January 16, 2003

Homeschooling: Growing Force in Higher Education

From the Chronicle of Higher Education, January 17, 2003
By Richard Morgan

In August 2001, Baylor University revoked admissions offers it had made to six incoming freshmen. The students weren't in trouble with the world's largest Baptist university for drinking or academic problems. They had been home schooled, and Baylor feared that admitting them could endanger thousands of other Baylor students' eligibility for federal student aid.

Eventually, five of the students began classes that fall, and the sixth enrolled the next semester. But the incident at Baylor was the first of several in recent years in which home schooled students' college admissions were challenged for that reason. Community colleges in New York and Virginia, as well as Strayer and Syracuse Universities, the University of Southern Maine, and then the entire University of Maine System began questioning whether home schooled students were eligible for admission and financial aid.

The problem, the colleges argued, is that the Higher Education Act, which governs most federal student aid programs, restricts colleges from admitting students unless they have obtained a "recognized equivalent of a high school diploma." As a result, many colleges refuse to admit home schooled students unless they hold a General Education Development diploma or pass a federally approved test showing that they have an "ability to benefit" from a college education.

To ease these restrictions, advocates for home schooling enlisted a heavy hitter: the Bush administration. In April, the Education Department issued guidance that would make it easier for colleges to admit home schooled students.

That demonstration of the home schoolers' clout has alarmed many higher education lobbyists. With Congress preparing to renew the Higher Education Act, college officials worry that lobbyists for home schoolers will persuade Republicans in Congress and the Bush administration to require colleges to admit students who may not be adequately prepared, exposing the institutions to lawsuits if they refuse to enroll them.

These officials point to a letter that the Home School Legal Defense Association, a national lobbying group, sent to financial aid administrators and admissions officers on the heels of the Education Department's notice. The letter stated that requiring home schooled students to take extra tests to qualify for admission is "considered discriminatory." The letter demanded that "all the barriers for home schoolers seeking admission and financial aid must immediately be disregarded and removed from the policy of your university."

The association's letter drew the ire of college officials. "Hold the horses, Nellie," Edward Hutchinson, the director of financial aid at the State University of New York Institute of Technology's Utica Rome campus, wrote in an e mail message to fellow aid administrators. Mr. Hutchinson warned against "blindly following the mandate" to "admit all home schooled students."

Such tensions aren't new. Some administrators have become increasingly skeptical of self certified home school diplomas, which are often little more than notes from the student's parent. But the strains are growing as greater numbers of the country's 850,000 home schoolers enter college and as their advocates become bigger players in Washington.

Getting a 'Green Light'

The Bush administration entered the fray with the guidance it released in April, acknowledging that changes Congress made to the Higher Education Act in 1998 had the "incongruous effect" of allowing home schooled students to be eligible for financial aid, while simultaneously appearing to render colleges who admit such students ineligible to receive federal funds.

With the letter, the Education Department said that it "wish[ed] to clarify that, in most circumstances, a home schooled student can be admitted to a postsecondary institution as a regular student without jeopardizing the institution's eligibility to participate in federal student assistance programs."

In addition, the department said that home schooled students could "self certify their completion of a secondary school curriculum, just as high school graduates may self certify their receipt of a diploma."

Still, few college officials have made any changes in their admissions policies, citing ambiguity in the Education Department's guidance and their belief that state law governs such matters.

That has frustrated Christopher J. Klicka, senior counsel for the Home School Legal Defense Association. He says that while some colleges "just hate home schoolers," most institutions are "just so doggoned nervous, saying 'Oh! Oh no! I might lose federal money!' They just basically have lost their backbone."

But he adds that colleges "don't have to interpret the law that way. The Department of Education has never come down on a single institution."

Mr. Klicka's efforts on Capitol Hill have paid off. In June, Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon, the California Republican who heads the House of Representatives' subcommittee on higher education, introduced a bill (HR 4866) that, among other things, clarified that home schooled students would not have to obtain a GED or pass any other standardized tests that colleges use to determine a student's "ability to benefit" from postsecondary education before they attend college.

