“Homeschool Got Me Into Harvard”: The Missing Facts

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on September 2, 2015.

The September 2015 cover of Boston Magazine features a smiling young woman wearing a Harvard University sweater with the caption “Homeschool got me into Harvard” in front of her. As a homeschool graduate myself, this cover caught my eye. As I looked at it, I puzzled over its intent. Homeschool graduates have been attending Harvard for decades now, so it’s not exactly news that a homeschooler was admitted. Yet homeschool graduates make up far less than 1% of the students at Harvard, despite the fact that as of 2011, 3.4% of students were homeschooled.

I read through Samburg’s article, which focuses on Harvard-bound homeschool graduate Claire Dickson and includes interviews with other homeschooling families, to determine whether it mentions just how unusual Claire’s case is. In answer, I found this paragraph:

And what about Milva McDonald’s daughter, Claire, who’s headed to Harvard? Is that a one-in-a-million shot, or have McDonald and her allies discovered a new path to the Ivy League—one that runs right through their living room? To find out what elite academic institutions think, I call Matt McGann, director of admissions at MIT. He’s entirely optimistic: “The homeschooled students in our population are a great addition to the MIT community. They are students who are more likely to have designed their own education curriculum, and they may be more independently motivated to learn,” he says. “I think as the nature of homeschooling has evolved, colleges are seeing more and more homeschooling applicants who are appropriate for this environment.”

Samburg could have contacted Harvard to ask for their admission statistics, or simply looked online for their annual class profiles, but she didn’t. As a result, her article masks the reality that homeschool graduates are severely underrepresented at Harvard and other Ivy League schools. She quotes the director of admissions at MIT saying positive things about homeschool graduates, but she does not note that only 1% of students entering MIT this fall are homeschool graduates. She also never mentions that only 0.3% of the 2014 freshman class at Harvard were homeschool graduates.

Why does this matter, you may wonder?

It matters because articles like this mask the dark underside of homeschooling and present an overly rosy picture of the practice.

Yes, it is true that children can benefit from homeschooling, and that absolutely should be talked about. In some cases, homeschooling can allow children to pursue their educational interests in innovative ways and engage in learning that would be impossible in a formal school setting. It can also offer students struggling with bullying or a school structure that does not fit them a safe space and the room they need to express themselves as individuals.

But homeschooling, by itself, does not get a child into Harvard. Samburg writes that Claire Dickson was involved in a theater group, a creative writing club, and a math group, and that she took “supplementary classes at the Harvard Extension School and Bunker Hill Community College.” In a blog post, Claire’s mother writes more about her approach: they are unschoolers who place a priority on supporting their children’s interests and finding resources to facilitate their learning. They worked hard—very hard—to get Claire where she is today, and while Claire’s mother insists on her blog that Claire got herself into college, Claire could not have done that without the resources and rich educational environment her mother provided her.

I know this because I know homeschool graduates who did not have these resources or this environment, and their stories are far, far different from Claire’s. Alumni-run organizations like Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out (HARO) and the Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE) point to cases of homeschool failure and urge communities to do better by the homeschooled children in their midst. HARO focuses on child abuse awareness and prevention and on providing community and support for graduates of bad homeschool environments while CRHE focuses on providing information on homeschooling and advocating for more effective oversight.

HARO and CRHE point to the reality that homeschooling fails some children colossally. This is because homeschooling is only as good as the parents it relies on, and the resources those parents have to offer. In the hands of parents like Claire’s, homeschooling can be a powerful tool promoting children’s wellbeing. In the hands of parents who lack the resources or knowledge to provide an education, on the other hand, homeschooling can leave children with severe educational deficiencies. And in the hands of controlling or abusive parents, well, the story may be far, far worse.

In a recent Slate article, Jessica Huseman noted the following:

If social workers are particularly interested in home-schooling families, it’s not because they assume those parents are predisposed to be abusive, said Barbara Knox, a University of Wisconsin pediatrician who specializes in child abuse. It’s because parents who do have a pattern of abuse often pull their children from school under the guise of home schooling in order to avoid scrutiny. A 2014 study conducted by Knox and five colleagues looked at 38 cases of severe child abuse and found that nearly 50 percent of parents had either removed their children from public school or never enrolled them, telling their respective states they were home schooling.

“This is a pattern all of us see over and over and over again,” Knox said. “Certainly there are wonderful home-schooling families. But the lack of regulation for this population makes it easier to disenroll children from public school to further isolate them and escalate abuse to the point of reaching torture.”

Homeschooling is not a magic bullet.

Homeschooling is an educational method that places a great deal of power in the hands of a child’s parents, nothing more, nothing less. In the hands of well educated parents with access to resources, the result can be extremely positive. In the hands of parents too overwhelmed trying to provide for a large family to pay much attention to academics, the results can be devastating. And in the hands of abusive parents? In the hands of abusive parents the results are sometimes so tragic they are difficult to read.

