From Home to Harvard

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This fall a new college will open its doors to a crop of freshmen who may never have set foot in a high school. Nearly all will have earned straight A's, but most will never have SAT through a lecture. When it welcomes its inaugural class of 80 students in October, Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va., will be the first college designed specifically for kids who have been schooled at home. "When I was a little kid, and my mom told people I was homeschooled, we'd get this blank look," says Janice Phillips, who will enter Patrick Henry as a sophomore. "Now everyone knows someone who's homeschooled. We have, quote unquote, arrived."

Homeschooling's first wave of graduates is coming of age. And homeschooling has earned not only a college of its own but also respect from traditional schools, including elite institutions. More than 1 million students are being schooled at home, and their ranks are growing about 15% a year, according to the U.S. Department of Education. And though they still account for only a small fraction of the applicant pool at most colleges, homeschoolers are winning over admissions officers.

This year Stanford University accepted 26% of the 35 homeschoolers who applied--nearly double its overall acceptance rate. Twenty-three of this fall's 572 freshmen at Wheaton College in Illinois were homeschooled, and their SAT scores average 58 points higher than those of the overall class. "Often we're impressed by what someone has done under unusual circumstances," says Marlyn McGrath Lewis, director of admissions at Harvard University. "And homeschooling fits the bill."

The college-admissions environment for homeschoolers wasn't always so welcoming. As recently as five years ago, most schools were understandably stumped by applications with teacher recommendations written by Mom and Dad, lengthy high school transcripts that listed textbooks instead of courses, and grades that rarely dropped below A's. "When homeschoolers were applying to college in the early '90s, the schools didn't know what to make of them," says Cafi Cohen, 50, who taught her two children at home and wrote Homeschooling: The Teen Years. "Now most colleges have a policy for dealing with them, and some schools are just about rolling out the red carpet."

Most colleges take a close look at standardized-test scores when weighing homeschool applications and find that homeschoolers outperform their school-educated peers. This year homeschoolers scored an average of 1,100 on the SAT--a full 81 points above the national average--and 22.8 on the ACT, compared with the national average of 21.

Before applying to colleges, homeschoolers often enroll in a course at a local college or in a summer program at a competitive university to show that they can handle both the academic rigor and the social distractions of college life. Before their three college-bound, homeschooled children began making applications, the Heywood family of Durham, N.C., sent each child to a summer program at a highly ranked school: Oxford University in England or Williams or Amherst college in Massachusetts. "We chose to educate our kids at home because we weren't happy with what the local schools had to offer," says their father, John Heywood, 55, a retired lawyer. "But now it's time for them to get out there on their own, and we know they'll have a better shot this way."

So far the Heywoods are doing just fine: two kids attend Davidson College, a top liberal-arts school in North Carolina, and one starts at Williams this week.