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Home-school students do well first time in college

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You just want your kids to be happy, whatever they choose. I know my kids really well and if they aren’t successful at what they choose, they won’t be happy, so my advice for them is to get in there and do the best they can do and just stick with it. – Lisa Taylor

When Cade Taylor considers what career he’ll choose, there’s a little voice in the back of his mind that inspires him to aim high.

It sounds like his mother.

Taylor is a college freshman who, up until now, has been home-schooled by his mom his whole life, but the next step after college is one he hopes will make her years of sacrifice all worth it, he says.

“I feel guilty I took up so much of her time,” Taylor says with a little laugh. “I feel like I have to succeed at something to make myself feel like her spending all of that time on me was worthwhile — so I have to do something cool with my life.”

Taylor is one of a growing population of home-schooled students whose first experience with a brick and mortar school is walking onto a college campus. As the rate of students attending home school is increasing, so too is the rate of home-school students attending college, thanks to a marked increase of available resources and a softening of public perception.

Now more home-school students than ever are making the transition to college life with better skills and preparation in some cases than their non-home-schooled peers, studies show. The 20-year-old Taylor wants to make his mother proud by becoming a pediatrician or an anesthesiologist. Data comparing home-schooled students’ scores and skills to his non-home-schooled peers show that his mother’s investment might already be worth it.

The home-schooling choice

Lisa Taylor, Cade Taylor’s mom, didn’t initially plan on home-schooling her kids.

Years ago, she was in college herself, majoring in biology and English, with plans to go on to graduate school, when she had her first baby — a little girl who was diagnosed with Down syndrome. From that point on, her life changed.

Parents choose to home-school their children for a variety of reasons: they like the freedom of setting their own schedule, they like having a flexible curriculum or they have ideals not being met by a standard school setting. Lisa Taylor did it because she thought it would be fun. For the most part, she says she was right.

“Especially if you start when they are young, it becomes your lifestyle; it becomes something you do,” Lisa Taylor said on a recent fall afternoon from her home in Herriman, Utah. “There are some days that aren’t as fun as others. And there are some days when you think, ‘Why am I doing this? I could be out shopping someplace.’ ”

Even though Lisa Taylor didn’t initially plan on being a home-school mom, her family fits the mold of home-schoolers pretty well. Families that home-school their children generally have more formal education than the general population, according to "Homeschooling Across America: Academic Achievement and Demographic Characteristics," a study published in 2009 by the National Home Education Research Institute. The study was commissioned by the Home School Legal Defense Association, a nonprofit group that promotes home-schooling across the country. According to the study, 66.3 percent of fathers and 62.5 percent of mothers had a bachelor's degree or higher.

Some home-school families have parents with teaching credentials, and some have a higher income than others, but on average, neither factor seems to affect students’ scores, the study says. Home-school students with families of all incomes scored in the 85-89th percentile in CORE testing, compared to public school students who scored in the 50th percentile on average, the study says.

Home-school students score as well as or better than public school students almost across the board, except when it comes to ACT math scores, according to a 2009 study by the University of St. Thomas' Associate Vice President for Records and Institutional Effectiveness Michael Cogan. According to Cogan's 2009 study, called "Exploring Academic Outcomes of Homeschooled Students," home-schooled students scored an average of 26.5 on their composite ACT scores, compared to an average of 25 for students who attended public school.

For math scores, however, home-schooled students scored 24.6 on average, compared to students at public schools who scored 24.7, and students at private schools who scored 25. Once at college, according to Cogan’s study, 66.7 percent of home-schooled students graduated within four years, compared to 57.5 percent of other students.

With home-school students having positive testing results, more parents have opted to keep their children at home. There is less cultural resistance than was experienced by home-school parents 15 years ago, says Brian Ray, a former university professor and learning expert who founded the National Home Education Research Institute to study the phenomenon.

Currently, only about 4 percent of children are home-schooled in America, Ray says, but that number has grown substantially in the last 10 years, from about 850,000 students in 1999 to about 1.5 million students in 2007, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. With that growth and the advancement of technology has come an onslaught of resources available to home-school parents.