I am all for telling positive stories of homeschooling, and I am by no means saying that Samburg’s article should not have been written. But to write it without noting that homeschooled children are far less likely to attend a school like Harvard than students educated via other methods is misleading and, frankly, irresponsible. Any article spotlighting a homeschooled student’s admission to an Ivy League school should at least note that homeschooled students are much less likely than other students to attend places like Harvard or MIT, and, ideally, also ask why this is and whether it is a problem here that needs addressing.

Please, media, I’m asking you as a homeschool graduate—get this right.

22 comments

  • Yes, a worthy analysis.

    In some ways, saying ‘I was homeschooled’ or ‘We homeschool’ conveys no more information than ‘I play sport.’ Well, what of the hundreds of sports do/did you play?

    Also, academic success is not a complete measure of a successful person.

  • Thank you so much for this. While I appreciate the media acknowledging the secular side of homeschooling, I also think your analysis was greatly needed to counter the rosy picture the article painted.

  • Well said. There are myriad ways to abandon children, both to homeschooling and herd schooling. This young woman was cared for and provided for as an unschooler. Unschooling is natural learning, led by the learner and when it is supported with opportunities to enhance the natural passions of kids, homeschooling is a wonderful way to be set free in learning. But homeschooling may be and is often far far from unschooling done well. And as you very clearly state, homeschooling in the hands of abusive parents is a horror for some children. The varied possibilities regarding learning are steadily changing. This year, in my area, (British Columbia) the Board has announced yet another new initiative to offer more student-passion based, open curriculum. This is because the public system is endlessly lethargic and has parents looking for better options and are leaving public education in droves. Although this does not please the herd believers, it speaks to a future of more possibilities for our children.

  • Unschooling may be an option for those who are independently minded and intellectually curious.

    Students with a mental disability may need the herd to help them along. The comfort of being able to look around to learn an appropriate social response is something that can not be learned at home. While this sort of learning will never show up on a test score-it is a form of learning that can only occur in this setting.

    • Agreed. I maintain that homeschooling and unschooling are probably better options for students who are already motivated and like to study and learn on their own. Other students (not necessarily mentally disabled ones) aren’t really as big on this learning thing, so they’d need a more structured environment to ensure that they get their work done. Student-directed learning isn’t really a good idea if the kid decides to just play video games all day, ha ha.

  • Not one student in my hometown’s graduating class was accepted into Harvard. Not one! Clearly there is something wrong with the school. I only hope the local media will address the issue.

  • I really appreciate this article’s main points about not painting an overly rosy picture of homeschooling, understanding *why* certain cases of homeschooling succeed or fail, and thinking about what we can do to increase the number of successes and decrease the number of failures. And I’m totally on board with legal/cultural reforms to advance that third goal.

    I do wonder about the statistics here. The article mentions that 3.4 percent of all (American?) students were homeschooled as of 2011, contrasting this with the 0.3 percent of Harvard’s 2014 freshman class who graduated high school as homeschoolers. But, as I understand it, the 3.4 percent applies to all school-age students, not to all high school senior-age students. The thing is, in my experience, many students are homeschooled until high school, or even through 10th grade, and then attend a public or private high school. So the percentage of 17- or 18-year-olds who are homeschooled might be considerably lower than the percentage of school-age children as a whole who are homeschooled, meaning the level of under-representation might not be quite as dire as it seems. This also means that students who were homeschooled for most of K-12 but attended public/private school for the last bit would not show up as homeschoolers in the Harvard stats.

    Again, I don’t mean to detract from this article’s main points. If homeschoolers are at all under-represented at Harvard and peer schools — whether they are not applying at all, or are applying but rejected at disproportionately high rates, or being admitted but choosing not to attend — it’s important to ask why this is the case, and how we can fix this. I just think it might be important to pinpoint the extent and exact nature of the problem! 🙂 Thanks, as always, for raising awareness of these issues.

  • What does HSA want to see done? Do you want to see homeschooling outlawed entirely? Do you want to see it much better regulated? You are good at pointing out problems, but I don’t read many proposed solutions coming from you. So what exactly do you want to DO?

    Oh my goodness, Suzy Homeschooled Creamcheese didn’t get into Harvard? What a travesty! How dare they not see how truly special and brilliant you are, Suzy! You poor thing.

    • And the missing the point award goes to…..

    • I would like to see it better regulated (as I would all education-and better funded) and I would like to the home schooling crowd to drop the “we are so much better and smarter act”.

      I’ve home-schooled some of my children-so please spare me the “you don’t know what you speak of” speech.

