applicants. “The very first thing we look at with any student, no matter what their background, is the strength of curriculum,” Mason says. “So we are looking for the equivalent of what Indiana calls Core 40 … four years of English, three years of math up through Algebra 2, three years of science, at least two should be lab science — again, with homeschoolers that is one area where we are a little more flexible. As long as they have some hands-on lab experience. That may be through ordering a lab kit that comes with a curriculum they’re using. It might be that they took a course through a co-op; there are a lot more co-ops for teaching science, foreign language, some of those more difficult subjects. And then to continue with the curriculum, three years of social science, U.S. history, government, economics, those kinds of things. We like to see some foreign language, but don’t require it for admission, for anybody.”
Even though Indiana law does not require homeschoolers to follow a specific course load, home students interested in continuing on to college would be well-served to make themselves aware of the academic admissions requirements at their targeted universities. Admission counselors also recommend that students keep careful records of the subjects they have studied and other academic work they have completed. Marian College even provides a template for a suggested homeschool transcript on their Web site.
Anybody who has ever gone knows: College is a big change. It’s unlike anything you’ve done before, at least in scale if not substance. Many students are away from home for the first time — doing laundry, living on a budget, eating, studying, socializing, all without the supervising safety net of home.
For a homeschooler, the transition can be magnified; even something as simple as going to class can require some adjusting. “My first semester, I think I took things a little too lightly, and that might be the case with any homeschool person,” Senac says. “They get to college and its like, ‘Wow, I am on my own, finally!’ But you’re not on your own. You might live on your own, but you have a roommate. You have someone telling you when things are due. You might still have a job you have to work and you might put in 10, 20 hours a week, plus you are supposed to spend two hours doing homework for every hour in class and you’re like, ‘Wow, there is not time. I’m not on my own. I live on someone else’s schedule now.’ It’s been a challenge for me.”
Even though college students often enjoy more latitude in working at their own pace and on their own schedule than secondary school students, Senac still initially found the scheduling frustrating. “Yeah, you have deadlines and usually they are more strict than what you are used to as a homeschool student. It’s a lot harder to convince a professor you need one more day than your mom,” Senac says. “The thing is, with homeschooling, I would do my work for the day and I could be done by 12 or 1 o’clock. It just depended on how fast I moved, how much I had to do. And I could do it in any order. Now I have to be at English every morning at 8 o’clock. I never had to do that. That is one of the biggest problems — being there and following a class schedule. I went from, ‘I get to wear pajamas all morning,’ to, ‘I have to be at this place at 8, this place at 9 and this place at 10. And I have to dress up.’”
Senac also feels that his homeschooling made him better prepared to adapt to college life. “Homeschooling is really self-driven and you will find that with a lot of homeschool students, when they get to college, they’ll still have that drive,” he says. “They may have to make some adjustments, but they have that drive.”
Alyssa Guthrie remembers her own transition period differently: “I didn’t think it was any more challenging than the typical college freshman moving away from home for the first time. I didn’t find it to be that much of a transition. I had taken piano lessons for 10 years and I had been in Sunday school. I had taken classes here and there for art, choir lessons, things like that. So sitting in a structured atmosphere wasn’t that much of a change. So much of college work is independent work that it is like homeschooling. So much of the work is left up to you that I really didn’t find it that much of a transition.”
Alexander is expecting to make some adjustments, but doesn’t see her situation as being that different from other incoming students. “The entire senior class 2003 all over the U.S., we are looking at the same problems and the same issues,” Alexander says. “We’re just maybe coming at it from a different direction, a different perspective. Some things that I am not so worried about that I know some of my public school acquaintances are, are that I am not so worried about not seeing the friends that I have now every day because I don’t.”
Still, entering into a class environment will take some getting used to. “Public school students learn everything in groups of people so they learn a lot about group dynamics just by osmosis, I guess,” Alexander says. “I am only just beginning to pick that up because I don’t have as much group experience. I have never been in a large class, not even when I was in grade school. I don’t know how to deal with a large class without disappearing in it … I think that’s going to be the biggest transition. It’s just going to be weird for a little while.”
Making the transition
In 1997, Drs. Rhonda Galloway and Joe Sutton published results of a four-year study that examined how well homeschoolers fared in a college setting compared to students who had come from a public or Christian school background. In four of five success (academic, cognitive, spiritual and affective-social, the fifth indicator was psychomotor) indicators, homeschool students ranked ahead of the other students.
