How the One-Size-Fits-All College Application Model Hurts Homeschoolers

The season for college admissions is upon us. My younger daughter is still a junior but her public school teammates are all abuzz with chatter of who applied where, who’s already heard, how much more work everyone has left on their remaining applications. We homeschool, though, and among her homeschool friends, you could hear a pin drop. There’s no talk of college admissions at all.

Her friends are part of a large and growing number of college-ready youth who are skipping college. Research finds that there are now more homeschooled students in North Carolina than there are enrolled in private school. I’ve taught many of the local ones in co-op classes and found them bright and articulate enough to do well at university.

Studies such as this one also show that controlling for other factors, homeschoolers who do enroll in university tend to have similar graduation rates and higher GPAs than their peers. And yet, homeschooled students do not enroll in four-year universities in the same numbers as their institutionally schooled counterparts.

Maybe that is a good thing. Since John Holt pushed homeschooling into the spotlight in the 1970s, homeschoolers have embodied educational experimentation and reform, and their choice to opt out may reflect the shifting sands of contemporary higher education. After all, given the higher rates of entrepreneurship among homeschoolers and the effects of more stable family structures, the usual justifications for college attendance may not suffice.

From the perspective of higher education institutions, though, these students represent a potential pool of high-quality recruits. This is especially true because one of the current trends in homeschooling is increasing numbers of low-income urban minorities, who see it as their only escape from public school systems that do not serve their children’s needs.

Unfortunately, the current application process—the Common App in particular—makes it more difficult to match students with institutions than it should, unnecessarily lowering the number of homeschoolers who attend college.

First, the application asks for information relevant to institutional schools, not homeschoolers. Some questions are obviously irrelevant, like class rank, but other mismatches are more subtle. College applications focus on the methods institutional schools use to sort students beyond simply GPA. Clubs offer an array of “leadership positions” and students are selected for special competitions, awards, or opportunities. On the one hand, those do offer admissions officers an easily comparable yardstick for most applicants, but they make homeschoolers hard to assess.

Equally important is what the Common App does not ask. What did a student actually do in his or her classes? While school-at-home families may produce educational outcomes similar to those assumed from a high school transcript, other families’ practices may not, and this can be valuable information. For example, my daughter’s Bio 101 course centered on designing and conducting a semester-long experiment instead of memorizing parts of the cell. Surely the faculty that designed the course would like to recruit students who flourished in experiential education settings, but the Common App has no obvious way for students to communicate that.

Second, the application itself is daunting.

Higher education professionals have experience with these questions and forms, so it may be difficult to understand how challenging point #1 makes the application process. How do I make a transcript? What goes on it? What is a weighted GPA? Should I weight? How do I weight? Can I add a statement about my pedagogy? Should I write a recommendation or ask others? What counts as a “school” award? Do my classes count as Honors?

None of these have obvious answers for parents who don’t already work in higher education. And looming over all of them is the fear, “What if I might be sabotaging my child’s hard work by doing the wrong thing?”

Colleges—and the Common App—assume that the student’s high school answers all these questions for the student. In my experience, they provide homeschool parents no systematic guidance at all on these questions. The college application process may be time-consuming for institutional school students, but they simply have to follow directions. Homeschooled students and their families have the additional hurdle of guessing what the directions mean.

The application process has the perverse consequence of evaluating applicants precisely on the least relevant portion of their preparation.

Third, the college admissions process assumes the presence of “guidance counselors.” These individuals not only help students through the complicated process, they also supply private information about “fit,” giving students a better idea of where they should apply.

In contrast to our daughter’s teammates, her homeschool friends have only dim ideas of what their college options are—even those interested in higher education generally only consider Appalachian State University, a community college, or private Bible colleges they hear about from friends or relatives.

Probably less recognized is the Common App requirement that each application supply a counselor recommendation. In theory, this could be an opportunity for the parent to discuss the rigor of their students’ coursework, but doing that usefully would require comparative knowledge of institutional school load, of the difference between regular, honors, and AP classes, and of what college admissions officers are looking for

A guidance counselor would know these things, but a parent writing one, possibly for the first time? Even with all the graduate school recommendations I’ve written, it was still difficult for me to write about my daughter. I can’t help but think that these rarely provide useful information other than that the parent is proud of their child.

Fourth, these factors force schools to rely on standardized tests to evaluate homeschoolers—the very thing that many left institutional schools to avoid.

With the advent of No Child Left Behind and Common Core, public schools now devote a considerable portion of the year to preparation for end-of-year exams. By contrast, homeschoolers—required by North Carolina law to conduct one per year—treat it as a chore to be done quickly and then ignored. This means that the application process has the perverse consequence of evaluating applicants precisely on the least relevant portion of their preparation.

Many homeschoolers in North Carolina view higher education not only with a healthy skepticism but also with an unfortunate sense that it is something closed and distant. Anyone interested in closing this gap—whether to recruit more applicants or from a confidence that higher education does have something to offer these homeschoolers—needs to think about the way that the college admissions process may unintentionally reinforce that image and drive applicants away.