Students sweating through AP courses, attending mandatory assemblies, and trying to navigate the cliques at their high schools might be interested to know that colleges, including highly selective institutions, do not require applicants to have a high school diploma.

Home schoolers are more than welcome to apply at most colleges, says Lee Ann Dmochowski, an admissions officer at Rutgers.

After all, she says, “we have students applying from China, from South Korea, and from Australia, where students no longer receive grades. What we look for, whether you’re from Melbourne or Millburn, is are you qualified for Rutgers University?”

Admission officers are experts at evaluating students from an enormous range of educational backgrounds, she says. Why should the process be any different for home schoolers? The same goes for unschoolers, who, Dmochowski explains, are part of a growing movement contending that learning is best achieved in an unstructured environment dictated by each student’s interests.

Dmochowski is a panelist at an information session on college admissions for non-traditional students sponsored by the Princeton Learning Cooperative on Monday, September 10, at 7 p.m. at the Princeton Friends School. Other panelists are Terri Riendeau of Princeton University and Nicole Hover of Mercer County Community College. Call 609-851-2522 for more information on this free event.

Joel Hammon is a director and co-founder of the Princeton Learning Cooperative (PLC), whose 24 students are self-directed learners. The cooperative has three full-time staff members and many volunteers, who provide instruction in everything from Arabic to music theory. Some youngsters come to PLC at its home base, a generous basement space at All Saints Church in Princeton, every day. Others come just once a week, or even less.

“Most kids use us as a replacement for traditional school,” says Hammon. These youngsters, most of them high school age, “wouldn’t have used home schooling,” he says, but they are all legally considered home schoolers. “It’s the legal mechanism to get kids out of school,” he explains.

Tuition for students who come to PLC most days is $12,000 a year. Those who come just one day a week pay $2,500 a year, and Hammon, who founded the school along with Paul Scott, a British South African with decades of experience as a teacher, says that no student is turned away for financial reasons.

PLC students are youngsters for whom traditional school was not a good fit. Asked to describe a typical student, Hammon says, “there is no typical kid.” Some, he says, are “super bright, kids who were bored to death.” Others chaffed at their former school’s requirements or had trouble with its social atmosphere. There are kids who were bullied, and others with learning disabilities. Some have health issues.

Interestingly, Hammon himself, a graduate of Miami University of Ohio (Class of 2000), would most definitely not have been a candidate for PLC. “I loved school,” he says. “I was on teams and in clubs. I did well. I never thought school was limiting.

“I come from a family of teachers — my mom and dad, two aunts, my mother-in-law,” he says. When his father went in to do extra work on weekends, Hammon often tagged along. “I spent my whole life in school.”

Then he became a teacher.

Hammon, who most recently taught social studies at Neshaminy High School, where his wife, Kerry, still teaches, saw the pressure cooker that is the large suburban high school “just isn’t working” for many kids, and for at least some teachers. After starting off full of idealism, he began to see that “I was making kids do things they didn’t want to do.” Many of the kids were miserable. He was miserable. “I felt like a prison guard,” he says.

At PLC he and Scott and the third core staffer, Alison Snieckus, meet with each student as he or she enrolls, learning about their interests and helping them to plot a course of study. Every student is mentored by one staffer, meeting once a week. There is no set course list. Students pursue what interests them with support from PLC. When, for example, a youngster wanted to learn Arabic, PLC found a volunteer to teach the language. A student who is interested in cooking secured an internship at the Blue Moose Cafe‚ in New Hope.

In addition to volunteers, PLC is delighted to use work/study students from area colleges, including Princeton University and Rider University. “The federal government pays 75 percent,” says Hammon, “so we only pay $2.75 an hour.” One of these university students, he says, is enrolled at Princeton University and “he never went to school a day in his life.”

Dmochowski would not find this surprising. She says that Rutgers receives hundreds of applications from home schoolers and unschoolers each year. They are often independent, self-directed learners — qualities that are often a plus in college, she says.