At Ball State, Gary Mason has recently begun tracking the performance of home-educated students on their Muncie campus. “My perceptions of [homeschoolers] from talking with them and doing interviews for research is that they are having a very positive experience on campus,” Mason says. “They are very involved socially. Which was one that I was very interested to see because of the social stigma, sort of, that they have, but they seem to be doing very well in terms of being involved on campus and so forth. They tend to keep really busy, unbelievably busy. They are not just doing the class work. They are involved in so many things … They really want to be incorporated into the community, the learning community and not be singled out as a homeschooler but just be like any other student on campus.”
As of the spring 2002 semester, of the 22 homeschool students Mason was tracking, 13 had been admitted to the university with either honors or distinction. Homeschool students who came to Ball State as incoming freshmen averaged a 3.72 grade point average. The average for all freshmen at BSU: 2.79, nearly a full point lower. The gap narrows after that, with all homeschoolers at BSU averaging a 3.44 grade point average, while the average student body GPA is 2.90. “It’s very impressive,” Mason says. “It tells me that they are making the transition to the larger classroom.”
The classroom isn’t the only place where homeschoolers will encounter large crowds. Living in a dormitory, as part of a teeming, diverse community, can present a daunting learning curve for a student who is uncomfortable or unfamiliar with large group situations. “It’s a big part of the college experience,” Senac recalls, “especially for someone who was homeschooled. That makes it even more of a change. A high school person is used to spending seven or eight hours a day away from home and sometimes working at nights. I was used to spending work and outings away from home and that was it. To go from 18 years at home to living in a dorm full of guys and girls is a whole new community of life that you have to get used to. There were a lot of things I had to adjust to.”
“I am going to have to get used to living with people who don’t know me well enough to finish my sentences,” Alexander adds. “I am not going to know people and I am not going to understand the backgrounds that they come from. I know so many types of people from homeschooling that maybe it will be less of a problem than I think it is now, but I worry about that sometimes."
“I think one of the major things that public schooling helps with [regarding] socialization is that you get to know a person really well,” she continues. “You are going to see them good times, bad times, bad hair days. You are going to know that person in all sorts of situations. You are going to know their strengths and weaknesses. Whereas with homeschooling you only see somebody so often, it takes a lot more effort to know them that thoroughly.”
Alexander’s father and younger brother have season tickets to watch the Purdue football team, so she will see them often during the fall semester, but she plans to keep trips home to Cicero, Ind., to a minimum, preferring to stay on campus and immerse herself as completely as possible to speed her period of acclamation. “I am just going to deal with it, but then everybody is going to be dealing with it,” she says.
Coming from a different background, with a different set of experiences, provides opportunities as well as challenges. It is not all catching up. Homeschool students do enter college with some distinct advantages over their public school peers. A homeschool environment is also typically less peer-specific than a public school environment. Homeschoolers are exposed to and interact with a variety of people on any given day, not just people their own age. “I can handle a situation where there are a lot of different ages,” Alexander says. “I may not know how to deal with a group on a regular basis, but I can deal with the fact that there is a group and there are a lot of different people in it from a lot of different backgrounds. I am comfortable dealing with adults. I think I’m going to have a nice time being able to deal with professors because I am with adults all the time and I think that is going to help.”
Guthrie and Senac were easily absorbed into their college communities, as Alexander believes she ultimately will be. The majority of homeschool students successfully make the transition, but there are exceptions. “There are those homeschool students who come in and they stick out like a sore thumb,” Senac says. “I’m not trying to be mean, you can just really tell that they are struggling and having a hard time adapting. There are parents who don’t want their kids exposed to certain things. They do a really good job of keeping their kids unexposed to certain worldly aspects for a long time and I think it may be a challenge to some of those kids when they get to school at the collegiate level.”
There are preconceptions and each student will deal with them in their own way. “When I went away to college, I didn’t tell people that I was homeschooled,” Guthrie says. “Not so much because I was embarrassed about it, but because I wanted to see what their reactions would be. So, I was friends with people sometimes a year or two before they knew I was homeschooled and most of them were shocked. I was the first homeschooled person many of them knew and I didn’t quite live up to the preconceived ideas of what a homeschooled student would be.”
Preconceptions are one thing Alexander is not planning on bringing to campus with her. She has seen both sides of the coin, public school and homeschooling, but she is not professing to have any of the definitive answers about either. “Homeschooling and public schooling are just different,” she says. “It’s always different and I am not sure if it is better or worse or whatever. It has worked for me and that is all I can really ask. I’ve had a wonderful time.”