Know Your Student
College Now, Later, or Never
Christian or Secular?
The Secular Option
Spiritual Life on Campus
Faculty, A Valuable Resource
Investigate Housing Options
The Christian Option
When Do I Start?
Choosing a college is a decision that is becoming more difficult with the passing of time. The college years (18-22) are transition years, a time when students not only equip themselves for a vocation, but a period when they formulate convictions about faith, values, and philosophy of life. Most people don't realize that many colleges and universities seek to deliberately undermine the beliefs and values of Christian students. Will a college equip the Christian student to better serve Christ, or will it destroy his faith?
In addition, the cost of a college education is rising faster than the rate of inflation. The price of a four-year undergraduate education can range from $40,000 - $125,000, or more, depending on whether a student attends a less expensive public university or a private college or university. Therefore, parents and students should select a college with the same care that would be given to a $100,000 purchase. Choosing a college without careful preparation is gambling with the spiritual and vocational future of the prospective student.
Just how does a parent help their child decide which campus to attend? As I prepared to expand this article, I discovered that almost all of the available information on choosing a college is written from a secular perspective. Believing that Christian parents have a different set of priorities than the non-Christian community, I interviewed a number of Christian parents and educators who have been through the college selection process. Their advice is reflected in this article and helped to greatly enhance the personal observations that I have made as I studied and worked on many university campuses.
Having considered the difficulty of the decision, it's time to roll up our sleeves and begin to tackle the issue.
Know Your Student
Perhaps the single most helpful suggestion that came out of my interviews
with parents was that the process of selecting a college is unique for
each child. There is no formula that can be applied to each student in
the family. Each student has a distinct temperament and personality which
must be carefully matched to a school that will be right for him.
Christian parents need to determine the maturity level of their son or
daughter - not just emotionally or socially, but also academically and
spiritually. Is the student discerning spiritually? Can he stand alone in
the face of peer pressure? Can she handle the challenges she will face?
Assess your student's needs in each of these areas. Evaluate each
prospective school based on whether or not it will meet the needs of your
child and your sense of God's leading. A mature Christian student may
want to go to a Christian school in order to learn in a Christian
environment or prepare for vocational Christian work. On the other hand,
he may decide to go to a public university in order to pursue a highly
College Now, Later, or Never
Should everyone go to college? Many today are answering this question
with a definite, "No." Most would agree that the $8,000 to $25,000 (or
more) per year cost of a college education makes it advisable for
students to enter with their eyes open and a definite educational goal in
mind. There was a time when a college education could ensure the graduate
a higher-paying job that would be a fair return on the investment. This
is not necessarily so today. Care should be taken if the salaries in a
given field are not sufficient to pay off college loans within a
reasonable amount of time. The average undergraduate student today
finishes college with a debt that may exceed $25,000. This is a
considerable financial burden to a young person or couple just starting
out in life. If both members of a couple bring substantial debt into a
marriage, the scenario gets even bleaker. Add consumer debt incurred to
cover the cost of transportation, housing, clothes, etc., and the result
is a recipe for financial disaster.
If a young person is not a serious student or is not sure what vocational field he wants to pursue, it may be best to consider rejecting or delaying the college decision until the potential student has matured. During this time the student could work in the field he or she is considering and possibly take a class or two at a community college. Another option would be to encourage the student to work with a Christian ministry in order to mature spiritually and further strengthen character skills that will help the student succeed, no matter what educational or vocational choice he or she makes. A year's wait at this stage in life can make a significant difference in a student's attitude and academic performance.
The high-school graduate who desires to pursue a career that doesn't require college, or who is a poor student, may find college to be a very poor investment of time and money. Many rewarding job and training opportunities are available through technical and vocational schools. From God's perspective, success in life is always related to character and not necessarily to intellect or college degrees. God rewards honest, hard-working people who have succeeded in the critical areas of life, whether they have a college education or not. He often blesses them with the responsibility of financial success. Businessmen frequently tell me that they have no trouble finding job applicants with grades and degrees. What is more difficult is finding an employee who exhibits consistent, godly character.
Community colleges are often a good option for the student who is struggling academically or is undecided about her educational or vocational future. They provide an opportunity for a student to mature a year or two before entering a large university. They also offer the added benefit of being more economical, allowing for more parental involvement, and providing more direct contact with the instructor. The typical community college instructor is there because he wants to teach and interact with his students. A university professor is encouraged to focus on research and publishing, often having very little time for his students. At a large university many of the entry-level classes are very large and allow for little personal contact with the instructor. They are often taught by graduate students who may not have mastered the material they teach, and often have limited instructional skills.
Christian or Secular?
