Prior to 1998, colleges were often confused as to what requirements applied to home schoolers. Working with former Chairman Bill Goodling of the House Education and Workforce Committee, Home School Legal Defense Association Senior Counsel Christopher Klicka drafted legislation specifying that a student "who completes a secondary education in a home school setting" is eligible for federal financial aid. Home schoolers no longer had to obtain a General Equivalency Diploma (GED) or take the federal "ability-to-benefit" test in order to obtain federal money for college.
HSLDA also worked with House and Senate Education Committees and federal regulators to enable home school students to simply "self-certify" eligibility. There is no federal requirement that a home school graduate prove his diploma is state-recognized.
In addition, Klicka helped draft language to accompany the Higher Education Act, spelling out Congress' intent that
requiring additional testing [GED or SAT II exams] of home school students . . . could reasonably be seen as discriminatory . . . The Committee believes that college admissions should be determined based on the academic ability of a student, not on the accreditation status of the school in which he or she received secondary education.
Colleges also receive federal money directly in the form of "institutional eligibility funding." A college is only eligible for federal financial aid if it accepts students who have high school diplomas, GEDs, or are beyond the compulsory attendance age of the state in which the college is located. Since many 16- and 17-year-old home schoolers who wanted to attend college were below the compulsory attendance age, they were not technically included in any of the listed options.
U.S. Department of Education's new financial aid guidance letter|
Designed to replace inaccurate guidelines regarding college financial aid for home school graduates in the 2001 Federal Student Handbook, this letter points out that:Home school students of any age who have "completed a secondary school education in a home school setting" according to the amendment of the Higher Education Act in 1998, are eligible for federal student financial assistance.
Home school students at any age are not required by federal law:
Home school students are considered to be "beyond the age of compulsory attendance" if the state where a post-secondary institution is located would not consider that student truant once he completes a home school program.
- to obtain a GED in order to gain admission to a higher education institution that receives federal funds, or
- to take an ability-to-benefit test, an ACT test, or obtain a GED in order to be eligible for federal student financial assistance.
Home school students may self-certify the completion of secondary curriculum, just as high school graduates may certify the receipt of a diploma. They do not need to obtain a state certification of home school completion. "We expect the post-secondary institution to accept such self-certifications in application documents, in a letter, or in some other appropriate letter," wrote the U.S. Department of Education.
In 1998, this did not seem to be a problem. Once the law was passed, nearly 95% of colleges freely accepted home schoolers based on admissions criteria supplied by HSLDA that did not include a GED, an accredited diploma, or the taking of SAT II exams.
However, over the past year, many families have contacted Home School Legal Defense Association concerning various roadblocks their home school graduates are facing in college.
Baylor University in Texas, for example, decided at the last minute to deny entrance to six home school graduates, based on an inaccurate interpretation of federal law, even though they all had been formally accepted and had scored high on their SAT exams.
One of these students was from an HSLDA member family. She already had her room reservations and travel plans set when she was notified that she could not enter the college because her home school diploma was not sufficient. HSLDA immediately went to work on her behalf, faxing letters and legal memorandums to Baylor's general counsel. Finally a truce was reached—although Baylor refused to change its policy, it agreed to allow this one-time exception.*
In another case, Syracuse University in New York refused to give the son of an HSLDA member family federal financial aid because he only had a home school diploma.
In a more widespread problem, the whole University of Maine system misinterpreted the law and declared that home school graduates could only be admitted if they had a diploma recognized by the state. Since only one state out of fifty even has a process for home schoolers to obtain recognition of their diplomas, this absurd rule caused problems for home school graduates across the nation.
New York's Jefferson Community College told the 15-year-old son of another member family he could not become a regular student or receive financial aid since he only had a home school diploma. Initially, the college was going to admit the student and provide federal financial aid, but a U.S. Department of Education financial aid officer inaccurately informed the school that it could lose its institutional eligibility (disqualifying it for federal higher education aid).
Both Mountain Empire Community College and Strayer College in Virginia refused financial aid because the home school graduates did not have GEDs.
Why the confusion?
In January 2002, HSLDA obtained a copy of a student financial aid manual that we believe is the source of today's confusion regarding aid for home school graduates. Despite the clarity of the 1998 amendment, bureaucrats in the U.S. Department of Education under former President Clinton issued new erroneous guidelines in this manual, the Federal Student Handbook, which was distributed to colleges at the beginning of the 2001 school year.
The manual only recognizes a home school student as eligible for federal financial aid if "the student's home state recognizes their certificate as an equivalent of a high school diploma." This is inaccurate. The manual also stated, "Note, however, that these students must be above the age of compulsory attendance in order for your school to enroll them without jeopardizing its institutional eligibility." Also false.
Light at the end of the tunnel
Over the last several months, Chris Klicka has been working with the Department of Education and the House Education and Workforce Committee to obtain a comprehensive solution to these bureaucratic misinterpretations. HSLDA has requested three repairs:
Solution 1: Have the Department of Education Send a Clarifying Letter—First, HSLDA persuaded the Department of Education general counsel's office to draft a "guidance letter," which we received on April 19, 2002. All higher education institutions that receive federal funds must follow the letter, effective immediately. It states:
A home school student can be admitted to a post-secondary institution as a regular student without jeopardizing either the institution's eligibility to participate in federal student assistance programs or the student's eligibility to participate in such programs.
In essence, the inaccurate instructions in the Federal Student Handbook must be ignored. (See sidebar for a detailed list of corrections in the Department's new guidance letter.)
Solution 2: Correct the Student Financial Aid Manual—Secondly, the Department of Education promised that the Federal Student Handbook would be corrected. HSLDA has already helped draft language for the new edition and the Federal Rule Negotiating Committee for Higher Education has approved the proposed changes.
Solution 3: Pass a Technical Amendment to the Higher Education Act—Finally, HSLDA requested a technical amendment to the Higher Education Act further clarifying the law so that bureaucrats could not misinterpret it. The Department of Education's deputy counsel promised to personally assure colleges that they would not lose their institutional eligibility if they accepted home school students.
HSLDA continues to work with Congress to make these changes more permanent in the federal Higher Education Act. Some of these changes have already been added into House Bill 4854, which is expected to pass before the end of this session.
We praise God for this long-awaited victory. HSLDA has already been able to resolve many of our member's difficulties described earlier in this article. HSLDA is also sending out a copy of the guidance letter to over 6,000 institutions of higher learning. (See http://www.hslda.org/docs/news/hslda/200204301.asp.)
We urge any HSLDA members who experience trouble with federal financial aid or college admission to contact us so we can assist you.
* Even after the U.S. Department of Education general counsel's office sent Baylor its new guidance letter (see sidebar at right) and directly assured Baylor officials that the school could admit home school students without a GED, Baylor was still sticking to its discriminatory position as this newsletter went to press.