Echo Nattinger is just like any other incoming freshman. The Plan II government major wants to join a theater troupe, Student Government and has her eye on law school.
“I realized I wanted to pursue politics and political science in a manner that was more intense than just a hobby,” Nattinger said. “I wanted to find an outlet for my politics that wasn’t just complaining on Facebook or Twitter. I wanted to do something to change it.”
Like many UT students, Nattinger said she was as an academic overachiever in high school. And she has a vast profile of extracurriculars, from working on James Talarico’s 2018 house district campaign to participating in YMCA’s Texas Youth and Government club.
Yet, despite Nattinger’s high SAT and ACT scores and academic successes, she was not automatically admitted to UT. She was not in the top 7% of her class, or even the top 10%.
But that’s because she didn’t have a class to be ranked against. Other than a brief stint in a private school in first grade, Nattinger was home-schooled her whole life.
Home-schooled kids made up around 3% of the United States school-age population in 2016, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Since Texas is one of the few states which does not require families to disclose to the state whether or not their child is enrolled in public school, estimates for how many UT students were home-schooled are hard to quantify. Miguel Wasielewski, UT’s executive director of admissions, said he estimates a couple hundred home-schooled students apply every year.
In 2003, Texas amended its education code to require public universities to treat graduates from nontraditional secondary education, such as home-schooled applicants, the same as applicants who graduated from a public high school, so long as they have completed an education “to the same general standards,” according to the Texas Education Agency.
While state law requires home-schooled applicants to be treated like accredited high school graduates, it does not require that home-schooled applicants be eligible for automatic admissions policies.
This means home-schooled Texans like Nattinger go through the holistic review process for admittance into UT, which evaluates extracurriculars, essays and recommendation letters just for initial admission. For those automatically accepted into UT, the process is used for admission to their major.
“It was frustrating to me because I knew I had better test scores than some of these kids, but I can’t qualify,” said Nattinger, who scored in the 99th percentile on her ACT.
Texas law also requires 75% of the in-state students to be automatically admitted. As a result, home-schooled students are competing with a larger pool of applicants for a smaller amount of seats.
“It’s the same bucket you would be in if you were a public school student but weren’t in the top 10%,” said Amy Quartaro, an aerospace engineering senior who was home-schooled. “No matter how good of a home-schooled student you are, you always fall (outside) the automatic admit.”
Quartaro, who is returning to UT for her final year after taking a break to work with NASA, participated in some of the many home-school based science clubs throughout high school. The extracurriculars helped Quartaro get into UT, but also helped her disprove to others the stigmas about home-schooling, such as being socially isolated before going to college or not well-rounded enough to gain admission.
“A lot of people who don’t know anybody that was home-schooled have their preconceived stigmas,” Quartaro said. “I definitely had friend groups. I had friends for sure.”
Stephen Howsley, public policy analyst and lobbyist for home-school advocacy group Texas Home School Coalition, said the organization believes UT’s policy, while it might be in compliance with state laws, creates a disadvantage for home-schooled students. The organization even penned a letter in 2014 to Michael Washington, admissions director at UT, saying the policy creates “unfair and discriminatory requirements.”
“If we’re coming from the basis that home-schoolers are equivalent, then ideally it would be good for them to be considered equal across the board,” Howsley said.
The state added a requirement in 2015 that home-schooled applicants be assigned a faux class rank by comparing their SAT or ACT scores to the average class rank of students in the state who received a similar score.
Wasielewski, however, said the reason home-schooled applicants are still barred from automatic admission is because a student’s true-class rank is a standardized way to assess how students perform against peers in similar environments.
“It’s a way to, in a sense, compare apples to apples,” Wasielewski said.
UT isn’t the only school to do this – Texas A&M does, too. Texas Tech, however, automatically admits home-schooled students with SAT scores who meet that top 10% threshold created with their artificial ranking.
Wasielewski said UT isn’t seeking to make it harder for home-schooled students to get in simply because they didn’t go to a typical public or private school, and their experiences can still bring a lot of new and diverse viewpoints to campus.
Although Nattinger said she doesn’t agree with the system in place, she said her homeschooling never negatively affected her education. She said she might even have an academic advantage over students who went to public school, as she already had to work on time management and scheduling her own classes, much like many college students learn in a trial by fire their first semester.
“I was in general familiar with how being a college student worked,” Nattinger said. “I know my limits, I know how I best study, I know how to set up a schedule that works best for me and I think that’s the most valuable thing I learned was knowing yourself and how you best operate academically.”