Dmochowski recalls one home schooled student who led a community-wide effort to enact legislation to save a type of tree in a local park. “It wasn’t the usual type of thing,” she says. “Involving the entire community, it was outstanding.”

Such intensive experiences, she says, can help a non-traditional student stand out from the thousands of applicants Rutgers, along with every other selective school, receives each year from qualified candidates.

While non-traditional students are not at a disadvantage when they apply to Rutgers, Dmochowski says that they do need to be aware of entrance requirements.

Take the SAT and/or the ACT. Students can take either or both tests. “We use the test with the higher score,” says Dmochowski. While some schools have gotten away from this entrance requirement, Rutgers has not.

Start considering colleges by sophomore year. By age 15 or 16, non-traditional students should really be looking at colleges, says Dmochowski. She emphasizes that youngsters need to zero in on colleges that fit their unique needs.

She gives the example of a young man who is a borderline diabetic and keeps the disease at bay by swimming. “He needs a college with an Olympic pool.” It may sound obvious, but a student with a passion for theater should not waste time looking at schools that lack a strong theater program.

Another thing to consider is different learning abilities. Dmochowski says she gets a lot of questions from non-traditional students about what support severely dyslexic students will receive at Rutgers. She has to explain that the school is not set up to meet that need.

It does support students with autism spectrum disorders, however, and has a program for brain damaged military veterans. And there are other schools that specialize in educating dyslexic students, she says, naming Landmark College in Vermont as an example.

Tailor study to college requirements. Most colleges require a minimum number of years study in specified subject areas, including math, science, English, and foreign language. Requirements vary from school to school, and even within a particular school. Dmochowski, says, for example, that the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers has a foreign language requirement, while the School of Nursing does not.

It’s important that non-traditional students incorporate these requirements into their study schedules early on. Intensive work on a project might count as more than one year of study, but it’s better not to count on it.

Document work. The adult working with a non-traditional student needs to keep track of the subjects he is studying and the work he is doing in those subjects. Colleges, says Dmochowski, will look at the “breadth and depth” of the work the student has done.

At PLC, the weekly meetings between mentor and student serve this purpose, noting what the student has been working on in which subject areas during the previous week.

Be prepared for the college experience. PLC’s Hammon says that many of his students chafe under high school rules. That’s all well and good, but Dmochowski says that non-traditional students must realize that in college, and particularly during the first two years, there are likely to be early-morning classes, late-evening labs, and a certain number of rules. “There’s a rhythm and structure to college life,” she says. “In higher ed you don’t get every accommodation.”

In her experience, any student — whether home-schooled or from a traditional high school — can have trouble with the transition to a large university. Likewise, a student from either setting can thrive.

“It depends on the individual so much,” she says. “Any student ready to challenge themselves academically and socially can succeed.”

Dmochowski is the mother of twin boys who will be five in November and of grown stepchildren. A Rutgers graduate (Class of 1988), she says that she is a Rutgers product through and through. She has worked at the university for 20 years, first as an academic advisor at the College of Environmental and Biological and Sciences, and then, for the past four years, in the admissions department.

Her father, Ray, earned his business degree at Rutgers Newark and Rutgers is where she met her partner, Cornelia Spoor.

As familiar as she is with Rutgers, Dmochowski is also personally familiar with the value of alternative routes to a college degree. “My mom was a non-traditional student,” she says.

Madeline Dmochowski was married at 17, at a time when high schools effectively expelled married students. Determined to achieve academically anyway, her mother earned a GED and then attended Middlesex Community College before enrolling at Rutgers to earn a bachelor’s degree, gradually transitioning from stay-at-home mom to scientist.

Hammon, PLC’s director, says “the big secret is that you don’t need a high school diploma to go to college.” Dmochowski’s mom figured that out for herself, and with help from PLC, a new generation is learning the same lesson.

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