David Sample wanted to attend the University of California, Riverside, but thought it was a lost cause because he had been homeschooled.
The UC system is known for being tough on nontraditionally schooled applicants. For them, the best tickets to UC have been transferring in after taking community college classes or posting near-perfect scores on college entrance exams.
"For homeschoolers, it was basically a shut door for us because of the restrictions," Sample said.
Last fall, however, Riverside joined a growing number of colleges around the country that are revamping application policies to accommodate homeschooled students.
The change came just in time for the 18-year-old Sample to apply and get accepted with a substantial scholarship.
Under Riverside's new policy, homeschoolers can apply by submitting a lengthy portfolio detailing their studies and other educational experiences.
Sample's package showed he had studied chemistry, U.S. history and geometry, rewired a house and helped rebuild a medical clinic in Nicaragua.
Over 1 million homeschooled
The U.S. Department of Education reports that 1.1 million, or 2.2 percent of all students in the nation, are homeschooled.
Some private colleges have eagerly recruited those students for years and tailored application processes to include them. Homeschoolers still face challenges when applying to many public universities, but their chances of being considered are improving.
In 2000, 52 percent of all colleges in the country had a formal evaluation policy for applications from homeschoolers, said David Hawkins, director of public policy for the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
Four years later, the number jumped to 83 percent. During that time, 45 percent of colleges reported receiving more applications from homeschoolers, he said.
Major schools that now post application procedures for homeschoolers on their Web sites include Michigan State University, Oregon State University and the University of Texas.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is also willing to consider homeschoolers. The highly regarded school does not require a high school diploma. As part of its admissions process, it considers scores from college entrance exams and asks applicants to submit a 500-word essay, detail five extracurricular activities and offer two teacher evaluations.
"We evaluate every student based on who they are," said Merilee Jones, dean of admissions at MIT.
UC Riverside is actively recruiting homeschoolers, said Merlyn Campos, interim director of undergraduate admissions.
"There are a lot of students out there that are very prepared for a college level education," she said. "They are kind of being forced into going into a community college."
Frank Vahid, a UC Riverside computer science professor, was among those who lobbied for the change, contending the school could gain a competitive advantage because homeschoolers have a lot to offer.
Vahid's own children are taught at home. His 15-year-old son also takes community college classes and will likely try to transfer into a public university.
The homeschooling movement has its roots in religion, but families pull their children out of traditional schools for a variety of reasons. When many of those students reached college age in the 1990s, colleges began considering their qualifications and potential more closely.
"Colleges are far more familiar with the backgrounds of homeschoolers and their needs," said Ian Slatter, director of media relations for the Home School Legal Defense Association. "We have had fewer and fewer problems."
Harrison Hartley has been homeschooled in Burbank since kindergarten. Now 13, he will start community college classes this year and hopes to transfer to a university as a junior before he turns 18.
"I just want him to start out with taking a couple of fun classes," said his mother, Beverly Hartley. "Then we'll throw him into things that are more serious."
'You are already used to teaching yourself'
Sample lives in Redlands with his parents and three younger siblings, who are also homeschooled. He got acceptance letters from colleges in Illinois and Texas but wanted to attend Riverside, the local university.
Now a freshman, he is adjusting well to college classes and shrugs when his peers complain about the way a professor teaches.
"You are already used to teaching yourself," he said about homeschooling. "Forget the teacher, forget the class, I am just going to read the book and figure it out myself."
His mother, Ellen Sample, is grateful that universities are more willing to consider the work of homeschoolers and the family members who teach them.
"We knock ourselves out, we work very, very hard," she said. "There are lot of places that receive us without question. Why go someplace that would require more of our kids?"