Though the measure was defeated on the House floor for reasons unrelated to the home schooling provision, college officials expect the issue to re emerge when lawmakers draft legislation to renew the Higher Education Act, which is set to expire this year. Home schooling has been a traditional mainstay of conservatives' education agenda and, with Republicans in control of both the White House and Congress, colleges fear that home schooling lobbyists will have a "green light" to push for even greater changes to the law. Ultimately, they worry that the lobbyists will push lawmakers and the administration to declare home schooled students a "protected class," and make colleges legally vulnerable when they reject them.

"We do not believe that it is appropriate for the federal government to jump in and set admissions standards for 3,600 colleges and universities," says Edward M. Elmendorf, senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. "It's far too intrusive a role for the government to play."

Jumping Through Hoops

Many college officials point out that it is up to individual states to determine whether their students who have been home schooled are to be recognized as having earned the "recognized equivalent of a high school diploma" or need to pass additional tests before being admitted to college.

"Essentially, there are 50 different definitions of when a student is finished with school—one for each state," says Sean Callaway, director of college placement at the Center for Urban Education at Pace University's School of Education.

In North Carolina, for example, public colleges are prohibited from requiring home schooled applicants to take extra standardized tests and from holding them to higher standards than those used to judge traditionally educated applicants.

Requirements for home schooled students are particularly stringent in Georgia. Most state colleges there require home schooled students to take as many as six subject specific SAT II tests, and often want higher SAT scores—as much as a 200 point difference—from home schoolers who apply.

Kayla M. Crumley, a freshman at Piedmont College, in Georgia, who was home schooled starting in the 10th grade, decries the "double standard" in which home schooled students have to jump through more hoops than their traditionally educated counterparts.

"State funded colleges aren't as open to home schoolers," Ms. Crumley says. "State systems don't take you seriously unless you're already in the system. They like knowing that you went through this set path that they're familiar with."

The Issue of Trust

But many college officials argue that it is unreasonable for home schoolers to expect colleges to take the home schoolers' word for their eligibility to go to college.

Charles D. Beckenhauer, associate general counsel for Baylor University, says that home schooled students often lack any way to prove that they have received the equivalent of a high school education. "Home schoolers want no oversight, but they want that same no oversight ignored when they want to go to college," he says. "They want it both ways, and they just can't have it."

Some home schooled students themselves are sympathetic to the colleges' complaints.

"There's no real accountability," says Bradley Wayne Pierce, a junior at Baylor. Mr. Pierce, a pre law student and the vice president of the student body, was home schooled until he entered college. He concedes that "if we put an 'A' on a transcript, there's not much we can do to back it up. My transcript was as official as a home school transcript can be. Which, of course, is not too official."

The issue of trust is especially difficult for financial aid officers, who are always on the alert for scams that students and their families pull to receive more student aid than they deserve, and who may be held accountable by federal officials for cases in which aid funds go to ineligible students.

"What's to keep the parent from pushing the kid through high school, not teaching them anything, and then dropping them on society?" asks Perry J. Diehm, associate director of financial aid at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Kansas.

Mr. Diehm, who teaches his own children at home, says that colleges have a "natural bias" against home schooling because of its lack of accountability. But he notes that in awarding student aid to any student, colleges have to take a lot on faith. For example, federal law requires that colleges verify key eligibility information included on the student aid applications of only 30 percent of aid recipients at their institutions.

"It's very hard to stop parents and students from lying or cheating," he continues. "But in financial aid, as with life, there are times when you just have to trust people to do the right thing."

An Uphill Battle

College officials say they will fight efforts by lawmakers to ease admissions requirements for home schooled students who may not be academically prepared to attend their institutions. But they know that in the current environment in Washington, that will be an uphill battle.

The Bush administration and Republican leaders in Congress have repeatedly aligned themselves with the home school lobby.

For instance, they exempted home schooled students from the federal testing requirements imposed on public school students under the "Leave No Child Behind" elementary and secondary education legislation, which President Bush signed into law last year. In that law, they also included a provision prohibiting the federal government from overseeing home schools, including the curriculum of these students.

In October, the House of Representatives approved legislation that would extend privacy protections to home schooled students. Under current law, the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act protects the privacy of most other students. The Senate has not acted on this bill.

A press release, written by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, lauded the bill as "another example of House Republicans' commitment to ensuring the rights of home schooled children and their families." That same panel is in charge of drafting the House bill to reauthorize the Higher Education Act.

Stephen Burd contributed to this article.

Copyright 2003 by The Chronicle of Higher Education