Unlike College Admissions Cheaters, Homeschoolers Show Merit Still Counts
by Dave Dentel • March 26, 2019
For parents putting in the extra effort to prepare their homeschool students for college, the news must have come as more than a shock—it must have seemed like a personal affront.
In the largest scandal of its kind, federal authorities recently charged 50 people in connection with a cheating conspiracy to get students admitted into preferred colleges around the country.
All told, parents allegedly paid $25 million to fund various aspects of the scam. Some hired expert test-takers to doctor up entrance exams. Others bribed coaches into giving their non-athlete students a spot on college sports teams.
The scope of the conspiracy has prompted some critics to ask: when it comes to getting into college, does individual merit still matter?
The success of homeschoolers shows that it still does.
LaNissir James, one of Home School Legal Defense Association’s high school consultants, attests from personal experience that for homeschool graduates looking to attend college, “there are so many great choices.”
Her daughter LaStazia, for example, is studying at Salisbury University, a state school on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Her daughter LaMaree, an 11th grader, is considering Liberty University, a private Christian school in Virginia.
This access to four-year colleges exists in part thanks to those homeschool students who, early on in the modern movement, helped establish a reputation for academic success. Some recent studies have highlighted the results of their hard work, including a notable statistic involving college entrance exams. A study of SAT results done a few years back showed that students who self-identified as homeschooled scored, on average, well above the average of the other students.
It should come as no surprise, then, that nowadays most colleges review homeschool applications the same way they do others.
There is a catch, however. Unlike their counterparts from traditional schools, few homeschoolers have a paid staff to compile their transcripts and keep abreast of college admissions procedures.
In the home education model, “parents are the guidance counselors,” LaNissir pointed out. “It’s the responsibility of the parents to know when the deadlines are and when to contact the College Board directly. It’s a great responsibility.”
This means homeschoolers sometimes have to find non-standard ways to document their achievements.
LaNissir participates in Calvary Gospel Home Educators, a co-op that, among other things, helps students with the administrative aspects of applying to college. The co-op is registered under Maryland law as a homeschool umbrella group, which means the academic records it provides are recognized by the state Department of Education.
“We create a transcript and send it directly to the college, and they’re happy,” said LaNissir. She is quick to point out, though, “not everybody offers the service.”
Dianne Tavares, program manager for HSLDA Compassion (HSLDA’s charitable outreach), recounted how she took classes at a local community college for high school credit. The courses supplemented her homeschool records for an application to the University of Virginia, where she earned a bachelor’s degree.
“It beefed up the transcript,” she said, “because it showed the A’s were coming from more than just mom.”
These extended connections also helped when it came time to request letters of recommendation.
Dianne noted how several professors she came to know at Northern Virginia Community College agreed to recommend her to university admissions officers.
And LaNissir recalled how her older daughter received a recommendation from a high school chemistry teacher who also instructs at their co-op.
Building a Better Resume
But classes and grades are only part of the equation. LaNissir encourages students with college aspirations to boost their high school resumes through community service and other extracurricular activities.
“A lot of these things are just as important as academics,” she said. When college admissions officers review an application, they’re looking at “what else does this child do?”
To this end, her co-op helps register students in the Congressional Award program. The venue allows youths to earn certificates by tracking their achievement in areas from public service to physical fitness.
Dianne participated in a similar program, the President’s Volunteer Service Award.
“I just documented the community service I was already doing, such as church youth group ministry, work with local youth organizations, and community service missions trips,” she said.
Dianne added that her broad range of high school experiences, combined with her mother’s diligence in researching prospective colleges, helped her craft an admissions essay that focused on something the University of Virginia claims to value highly—diversity.
“My mom definitely invested time to figure out how to present my high school years the way the college wants to see them,” she explained.
Fear of a Backlash
However, there is one aspect of the college admissions scandal that advocates fear could end up harming some of the most vulnerable of homeschoolers—students with special needs.
Federal authorities say that some of the scammers exploited the special accommodations offered for taking certain college entrance exams—in order to make it easier to cheat.
Many accommodations are available for students with special needs. They can get more time to take the test, take it in Braille or on a computer, or even take it in a private setting.
That doesn’t mean that qualifying is easy. Parents have to prove that their child really needs the accommodation. That usually means giving the test administrators a wide range of documentation—sometimes including personal health records.
If test providers respond to the scandal by making it more difficult to apply for accommodations, it would be especially hard on homeschool families, said HSLDA Special Needs Consultant Faith Berens.
“Homeschoolers with disabilities have different hoops to jump through when it comes to applying for accommodations for the SAT through the College Board,” explained Faith. “They must file via mail or email, as parents cannot submit the paperwork via the online portal on the College Board website. So it is a bit of a lengthy process. Getting a response can take at least six weeks.”
But for students who want a chance to show that they are college material, the process is worth it.
“Accommodations for students with disabilities make a difference for them,” said Faith. “Appropriate and necessary accommodations are intended to level the playing field for students and help them to access the test material to show what they know in a more efficient way.”
If the actions of a handful of cheats end up changing this, she added, that would be a true injustice.