Every fall in the United States, nearly three million students embark on their final year of high school. They bask so briefly in the satisfaction that their final year of secondary education is nearly completed. Whether they spend that year at a military academy, home school, boarding school, Christian or public school, they are the shining stars and hometown heroes. Some of them hold positions in the spotlight like quarterback of the football team, prom queen, debate champion, or youth group president. Others are unofficial leaders of their millennial generation and set fashion trends, serve as comedians, or talk a techno-game language distinguishable only to those in-the-know and aspiring wannabes.
Then, without notice, these surreal seniors morph into panic-stricken, paralyzed, prospective college students.
What triggers such a dramatic change in demeanor? Out of the blue, between classes at school or church services, a friend innocently raises the question, “Where are you going to college?” The words pierce the psyche, not because the idea of progressing from high school to college is anything new, but because this student has been living in the present—wrapped up in studying, community service, youth group, and/or a parttime job. The idea of the college search kept getting pushed back on the agenda because it seemed to be way off in the future. But the question is still hanging out there: “Where are you going to college?” Most of our kids will be able to come up with the name of their dream college and an alternative or two with some kind of response like, “Yes, I’m looking into the Naval Academy if I can get my congressman to recommend me, or if that doesn’t work out, I’ve often wondered about places like Baylor, UCLA, Wheaton, or UMass . . .” But as the senior year progresses, panic can set in.
It’s okay for a student to be undecided about college and admit, “I’m not sure which college yet, but that’s something I sure need to pray about and get busy doing.” The most important thing is to transfer the energy that could be spent in stressed-out mode and reinvesting it in productive college search activities.
A question many parents ask is, “How can I help my teenager engage in thinking about the college choice without adding stress to his life?” Well, if nothing is happening, then do something—anything—to get the process started. “But wait a minute,” you say, “where do we start?” Take a deep breath, relax, and read on. You’ve already jumped in by picking up this book that will walk you through the process.
You do have a lot to offer along the way, and you can be instrumental in the college decision. “Pardon me, though,” you may retort, “you don’t know my teenager! He isn’t exactly asking for my advice.” The key is to avoid stepping in to decide for him. As you’ve probably discovered, that doesn’t go over very well with teenagers. You need to be helpful but not overbearing. Certainly, you don’t want to sour his remaining time under your roof, let alone your long-term relationship. Walk beside him through this time because it’s one of your last significant opportunities to help him chart the course for his future. You’ll be pleased to know that it is possible to be involved in the college search process without being a pain in the neck! In speaking of parents’ tendencies to be tentative with their teens, author Tedd Tripp commented:
Many parents disengage. They give up on the idea of being a nurturing influence in the life of their teen. . . . All the issues that require parental correction, direction and involvement are opportunities for understanding and embracing our teens. . . . All the hopes, fears, aspirations, questions, doubts, goals and dreams of our teens are opportunities to shepherd their hearts.
A few years back, a friend of mine named Paul was apprehensive about recommending a local college that was a possible fit for one of his sons, Dave (not actual names). Paul hoped that Dave would come to this realization on his own. This school offered a quality academic program with a thoroughly integrated biblical worldview, plus a small faculty-to-student ratio and opportunities for ministry throughout the community. It made total sense to him as a dad. However, Paul didn’t want to pressure his son, so he backed off from encouraging him in this direction, choosing instead to let Dave make his own choice—hoping it would be the local college. Well, Dave made his choice, and it wasn’t that college. He enrolled at a well-known university, flourished academically, but starved spiritually. For whatever reasons, Dave didn’t get connected with campus ministry organizations or a local church, but instead got caught up in his studies and university life. Those four years prepared him for making a living, but not for the really important things in life. Dave graduated and is doing well for himself but not living for God. Paul now regrets acquiescing his involvement in this decision. He loves him dearly and is proud of his son, but wonders “what if ” he had been more involved at a strategic point in Dave’s life.
So how do you capture the balance of having a godly influence on the college decision with minimal discomfort, while preserving the child’s interest in looking around and dreaming big dreams? The simple, and most meaningful, answer to that question is found in the Bible.
A BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVE FOR PARENTS
Scripture has a lot to say about parents shepherding the hearts of their children, and it certainly applies to staying engaged in their lives amidst the college search. Moses described a central part of our role in Deuteronomy 6:6–9:
These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
The expectation is that we are responsible to be actively involved in the development of our children’s hearts—and to continually espouse God’s Word in relevant ways. Earlier in Deuteronomy chapter 4 verse 9, we are encouraged to pass God’s commands on—not only to our children, but also our grandchildren! That’s a long-range view on parenting, isn’t it? These Old Testament passages emphasize being with your kids, spending time with them, and being attentive to their needs. It means taking the everyday circumstances they are encountering and applying biblical truth to them. Notice that in chapter 6 of Deuteronomy, verses 8–9 acknowledge that we need to make God’s commands obvious.