“There are hundreds (of resources),” Ray said from his office in Oregon. “There isn’t a question anymore — it’s endless. It’s overwhelming to new home-schoolers there are so many materials, and those are mostly hands-on, concrete tangible things, books and science kits and things. Add to that all of the electronic and online resources and it is amazing.”

Prepared for higher learning

Cade Taylor’s pathway on the road to college was paved by his older brother, Jesse Taylor.

Jesse Taylor volunteered enough hours to qualify for a tuition-free scholarship to a community college, where he went to school and earned credits for free until he transferred to the University of Utah to major in political science. He will graduate from the university this December debt free, with plans to go on and earn his master’s degree after saving some money first.

Like most home-schooled students who go to college, he credits his smooth transition to higher education to the time management skills he learned in home-school. He worked on his own deadline, learning academic discipline and independence in the process, but there was one key to his home-school experience that had the biggest impact.

“The main difference is that personal desire to succeed and learn for the sake of itself, not because I had to, I wasn’t forced to,” Jesse Taylor said recently. He is working in a political internship in Washington, D.C. “That really sparked me, that kind of drive to get involved and help in a cause greater than myself.”

Home-school students have other qualities that typically play into their favor during and even after college. Compared to non-home-school students, they typically read more and watch one hour or less of TV per day, according to a 1998 study by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation at the College of Library and Information Services at the University of Maryland.

According to the "Homeschooling Across America" study, 98.5 percent of former home-schoolers polled read a book in the last six months, versus 69 percent for the general population. The former home-schoolers also appeared to be more civically involved; 71 percent participated in community service activities, versus 37 percent. Additionally, they were more likely to vote, participate in protests or boycotts, write petitions or call public officials.

About 73 percent said they are satisfied with their lives and find life to be exciting — perhaps because they share a key influence, says Scott Woodruff, senior counsel at the Home School Legal Defense Association.

“One of the most important things that home-schooling does is it doesn’t crush a child’s natural desire to learn,” he says. “It fertilizes it.”

The college transition

It was Amanda Grant’s dream to go to Brigham Young University after she finished her home-education that started in kindergarten and went through 12th grade. When she heard she was accepted to the private university in Provo, Utah, this spring, she was elated — but her mom was a little concerned.

“I still worry about it,” Sandy Grant said about the reality of her daughter going to school for the first time in her life as a BYU student. “One of the worst disadvantages of home-school is that if things go wrong, there is no one else to blame. If my daughter doesn’t do well, I can only blame it on her and on me.”

The Grants’ college application was simple, as far as home-school students go. They checked a box that said home-school, then turned in Amanda Grant’s standardized test scores, some essays and a list of her civic involvement, which was long and included leadership opportunities, like serving as the mayor pro-tem on her city’s youth council. They didn’t include a grade point average or even a list of classes Amanda Grant had taken thus far.

Such a seamless process would have been unheard of 20 years ago, says Ray. Back then, universities didn’t know how to handle unconventional applicants. Now universities face a new quandary: how to respond to increasingly young home-schoolers who finish their curriculum early, at age 15 or 16, for example.

Home-school students work at their own pace, but according to the 1998 study, the students tested ahead of the grade level they were supposed to be in, so that fifth-graders were testing more than two grade levels ahead, sixth-graders were testing three grade levels ahead, and eighth-graders tested four grade levels ahead.

“Since the average home-schooled eighth-grader is already scoring as high as the average high school senior, you can see why home-schoolers are starting to take college classes while they are still in high school, or even finishing high school and starting their college degree program at 15 or 16,” says Woodruff.

Even though attending college might be drastically different for students who have spent a significant time at home, learning in a familiar and safe environment, Amanda Grant and Cade Taylor say they’re ready to move on to their next life project in learning.

Eventually, Cade plans to make his way to medical school. However his path unfolds, his mother has some wise advice for him, though, as he thinks about what kind of job he wants to pursue.

“You just want your kids to be happy, whatever they choose,” Lisa Taylor says. “I know my kids really well and if they aren’t successful at what they choose, they won’t be happy, so my advice for them is to get in there and do the best they can do and just stick with it.”