Echo recently sent its largest graduating class ever out for their first year of college. I have had many conversations with parents and college freshmen this month, some of them have been encouraging and some of them have been concerning. Echo reaches many parents with older teens, and for them the college transition is very close at hand. Others have young teens, and maybe you have even believed the myth that the college transition is a distant dream. Here is the cold, hard truth: your child started the journey out the door the day they were born. They will all leave, that is the way of the world. How they will leave, whether they stay gone, and whether they succeed has SO much to do with how we prepared them for this challenge. Your son or daughter will leave your door and go face the world with only the tools and wisdom that we have given them. So what do you want to put in their suitcase? I am not talking so much about “what” as I am about “who.” So much personal formation happens in this critical window.
Asher Roth’s vision of college should be alarming to most parents.
First off, we need to understand that the “script” has changed. Your teen will enter a college scene that is different from the one you experienced. College is much more expensive, morality is much more relative, the academic system has experienced shifts in attitude and focus, and the job market they will emerge into is totally different. I recently heard of a dad talking about how he felt unprepared to help his son navigate the college transition. He claimed that he went to college in the early 80’s. His career path was suggested to him by a guidance counselor that knew him well enough to know his gifts, talents, and aptitude. His tuition was completely funded by grants and scholarships, and immediately on graduation he started a job he worked for the next 20 years. This kind of story might not have been normal for everyone, but it at least used to be common. Now, the average student will change majors twice, 60% of them will use student loans to cover the cost (around $30-40 grand a year for a private 4 year college), attend 62 parties per year on average, and only 6 out of 10 of them will find a full-time job after graduation. The more alarming reality for me as a youth pastor, and the one that Echo has looked most closely at, is the way that people statistically take a “recess” from faith during college. We have been paying close attention to the research coming out of Fuller Youth Institute and adjusting our programs as a result. Many students, even those that were involved in strong youth ministries (up to 40-50%) leave their faith in college. This is alarming, but it is based on solid research. How do we address this? Here are two “structures” we need to work together to build for each of our students.
1. A Foundation they can stand on – This is purposefully preparing your teen for life without your guidance. They are on the way out the door the minute they are born. One of the things I notice is that young people have a hard time mapping out the “why” of college. They need to have a vision for college, wandering can be an expensive experiment. Most students will say that the goal of college is to get an education so they can get a good job. That sounds good on the surface, but the truth is more complex. The truth is that learning cannot be the highest goal. It doesn’t really matter what our kids know if they don’t know what really matters. From 18-25, huge questions are being answered about identity; not just what they will do for a living but what sort of person they will become. They will form central convictions during this time that last a lifetime. They need our help. Their character will take shape dramatically during these years, as will their values, and those issues of “who” will both matter far more than the “what” of job/career.
- Laying the right foundation means we create space for true doubt, wrestling, and complexity while they still have some adults to anchor them. It means that we anticipate and even catalyze their searching and their questions. One of the most common complaints students in the research have voiced is that there wasn’t room for discussion, doubt, and disagreement in their churches or their homes when it came to faith. They were encouraged to have “blind faith” and not to think critically. We want to introduce our students to the many logical challenges to the Christian faith while we can still have the conversation.
- Laying the right foundation means connecting them to a bigger story. Students that live on mission: to serve and heal and restore the world, have a much better chance of surviving college with their faith in tact. This is one of the reasons that a “gap year” is a very good idea for many college students. Students can defer their acceptance a year, and that year is spent on mission. It is not sitting around, it is spent purposefully serving the world and discovering who they are and setting their priorities.
- We want to a lay a foundation rooted in community. Relationships matter, HUGELY. One of the issues here is that it is difficult for them to duplicate the level of community they experienced in youth ministry in college and beyond. There are campus groups, but many students find “adult church” lacking in the level of relational depth they crave. We have to be better about integrating them into the life of the church, not as a separate little church for youth, but as vital members of the greater church movement.
- Laying a solid foundation means facing difficult tensions and boldly asks the tough questions. This means we need to address the challenges they will face long before they leave for college. They need some practice wrestling with the tensions and temptations that will face them in college. Issues that need to be addressed long before they leave your house include: Debt – the average college student will graduate with over $30,000 in debt. That is a heavy load to carry if the average starting salary is under $50k and 40% of them will not be able to find jobs right away. Parties – The average college student attends 62 parties a year. This party scene is not even enjoyable to some, according to the research, but they feel like they cannot connect meaningfully without it. They need help finding another answer to this need to connect. Dangerous behavior – 40% of college students admit to binge drinking. Everyone made some dumb and reckless choices in college, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to prepare our students to make better choices! Dangerous behavior includes digital irresponsibility, the pictures of their foolish choices may follow them forever digitally and negatively impact future opportunities.
2. A Net to catch them when they fall – We all hope that our child will succeed. One of the hardest things about statistics is that we can assume hopefully OUR kid will defy the stats. We hope we have prepared them to succeed, we hope we have given them the tools they need. Still, we need to also prepare them in the inevitable event of failure. They are going to mess up. They are going to miss a class, to struggle with grades, to bow to social pressure. They are going to be homesick or to be lonely. How will they respond?
- Grace – This is the most important thing we can teach them. It is ESSENTIAL that they understand the heart of God toward them. Your faith becomes robust and resilient when you learn how to get back up after you fail. Many students think something like: well, I already screwed up and now I’m tainted, I might as well stop trying. This is an actual conversation I have way too often. This is why faith that is based on human merit or behavior will never work. True Christianity is not about what we do for God, it is about what God has done for us. Grace needs to be the face that loves wears when it meets imperfection.
- 5 Invested adults – 5 seems to be the magic number. Do you have 5 different adult voices that are invested in the success of your teen? Adults that know them well, know their story, and want to see them succeed in life and in faith? A youth leader, a coach, an older sibling, they need 5-6 voices. There are going to be so many times when they don’t want to turn to a parent, even if they have the best parents in the world. What will the net look like that catches them?
These are actual interviews of college freshmen. I can’t help but notice how much these students needed help in the form of grace and the wisdom of other loving adults! If your student was to fail, what net would catch them?