  • That’s it exactly; the point of this article eludes me completely. Again: HSA is good at pointing out problems, but I don’t read many proposed solutions coming from them. So what exactly do they want to DO? Homeschool grads are underrepresented in the Ivy League. And…?

  • It’s a serious question and am not here to troll, as if I am merely amusing myself. Truly, I do not see the point of this article. What exactly do they propose to DO about it? Or are they just into complaining for its own sake?

  • Brian, I think that Mr. Stoller is attempting to inform the public who read here. In any complaint and in any criticism, there are steps involved from A to Z. Mr. Stoller is trying to share what he has surmised from his own experience and what has been shared with him, what he has garnered. His only request in this writing is that the media get-it-right for a change and not just play with varnishes and shiny, pretty things. Who the fuck are you to demand that he offer you the final solution? What the fuck is your problem, Brian? Mr. Stoller points out and very poignantly, that many young people suffer extreme hardship because of overzealous, particularly religious parents who cloister their kids with homeschooling. And HSA exists because of that…
    Your complaints are full of vacuum and make it hard to breathe.

  • Why do you feel it necessary to cuss at me, first of all, anonymous person? Why do you seem to be so angry over my (respectfully-put and intelligent) questions?

  • Insults and cursing do not phase me, anonymous person. Why not just answer (or at least address) my questions, rather than make fun of me?

  • Sorry for three in a row; it’s just that I am a stickler for spelling. Insults and cursing do not FAZE me, anonymous person.

    • Brian, I react, rudely sometimes. I have feelings that involve cussing, cursing and I very much value the fact that I am free to feel, to be joyful and angry in kind, to freely express. I often need to say sorry, too and understand that sometimes my own expression of feelings can be insulting to strangers. I find that particularly among those of us who have survived cultic, religious upbringings (down-puttings), there is often a shit-load of buried emotion that had to be hidden to survive childhood. That destruction of freedom to live and be goes on in our adult lives. We are often subdued, overly polite, carefully hidden…. we check our every move and spell-check our very thoughts!
      I have found my feelings again and will never let them go, the good or the bad that happen to come my way in life. In some cases, perhaps here, with you, my cussing FAZED you, rather than simply expressed my frustration at a man who simply says, “So what?” when reading about homeschooling issues.
      It is most important that these issues be spoken of openly, and often without answers to problems. Surely you can accept that… That you say you are not fazed by cussing and whatever is a bit disingenuous, don’t you think? Do you mean that you handle your feelings rather than share them? 😉

  • “This is because homeschooling is only as good as the parents it relies on, and the resources those parents have to offer.”

    Well-said! I hate when homeschooling is touted as always being the superior option, because such a statement implies that all parents have the education, skills, and resources required to give a kid a good education. Teaching is hard, and not something anyone can do. It’s going to depend on both the parents and the kid. It sounds like Claire is a very driven, motivated, and intelligent young woman, and her mother cares a lot about her education. They live in an area and presumably have enough money to allow Claire access to good resources. She probably would’ve done well even if she went to an average public school, but she did so great in homeschooling because she had a mother who knew how to take advantage of the best parts of it. (like allowing her to learn at a faster pace, letting her study stuff she wanted, letting her take outside courses, etc.) While the mother gives Claire full credit, homeschooling is only as good as the parent allows. I doubt a homeschooled Claire would get into Harvard if her parents didn’t care much about her education, or if they actively prevented her from learning certain things, and she lived in the middle of nowhere and had no way to access different resources…

    Homeschooling can be a good thing, and Claire probably benefited more from it that she would have from public school. But it’s irresponsible to tout it as an option for everyone.

  • “Homeschooling can be a good thing, and Claire probably benefited more from it that she would have from public school. But it’s irresponsible to tout it as an option for everyone.”

    Now I get it; now I see the point. Thanks.

  • Brian J. Birmingham said: “I am capable of sharing my feelings and opinions without verbally assaulting and/or abusing those with whom I disagree. Are YOU?”

    No, not always… Sometimes I express my feelings coarsely, strongly, and certainly do not claim to be able to always manage myself the way you seem to feel you do. Nor do I wish to… Swearing and cussing is just right sometimes, though I find it regrettable when others feel assaulted by me. Sorry for that… I really just meant to be emphatic.
    I am glad you find that you get the point from Sarah J.’s comment.

  • The big problem is that the CPS can be crazy Nazis (see the numerous horror stories), no way any of their “oversight” or “regulation” from government bureaucrats who can be rabid socialists, antichristian tyrants is acceptable. With your line of argumentation everybody needs oversight and regulation-what if they’re secretly criminals and nobody is monitoring them?… a statist argument based on assuming that Big Brother is actually good and decent…How about we let the police handle actual crimes, not ankle bracelet everybody to make sure they behave?

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