She didn’t set foot in a classroom until her freshman year of college, yet Elizabeth Burgio, 19, blends into the crowd as she steps onto the quad outside her dorm at the University of Maryland, College Park.
It was a tough beginning for Burgio, an engineering student. She was more than ready for the transition from an academic standpoint — her SAT scores were well above average, and her high school GPA was 4.0.
But Burgio was home-schooled from kindergarten through high school — taught by her mother, who also studied engineering, in their Dayton home — and she couldn’t focus when she was away from her parents.
She was used to nightly family dinners with discussions about current events and topics from her schoolwork. Now she was on her own, trying to find her way on campus.
“It was the strangest feeling ever,” Burgio says. “It was a huge adjustment going from a class of one to a class of over 200 people.”
The college transition process can be a challenge for any student, but for Burgio and other home-schoolers, having a professor, classmates and grades — not to mention learning and living away from home for the first time — takes some getting used to. But before home-schoolers can even enroll in their first undergraduate courses, they must navigate a relatively uncharted course to get into college in the first place — one that requires creativity and teamwork from both parent and child.
Finding a path
As the home-school population grows, so does the number of home-schoolers who attend college. In 1999, when the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics started tracking the number of students home-schooled nationally, approximately 850,000 students were registered as home-educated. In 2013, that number grew to 1.7 million, accounting for 3.4 percent of school-age children.
And according to the Home School Legal Defense Association, a Virginia-based advocacy group, more than 74 percent of home-educated adults between the ages of 18 and 24 have taken college courses, compared to 46 percent of the non-home-schooled population.
But the journey to college admission isn’t always a clear path for home-schoolers.
In home schooling, one parent often serves as the primary, year-round teacher for their children. That parent is the one creating the curriculum and transcripts — two critical factors colleges use to determine which students they admit.
That’s not to say home-school parents are left entirely to their own devices — they report to either the state Board of Education with an update on academic progress, or they work through a private umbrella group that helps families report and keep track of their children’s education — but the process is different for each household. College-bound home-schoolers can’t simply walk down the hall to the academic advising office to pick up their transcripts.
“Since there’s no standard, you have to come up with what it’s going to look like, so we thought we’d give her a little personal touch,” Lisa Dean, a former home-schooling mom in Columbia says, pointing to her daughter’s picture on the top of her transcripts. “Her journey of home schooling is unique, and you have to tell the story in the context of the fill-in-the blank college application form.”
College before college
For Elizabeth Dean, a home-schooler from Columbia, college prep started much earlier than it does for the average student. Her mother enrolled her at Howard Community College when she was 13 years old.
“I knew she was ready and could earn the credit,” says her mother, Lisa, a former attorney and founder of the Columbia Homeschool Community, a support group for fellow home-schoolers that organizes field trips and social events. “We thought that if she could push through the age issue and prove herself, the transition process would be easier as she got older.”
“When I first started classes at HCC, I was scared to death,” Elizabeth Dean says. “I didn’t know what I was doing, and some of my classmates teased me for being much younger than everyone else.”
After a challenging transition to classes with students five to 50 years older than her, Dean decided to get involved with as many campus activities as she could and, with encouragement from her mom and advisers at HCC, she started to feel like she fit in, even with her oldest classmates. She excelled academically and became the youngest editor of the campus newspaper, managing people twice her age.
Dorothy Plantz, director of admissions and advising at HCC, says the school sees a steady stream of home-schoolers looking to dual-enroll in classes, taking courses for college credit while still in high school. This spring semester, HCC had 54 home-schooled students enrolled.
“They’re able to come and have a college experience when they’re still living at home and get a feel for what that experience is,” Plantz said.
Dual enrollment is available for students in the 11th and 12th grades with parental permission. Students in grades 8 through 10 may be allowed to take courses at the community college as well if they complete a few extra steps toward the gifted and talented program.
Dean, 19, is now at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., majoring in English. She began her freshman year at age 17 with 48 credits from HCC — more than a third of the 120 credits typically needed to complete an undergraduate degree.
A new normal
Like Dean, Burgio found that getting involved in campus life helped her adapt to the college environment. At the suggestion of her mother and her roommate, Burgio joined the professional engineering society and a Christian group on campus.
To adjust academically, she came home when she could. Her mom helped her study for exams and “home-schooled” her throughout her freshman year to help keep her on track.
“It was just like home schooling but at the college level,” says Burgio, who now feels well-adjusted.
The transition also took some getting used to for Debbie Burgio, who would soon have an “empty nest,” a term that has a different meaning for a home-school family.
“Sending our second the following year was much more difficult,” says Debbie Burgio, Elizabeth’s mother. “For 13 years, a major part of my identity was wrapped up in being a ‘home-school mom.’ Now that phase of my life was done, and I needed to find a new direction.”
Now that her son and daughter are both in college, Debbie Burgio is back at school herself. She’s at Wesley Theological Seminary for a master of theology degree, and she plans to be ordained as a deacon in the United Methodist Church. She aims to graduate in May 2016 and become a hospital chaplain.
She says her family has come full circle, with her kids turning the tables when it comes to academics: “Only thing now is that the kids want to know what grades I am earning.”