Plans to build the nation's first college for students who have been home-schooled moved a step closer to reality yesterday, as the project's organizers held a groundbreaking ceremony on a 44-acre site in western Loudoun County.

Michael P. Farris, president of the Purcellville-based Home School Legal Defense Association, said Patrick Henry College will open in the fall of 2000 with about 100 students and expand to 600 students over the next decade. He said the four-year school, although not restricted to students who were schooled at home, will seek to attract home-schoolers with a strong academic background and a commitment to Christian beliefs.

"This is an opportunity to take the home-schooling movement to the next level," said Farris, addressing a crowd of about 300 that included Lt. Gov. John H. Hager (R), local politicians and potential students and their parents. "The home-schooling movement is coming of age. This really is the next step of that movement."

Farris, a conservative activist who founded his advocacy group in 1983 and was the 1993 GOP nominee for lieutenant governor, initially proposed a two-year institution. He said he decided to make Patrick Henry a four-year school because the accreditation process will be simpler.

In a brochure advertising the school, he said he was concerned that students who had enrolled elsewhere as freshmen and sophomores might have taken courses taught in a manner "antithetical to the Christian worldview."

Several education analysts said the college likely will have no trouble drawing applicants from the estimated 1.5 million home-schooled students nationwide. Opinions were more mixed on whether it would be in a home-schooler's best interests to attend a college made up primarily of students from a similar educational and social background.

"They're going to prolong this cocoon existence," said Paul D. Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "I understand people's point of wanting to protect their kids, but at some point, they've got to grow up."

Gerald Bracey, an education consultant based in Alexandria, agreed. "I have some real reservations about students continuing the particular perspective of home-schooling on the college level," Bracey said. He also questioned whether Patrick Henry would be able to attract qualified professors.

But Lawrence M. Rudner, director of the Educational Resources Information Center Clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation at the University of Maryland, said scholars will be drawn to Patrick Henry's approach. Students will spend half their time in classes and half their time working on faculty-supervised research projects for congressional offices, state legislators, federal agencies, think tanks and advocacy groups, according to Farris.

"The concept is attractive," said Rudner, who recently did a study of home-schooled students that was sponsored by Farris's group. "When you have bright kids who are capable of doing independent studies, it's a good recipe for success."

The school will offer a bachelor of arts degree in government and later add a law school and undergraduate programs in journalism and computer science, Farris said. He said students will live on the campus in Purcellville and tuition probably will run between $12,000 and $14,000 a year.

Farris said he still needs to raise $1.4 million to pay for the first phase of construction, which will cost about $6 million. He has mailed a glossy, six-page color flier to the 8,000 home-schooled students in his group's database.

The flier persuaded Joanna DePree, 16, of Midland, Mich., to put the college among her top three choices.

"I like the idea that it's a small school and it emphasizes the values and morals of our Founding Fathers," said DePree, a home-schooler who just finished her junior year and plans to become a lawyer. But, she added, "it would be kind of scary being the first college for home-schoolers, because when you graduate from Harvard everybody says, 'Wow!' because they recognize it, but [Patrick Henry] isn't widely known yet."

The name-recognition issue doesn't bother Kerry Medaris, 18, of Fairfax Station, who was taught at home for 12 years. She said she may turn down a $6,000 scholarship to George Mason University and accept an offer to work for a congressman for a year and then attend Patrick Henry when it opens.

"I'm really excited about being able to go there," Medaris said. "By us all being home-schoolers, we'll have that common thread that will make us like one big family."