COLUMBIA, Mo. – Bombarded by choices at a college job fair, Sara Kianmehr quickly found her match: Columbia College, a small, private school that didn't mind that her transcripts came from her parents.
The college "was the only institution that didn't have a puzzled look and say, 'Home school,' and ask me a million questions," the 19-year-old junior said. "There was a big appeal."
With colleges and universities aggressively competing for the best students, a growing number of institutions are actively courting homebound high achievers like Kianmehr, who took community college courses her senior year of high school and hopes to eventually study filmmaking at New York University or another top graduate school.
The courtship can be as subtle as admissions office Web sites geared to home-schooled applicants or, in the case of Columbia College, as direct as purchasing mailing lists and holding special recruiting sessions.
After years of skepticism, even mistrust, many college officials now realize it's in their best interest to seek out home-schoolers, said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
"There was a tendency to kind of dismiss home schooling as inherently less rigorous," he said. "The attitude of the admissions profession could have at best been described as skeptical."
Home-schooled students — whose numbers in this country range from an estimated 1.1 million to as high as 2 million — often come to college equipped with the skills necessary to succeed in higher education, said Regina Morin, admissions director of Columbia College.
Such assets include intellectual curiosity, independent study habits and critical thinking skills, she said.
"It's one of the fastest-growing college pools in the nation," she said. "And they tend to be some of the best prepared."
The number of home-schooled graduates enrolled at Columbia College is small — about a dozen out of a full-time undergraduate population that hovers near 1,000. But they count among their supporters an influential advocate.
Terry Smith, a political science professor and the school's dean of academic affairs, home-schooled three of his four children in the 1970s and '80s. Each of those children went on to graduate from college, with two earning master's degrees.
"All of my professional work has been influenced by this family schooling experience," he said. "We're all teachers and learners. They're just the apprentices, and we're the master learners."
The school's admissions standards for home-schooled students are identical to those for traditional graduates — minus the formal transcript requirement. Some colleges and universities, though, continue to require home-schoolers to earn a GED high-school equivalency diploma or take subject-specific SAT tests along with the standard requirements.
At Stanford, sympathetic admissions officers have helped make the university a beacon for high-achieving home-schoolers. The support can be seen on the Stanford admissions office's Web site.
"The central issue for us is the manner in which you have gone about the learning process, not how many hurdles you have jumped," the office advises home-schooled students. "We look for a clear sense of intellectual growth and a quest for knowledge in all of our applicants."
Jon Reider, a former senior associate admissions director at Stanford, said the school's pursuit of home-schoolers fits its academic and social mission.
He also acknowledged that Stanford and other schools now realize that home-school students are a prominent enough population that can only be ignored at a university's own peril.
"Part of it is driven by demographics," said Reider, now a guidance counselor at a private high school in San Francisco. "There's a surplus of college spaces" and attracting good students to them is important everywhere.
Magdalene Pride, a first-year Columbia College student, was a beneficiary of the school's aggressive recruitment of home-schoolers.
After earning more than 50 credit hours through a combination of community college classes near her suburban St. Louis home and online Advanced Placement course, Price was awarded a four-year scholarship to Columbia College that covers the school's $12,414 annual tuition.
Among those who helped sell her on Columbia College was Kianmehr, a student ambassador who spoke at a college fair Pride attended.
"They're so open to home-schoolers here," she said. "No one looks down on me, or treats me different. It's very accepting."