As parents seek to match a school with their student's needs, it is
natural to consider whether a Christian or secular school would be the
best choice. In making suggestions, I'm assuming that the Lord may lead
some parents to send their children to a secular college or university,
and others to send their children to a Christian school. In the case of
the parents I interviewed, some sent one child to a public university and
another to a Christian school. Answering this question for a given
student requires careful consideration of the student's maturity, and a
clear understanding of the differences between secular and Christian
schools. Let's look at those differences.
The Secular Option
Secular colleges may be a good alternative for mature Christian students.
They offer broader vocational choices and often cost much less than
Christian colleges. It is wrong to assume that a secular college or
university will always destroy the faith of a Christian student. Many
offer excellent opportunities for a student to grow in his faith, and
develop evangelism and discipleship skills in the refining fire of a
challenging academic and social environment. In order to survive and
thrive spiritually, it is important that a Christian student quickly
settle into a vibrant church which has a campus ministry, or participate
in an interdenominational campus ministry. Failure to do so may result in
spiritual stagnation, or even denial of his faith.
For reasons of necessity or choice, most students from Christian homes will end up in a secular university. It is therefore important that students and parents consider how to arrange an educational program which will result in optimal vocational training and spiritual growth. This is not an impossible task, but it will require work on the part of the student and parents. While every family may not be able to implement all of my suggestions, my goal is to provide enough options for each family to develop a personal strategy that will help to ensure a positive college experience for their Christian student.
We'll look first at investigating the spiritual opportunities on campus and then examine some questions to ask about professors and faculty.
Spiritual Life on Campus
A good church is the single most important source of support to help your
child remain true to his faith while a college student. Check out the
churches near the campus. Do they have college ministries? If so, do they
focus on areas that will meet your student's spiritual and social needs?
Do they have an outreach mentality? Are they involved in reaching the
lost, and in challenging students with a vision for evangelism and
discipleship? Visit their college- age Sunday School Class or Youth Group
and attend a worship service. If possible, meet the pastor and church
leaders. Their teaching and influence will affect how your student views
his faith and how he approaches his time at college.
It is also helpful to investigate the interdenominational campus ministries that are available on a prospective campus. I believe that involvement in a dynamic, evangelistic and discipleship-oriented ministry results in the most significant spiritual growth in the life of a Christian student attending a secular college or university. Campus Crusade for Christ, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, and the Navigators are examples of good ministries that are on most major secular university campuses. Each group will have a little different personality and ministry emphasis. Call some of the staff of these organizations and ask them about their programs and activities. Be sure to elicit their opinions about the spiritual climate of the campus. Ask them to recommend Christian professors or staff who would be willing to speak to you about the campus.
Faculty, A Valuable Resource
After examining the spiritual environment and Christian ministries, it is
wise to investigate the departments and professors who will be teaching
your son or daughter. Within a university, different departments and even
colleges may have different personalities. If your student has chosen a
major, find out which professors will be instructing your student and ask
to meet with at least one professor in the department. If it is possible
to interview a recent graduate in your student's area of study, ask him
or her to comment on which classes and professors were the most
While I am on the subject of good professors, let me encourage you to seek out the committed Christian professors who are on the campus you are considering. If possible, try to identify Christian professors who are in the department or field in which your son or daughter will be concentrating. Ask them about the personality of the department, its people, their values, etc. These factors can play a major role in the way your student will look at life, his vocation, and his faith. When graduation time rolls around, Christian professors will be invaluable allies in pursuing job opportunities. They may be excellent sources for advice about potential employers who share a commitment to integrity and Christian values.
There are several places you can look to identify Christian faculty. Christian Leadership Ministries has contacts on most major universities. You can also check with local churches or student ministries such as Campus Crusade for Christ, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, or The Navigators. Student ministries are usually required to have a faculty advisor in order to be an officially recognized student organization. They naturally look to a committed Christian as their first choice. When a Christian professor is unavailable, seek out a professor who is known for his character and integrity. Look for clues that indicate that a professor will be fair and will respect the differing religious views of students.
Remember that professors, no matter how good their professional reputations, will have a profound impact on their students. We are warned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:33 that "... bad company corrupts good morals." (Take note that this verse was written to adults, not children. Its primary application is not for child-rearing, but for choosing friends who can influence our thinking and behavior.) On the positive side, David tells us in Psalm 101 what kind of people we ought to seek out. Verse 6 says, "My eyes shall be upon the faithful of the land, that they will dwell with me; He who walks in a blameless way is the one who ministers to me" NASB. A good professor will be happy to talk with you personally or on the phone.
Investigate Housing Options
A student's housing situation can be a "make or break" experience. If
your student will be staying on campus, contact the campus housing office
and inquire about their policies. Are students required to live with
unsuitable roommates? Several well-known universities have implemented
policies forbidding a student to request a change if they have been
assigned a homosexual roommate. They even go so far as to threaten to re-
educate the student to help them be more tolerant or to impose other
punitive action! Are the policies governing each dormitory the same? Some
dorms may have different visitation hours or maintain quiet hours on
certain floors. Try to determine which dormitories attract the good
students. Some dormitories may have floors dedicated to more serious
students and may provide a living environment that enhances academic
performance. Don't forget to check with student ministry groups regarding
Christian housing opportunities. Ask which dormitories have
concentrations of Christian students and find out if they know of
students who need roommates.