Many of our kids today are visual in how they learn, and Moses shares that God’s Word needs to surround them. In today’s culture, youth have opportunities to have their hearts and minds stimulated by artwork, prose, story, and music that aligns with the Christian worldview. And it goes without saying that they need to be immersed in relationships with other Christian teenagers to help support and encourage their faith.
This brings me to a critical point. Your teen’s foundation of faith should be a strong consideration when choosing a college. During those undergraduate years, he will learn not only what to think, but how to think. Your student will question many things during college, including his faith. And the questioning of faith is not necessarily a bad thing—it’s a normal part of development. Think of it as an unpacking of faith. By examining the validity of his belief in God against other systems (religious and philosophical) through Scripture and other extrabiblical evidence, hopefully he will be able to repack the faith. And, by the way, going through this process does in fact lead to ownership of the faith.
It’s important to keep in mind that there are risks at any college—but especially at secular institutions. Respected higher education researcher Alexander Astin found that there were decreases in religious behaviors at public and selective, prestigious, nonreligious colleges and universities. In fact, a research study by Gary Railsback a decade ago found that 34 percent of all students who entered a public university claiming to be “born again” no longer held to their faith upon graduation. He also discovered an additional 28 percent of self-proclaimed Christian students, who, upon completion at a public university, had not attended a church or religious service in the previous year. If you combine those two percentages, 52 percent deliberately or subtly stepped away from their faith.
Did you get that? That startling statistic predicts that one out of two of our kids at secular colleges and universities will discard their faith by the time they finish their undergraduate degree.
A more recent study by Steve Henderson confirmed the negative effect that non-Christ-centered colleges and universities have on Christian students. In particular, his research showed that independent colleges, state universities, Presbyterian colleges, and Catholic institutions were most detrimental to students’ faith. This outcome reveals not only that these are difficult places for Christian students, but also the subtle difference between some institutions with a religious heritage and Christ-centered colleges and universities (those holding membership in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities [CCCU] or the North American Coalition for Christian Admissions Professionals [NACCAP]). Henderson stated, “The affiliation of the college does appear to make a difference in the overall change in religiosity.”
You may be asking, “Okay, when does the commercial start for distinctively Christian colleges?” The fact of the matter is that there are no colleges, secular or Christian, that can claim to be foolproof in preserving faith. This is why it is important to know your student, be involved in his life, and be knowledgeable about the distinctives of the various college options to help him find the best fit—so he has the best environment to not only spiritually survive, but flourish.
But you need to know that I’d be remiss if evangelical, Christ-centered colleges and universities weren’t mentioned at this point because of their spiritually charged environment to make Christian growth easier. Most students do thrive in their faith in these environments. The earlier mentioned Henderson study confirmed this spiritual growth factor by stating, “Students who attend CCCU or NACCAP related institutions showed significant positive differences on almost all individual measures of religiosity as well as overall changes in religiosity compared to those who attended non-member institutions.”
However, spiritual growth is not a given in spite of the environmental influences toward Christianity. While their struggle is not as pervasive as that of their secular university peers, some students on Christian campuses have difficulty assimilating their faith. The Railsback study showed that 6 percent of Christian kids at evangelical Christian colleges (CCCU member institutions) walked away from their faith. While this is a lower number, it does illustrate the fact that students struggle to some degree with their faith, regardless of the campus.
You may be asking, “Is there reason for hope that my child could survive in a public/nonreligious institution?” The answer is YES. There are thousands of committed Christians at these universities growing in their faith in spite of the antagonism they encounter daily in their classes as well as in the residence halls and fraternities/sororities. Strong Christian young people are needed to share the good news of the gospel.
What are the keys for your student to find success in her faith if she enrolls at a secular campus? University of Texas- Austin professor J. Budziszewski, in his book How to Stay Christian in College: An Interactive Guide to Keeping the Faith, says:
Keep up your spiritual disciplines. What I mean by that is daily prayer, frequent Bible study and worship, evangelism, service to others, and constantly reminding yourself of the presence of God. If you stay focused on Christ, He’ll make even a desert bloom.
He goes on in the book to share the importance of having partners in the faith and having fellowship. I agree wholeheartedly— believing that students in a secular context must have a close group of Christian friends, either that they know from home or through building new relationships at the university. It goes without saying that the core group of friends in college determines to a large degree a person’s college experience— and much of whom someone becomes during that period of time commonly carries over into adult life. Finding fellowship in campus ministries such as InterVarsity, Campus Crusade, Navigators, or Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) is essential. Students, regardless of the type of college they attend, also need to find a good evangelical church in town that serves students seeking worship, Bible teaching, fellowship, and ministry opportunities. It is God’s plan for believers to be a part of “the church” in a universal sense, as well as on a local level. Of course, students who don’t place themselves in these friendships, churches, or campus ministry organizations won’t have positive support systems for spiritual growth, and therefore their faith will be vulnerable.
As a shepherd figure, you need to help provide, protect, correct, advise, and direct. In the book of John, Jesus describes this role of shepherd.
