Winston, a history of art and architecture concentrator in Mather House, says her mother taught her at home because the St. Louis school district where she grew up was “way terrible.”
“There weren’t many options for us,” Winston says. “My mom wanted us to have a certain set of values growing up, and she wanted to make sure that we got those if we were homeschooled.”
The Department of Education reported in 2003 that 2.2 percent of the American school-age population was homeschooled. And experts at the Graduate School of Education say that a majority of those families choose to homeschool their children for religious reasons.
But even as the homeschooling trend takes root nationwide, a disproportionately tiny number of these students ever win entry to Harvard.
‘A GROWTH INDUSTRY’
In 1989, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 said that around five to 10 homeschooled students applied to Harvard yearly.
Following the rise in the number of homeschoolers nationwide, between 100 and 200 homeschooled students applied to Harvard this year, says Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath Lewis ’70-’73. Lewis adds that many other applicants were homeschooled for part of their education.
“It’s a growth industry. We’ve probably had an increase in numbers over the past 10 years,” she says.
Lewis says she cannot give exact figures because the admissions office does not place homeschooled students’ applications into separate categories.
Despite this increase in the number of applicants, Lewis says Harvard usually only accepts between three and eight homeschooled students each year, a number significantly lower than this year’s overall acceptance rate of 9.3 percent.
Nancy Faust Sizer, a lecturer at the GSE, says this lower admissions rate could reflect a lack of information about homeschoolers’ educational background.
“Nobody knows exactly what the situation was,” Sizer says. “They can’t even imagine it really.”
Lewis maintains that despite having “less complete information” about homeschooled applicants, these students are still evaluated equally in admissions decisions.
“We’re trying to bring people who will use Harvard very well and will do something with their futures,” Lewis says. “Energy and ambition matter a lot, and they matter more than preparation.”
She says the admissions office considers all students on an individual basis, and that officers are “used to the idea that people present different kinds of credentials.” Standardized test scores and alumni interviews are especially important for homeschoolers, Lewis says.
‘JUST NORMAL KIDS’
A group of homeschoolers at Harvard banded together last year to form an official student organization, Homeschoolers Anonymous. The founder and president, Stephen T. Norberg ’06, says he created the club to help freshmen transition from homeschooled backgrounds to college. The club, which has 26 Facebook.com members, aims to dispel some of the misconceptions surrounding homeschooling, he says.
Emphasizing that the club’s title has no connection with self-help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, the Kansas City, Mo., native says he picked the name to make fun of the stereotype that all homeschoolers lack social skills and need support to enter society.
“When I’d tell people I was homeschooled, they wouldn’t believe it because I didn’t act socially awkward,” Norberg says.
Winston says she’s faced similar reactions from classmates and friends.
“People have ideas that homeschoolers are great at spelling bees and not much else,” Winston says. “I think people were surprised to see that homeschoolers are just normal kids.”
Trent J. Hudson ’05, a co-founder of Homeschoolers Anonymous, agrees.
“This is kind of like a social myth about the homeschoolers,” Hudson says. “Norberg’s the most outgoing, crazy, wild kid you’ll ever meet, and I wasn’t an introvert.”
FOUNDATIONS IN FAITH
But experts at the GSE say they worry that some homeschooled students, especially those from fundamentalist Christian families, may have trouble adjusting to the diversity of a college campus.
“Some of them are very ill-prepared to enter this big world and then try to negotiate interpersonal relationships with very, very diverse groups of people,” says Donna M. San Antonio, a lecturer at the GSE. “They haven’t developed a sense of the world.”
San Antonio recalls one 15-year-old homeschooled student who hiked with her on a month-long outdoor program she led with a group of seven other teenagers.
She says the boy had trouble reconciling new viewpoints with the values he had been taught at home.
“Socially, as a teenager, he had a really rough time,” according to San Antonio. She says the boy sought friendships, but he found that his peers held values that were drastically different from his own family’s. “And this really presented a conflict for him,” San Antonio says.
Some homeschooled students at Harvard, though not all, also come from religious backgrounds. Winston says that homeschooling allowed her to become more secure in her Christian faith.
“I was in an environment to talk about my faith and explore it openly,” she says.
When she was surrounded by people of so many different religions at Harvard, Winston says she “had to learn a way to express my faith in a way that didn’t make people feel threatened.”
Other Harvard homeschoolers came from more secular upbringings as part of a movement that encourages personal exploration and expression.
Aidin E.W. Carey ’07 says that her mother decided to homeschool her after hearing about a new educational philosophy focused on “self-directed” learning. “The idea is that kids will learn better and develop better a love of learning,” she says.
Carey says she didn’t have any organized schooling before she turned 11 years old. She went to museums, took dance and gymnastics classes, and participated in community theater. Carey, who is now a history and literature concentrator, says she also spent a lot of her time reading. “What people do before school and out of school was sort of my whole life,” Carey says.
For the next few years, Carey met with other children in the Boston homeschool community for organized class discussions. They had “no sort of grading concept” and pursued their own interests.
“I really loved having the freedom and having the control over my own educational life and life in general,” Carey says. “It really created me as a person. It’s very much who I am.”
A ‘SEAMLESS’ TRANSITION
Homeschoolers from all backgrounds praise this type of flexibility and independent learning style, skills that can be important for college life.
Hudson characterizes the transition from homeschooling to college as “pretty seamless.”
“Homeschooling almost prepares you better for college, and especially a college like Harvard,” Hudson says. “As a homeschooler, a lot of it is kind of up to you in taking very personal ownership of your education.”
Sizer of the GSE says a structured classroom isn’t always necessary for sparking academic interests.
“Sometimes you still need a teacher to tell you a few stories about Thomas Jefferson to get you interested in him, but sometimes you don’t,” Sizer says.
She adds that the extra time and openness of a homeschooled setting lets homeschooled students shape their education and explore their own interests.
“You’re not going on a school bus. You’re not going out to recess...There’s just more time to do what really might matter,” Sizer says.
For Winston, this extra time allowed her to create independent classes in architectural history, in addition to working for an architectural firm in high school.
“That’s how I got interested in my current major of art history,” Winston says. “I was able to develop my interest in architecture a lot earlier than having to wait for college.”
—Staff writer Rachel L. Pollack can be reached at email@example.com.