The Christian Option
Choosing a Christian College is not as simple as it may seem on the
surface. Some "Christian" colleges are Christian in name only. Many that
started with clear Christian distinctives, philosophies of education, and
commitment to sound doctrine have, over time, abandoned their commitment
to the basic tenets of the faith (e.g., Harvard, Yale, Princeton). A
Christian student attending such a campus may be confronted with
professors who deny the deity of Christ and the sinfulness of man! A
professor at a "Christian" college in a nearby state told me that he was
one of only four or five professors out of 80 who had a vibrant, living
faith in Jesus Christ. He questioned whether many of his colleagues
really knew Him as their personal Savior. Consequently, it is quite
possible for a student to graduate from a "Christian College" having
rejected the very faith that he intended to strengthen through Christian
How does a parent determine whether a Christian college is the genuine article? The best method I know of is to ask thoughtful questions. Look at the campus mission statement. Does the college require its faculty to sign a statement of faith? Do they require the students to attend chapel service? What programs do they offer to foster the spiritual growth of the students? Many of these questions can be answered in a phone conversation with the college admissions staff. Some questions are best asked in the context of a campus tour. When you visit the campus ask students you meet open-ended questions like "What do you like most about the campus?" and "Who is your favorite professor, and why?" Listen carefully to their answers. If students enthusiastically talk about the spiritual life of the students and professors, or speak in glowing terms about growing in their faith, you know you are on the right track.
Assuming the campus is truly Christian, there are other areas to consider when looking at the Christian college option. Does it have an excellent academic reputation? Does the college offer the specific course of study that a student may need to reach educational or vocational goals? Be sure to interview professors in the department in which your student will most likely be studying. Ask them open-ended questions that allow them to talk about their relationship with God.
Christian colleges fall into two categories: Bible colleges and liberal arts colleges. Bible colleges primarily exist to train students for vocational Christian ministry. They have a limited selection of majors which usually include pastoral training, education, music ministry, etc., each with a large Bible or theology component. Christian liberal arts colleges usually offer much broader, more traditional, liberal educational options which include majors like English, history, speech, communications, education, and biology. They may require fewer Bible or theology courses. Most provide limited options for students who want to pursue a scientific or technical career like engineering or physics.
As you consider Christian colleges, remember that even the best will have some problem students who may be rebellious or luke-warm in their faith. No matter how good the college, a wise parent prays that his child will develop positive friendships that will help him grow in his faith. Don't assume that all faculty members have a vibrant faith and demonstrate it to their students. Carefully check things out.
When Do I Start?
Let us look at a brief four year countdown of the process.
In the freshman year of high school, it is important to enroll in a general college prep program. Begin to save and organize honors, awards, certificates of recognition and other types of references and commendations to use in a portfolio during college interviews. Sophomore year is the time to begin to evaluate your priorities and determine possible vocational aptitudes. Fall semester of the junior year is the time to prepare an initial list of possible colleges. Consider Christian and secular campus options and try to define personal and family preferences based on religious and educational values. Spring semester of the junior year is the time to narrow the list of possible colleges and send for catalogs. The summer before the senior year is the time to gather letters of reference and to finish your portfolio. Fall semester of the senior year fill out applications and schedule campus visits. Competitive scholarship interviews are scheduled in the fall and sometimes offered again in the spring. If scholarships or loans will be needed, plan to submit federal financial aid forms (available from your school's guidance counselor or a college admissions office) in late January or early February. Target May 1 of the senior year as the time to make a final decision on the college you will attend. Most schools will send out early acceptance letters to prime candidates in the fall and additional acceptance letters to later applicants around February 1.
As you consider college for your son or daughter, remember that the first
few weeks and months of the freshman year are crucial. Students find
their "niche" during that time. The friends they make will likely
influence them throughout the remainder of their college years. There is
no substitute for fervent prayer. You cannot determine the outcome of
your student's college career, but you can help him choose a school that
meets his needs and provides an environment that makes it easier for him
to make the right choices. Our Lord is deeply concerned your welfare and
the welfare of your child. He expresses His concern through the writings
of Jeremiah "For I know the plans that I have for you, declares the Lord,
plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope."
This article is meant to provide Christian parents with helpful
guidelines to get started with the college selection process. It is not
intended to be exhaustive or authoritative. For additional helpful
information, see The Totally Usable Summit Ministries Guide to
Choosing a College by Dr. Ron Nash and J. F. Baldwin or Advice for Parents , a chapter
from the book.