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me. (10:11–14)
Certainly, of all people, you as parent-shepherd should be in the best position to know your student, care for him, and help determine what is best for him in the future. You are not a hired hand—you give wise counsel out of love. But, when you think about it, whom do we tend to rely on in advising our children regarding college choice? It’s the professionals— the guidance counselor at school or the youth pastor at church. While people serving in these positions are typically well trained and well intentioned (and we do need to use their expertise), they don’t have the understanding of your teen that you have . . . or the depth of your love. With that in mind, don’t outsource your responsibility as a parent-shepherd. Take advantage of these professionals’ expertise, advice, and ideas, but don’t rely solely on them—stay engaged.
We usually think about nurturing our children’s hearts when they are in the more pliable primary years. It’s true that when they are younger they absorb a lot (usually without a lot of resistance). But as time goes on, we as parents change, and without doubt our teenagers change. They’re developing into young adults, while we as parents get so involved with other responsibilities that we neglect to give them the degree of time and attention they need. It reminds me of a telephone service box found on the side of a road near our home. My wife, Carolyn, and I recently noticed it being repaired by a telephone company technician in our neighborhood. As we looked inside the box, we were amazed at the thousands of colored wires filling the space—and that the intricate wiring all made sense when it came time to make a phone call or receive a fax. Sometimes the complexity of our daily lives doesn’t always allow for immediate connections of the heart to occur with our teenagers. Yet, the master technician is God. He is the one who helps us keep connections strong and clear with the hearts of those that He intricately designed.
Through His Word and our effective, fervent prayers to Him—we have access to wisdom beyond our knowledge or experience. Our dependence on Him and passion for growing spiritually will fuel the fire that helps us develop into more mature believers and give us something of significance to pass on to our kids in their adolescent years. Joshua 1:8 provides the rationale for this type of spiritual discipline.
Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.
So what we’re looking at is a mature stage of nurturing. A development of the heart that allows for interaction between us and our teenagers involving mutual respect (including being able to admit when we’re wrong and asking for forgiveness), communication (listening as well as talking), integration of relevant truth from the Bible, affirmation, and expression of love. It all boils down to a good relationship with our children and a realization that because of this, we have an opportunity to help guide them in a positive direction in making a college decision. If there are issues and unresolved differences between you and your teens, seek to resolve them first. They need our godly counsel.
The readiness of your child for higher education is an important consideration when assessing which college is best for your child. Our children mature and develop at different paces, and while society may say that after high school they need to go to college right away, that advice may be the worst thing for them to follow.
While recruiting a student out of eastern Pennsylvania in the mid-1990s, I was impressed with his vision, his love for Christ and energy for serving Him, as well as his academic background. He was a perfect fit for the college where I was serving at the time—Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee. However, his parents thought he needed more time to grow and mature before starting a four-year undergraduate degree. He agreed with their counsel and arranged to have his admission to college deferred for a year. He took that year to tour with a Youth for Christ (YFC) musical group. It was a great experience that allowed him to see a lot of the United States and taught him about himself and others, as well as the price and demands of serving people. After that year with YFC, he came to college with a lot more maturity, more certainty about his goals, and a better preparation to tackle the demands of higher education. He excelled and went on to work on a master’s degree in music technology in Nashville.
Sometimes taking a year off before college as he did can be a wise choice. Considering that 32.7 percent of freshmen nationwide will not return to the same college the following year as sophomores (for a variety of reasons), should cause you to question if your child will be ready to adjust and succeed. This is especially true if your child is undecided about his major/career interest, is academically underprepared, or lacks motivation. The cost of college is too high for most parents to warrant a high-risk venture. It’s not good for the student, or for the institution, if your child has a bad experience.
If your student knows his college major or desired career field, it typically leads to a higher level of motivation and persistence. If that clarity for future direction is not present, motivation levels can fluctuate, especially if your student’s academic history isn’t especially strong. It’s okay to delay the start of college in order to gain a stronger sense of God’s direction and to grow in Him. But many parents are fearful of delaying college because of what other people will think, the effect of their child working and getting accustomed to a paycheck, or the possible ill effects of their child sitting around and doing nothing. But there are some productive—even valuable things—your child can do if he doesn’t go to college right away.
A number of possibilities are available for that period of time when your children are deciding future direction. Just a few of these options include short-term missions, traveling music groups, sports ministry traveling teams, military service, apprentice work, and Christian camps. Some of the best Christian camps/programs are through Torchbearers’ Schools (www.capernwray.org.uk), Word of Life Bible Institute (www.wol.org/biblei), and Summit Ministries summer conferences, which offer two-week summer programs in Colorado, Tennessee, and Ohio that are specifically designed to help Christian students prepare for post-Christian culture as experienced on college campuses. Your children will grow and mature tremendously during these experiences and be much better equipped for college later on. While not for everyone, these kinds of experiences tend to fortify the degree of certainty your child will have about the future and which type of college is best. And, if this time helps them determine that they really don’t want to go to college, it’s good to know that before putting them through an unnecessary struggle.