College can be a significant fork in the road of life. For some, it’s where their Christian life commences or catches speed. For others, however, college is where their faith fizzles.

In his new book, Preparing Your Teens for College: Faith, Friends, Finances, and Much More (Tyndale), Alex Chediak aims to help parents equip their teens for the college challenge. Structured around six general categories (character, faith, relationships, finances, academics, the college decision) and 11 specific conversations parents should have with their kids before they arrive at college, Preparing Your Teens for College wisely and practically spotlights the inescapable truth the “thriving at college begins in the home.”

I corresponded with Chediak, professor of engineering and physics at California Baptist University and author of Thriving at College, about how to address sexual purity with your teen, whether to go to a Christian college, financial barriers, and more.

You’re convinced that “thriving at college begins in the home.” What’s the hardest thing about preparing teens for college today?

Though every teen is unique, I think protracted adolescence and narcissism (pervasive in young adult culture) represent the most difficult hurdles for godly parents and pastors to overcome. Too many teens prefer to linger in the no-man’s-land of adolescence rather than complete the journey to full-orbed adulthood. And while a very low self-esteem is often unhealthy (certainty of failure easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy), too many teens have the opposite problem: they think they’re great, but haven’t yet done anything great. If you think you’re better at something than you really are, you expect it to come easily. This view makes you less likely to work hard, less likely to succeed, and more likely to be surprised and disappointed when you don’t. But college is harder than high school, so teens need to go in with the right mentality.

In short, to succeed in college our kids need to assume responsibility for their lives, embrace a realistic assessment of themselves (see Romans 12:3), delay gratification when necessary, and work hard to achieve a clear set of goals. These things need to be happening progressively during their teen years—before they get to college.

You argue that moral purity is essential to spiritual flourishing. How can parents broach this potentially awkward subject with their teens in a constructive manner?

I think it’s a series of conversations beginning around puberty where we help them see that their new desires for romantic and sexual intimacy can either lead them into sin or lead them to greater fellowship with Christ and (probably) to a future spouse. The self-control we hope our children learn before puberty will play a huge role here. Moral purity is about delaying gratification—it’s about saying no to a lesser pleasure now for the sake of a greater pleasure later.

We err if we deny the lesser pleasure is real. And we also err if we fail to warn them that this lesser pleasure is followed by pain because God wired us to experience physical intimacy in the context of a lifetime commitment. God wants us to be happy. Therefore, he forbids that we express ourselves sexually outside the context of marriage. And the Holy Spirit can empower obedience in this area.

Parents want their kids to grow up into the high expectations they have for them, but how can they avoid becoming “helicopter parents” or “tiger moms”? 

It’s appropriate to acknowledge that high expectations drive high performance; teens usually rise only as high as the expectations of those who most strongly influence them. Therefore, we must help our teens avoid excuse making and instead apply themselves diligently to honor God with excellence in their activities.

But faithfulness to Christ is a greater and broader goal than a perfect GPA, performing in Carnegie Hall, or getting into an Ivy League college. We should exhort our teens to develop their talents from within the larger context of Christian discipleship. This approach means helping our kids resist the idolatrous tendency to define themselves by their accomplishments—and modeling this resistance in our own lives. We pursue excellence not to impress others but to glorify God and more effectively serve others. And we do so from the firm foundation of having already received God’s favor because of the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross.

What advice do you have for a parent whose teenager wants to attend a different church or simply stop attending altogether?

Parents should choose a church home with full consideration of their children’s spiritual needs. If teens aren’t feeling engaged at church, that problem should be discussed. Legitimate issues should be brought to the attention of church leaders. Could more be done to engage teens? Alternatively, could your teen use some help finding ways to serve, meeting more people, and feeling better connected? If another biblically oriented church in town has midweek youth activities and yours doesn’t, I see no problem with allowing your teens to join those activities.

Teens who want to stop attending church altogether are a larger problem. I would thank those teens for being honest about their preference and request an ongoing dialogue about their spiritual status. (For example, do they profess faith? If so, why don’t they see church involvement as necessary? If not, what intellectual or moral obstacles are preventing them from following Christ?) But I would require church attendance while “living under our roof” as a subset of obedience/submission—the same way I’d require that they come and be polite if the family is invited to Grandma’s house for dinner.

How do today’s economic conditions make preparing our kids for college more crucial than ever before?

College is more expensive than ever. But with regard to future earnings prospects, it’s also more significant than ever. In June 2013, the unemployment rate for non-college grads was 7.6 percent, but for college grads, it was about half of that (3.9 percent). You’ll see this pattern, in good times and bad, over the last few decades. And the “earnings premium”—the additional money that a college graduate earns relative to a non-college graduate—has been steadily increasing. In 1979, high school graduates were paid 77 percent of what college graduates made; today they make about 62 percent.

This doesn’t mean every high school graduate should immediately pursue a bachelor’s degree. Associate degrees in health care and technology-related disciplines lead to high-paying jobs (and require less educational expense to access). Moreover, economists expect“middle-skill” job openings—those requiring more than a high school degree but less than a bachelor’s degree—to increase. The skilled trades are also in demand (think welders, electricians, heavy equipment technicians, and so on). So it’s not a matter of “four-year college for all,” but having some kind of advanced degree or certification is increasingly important.

How should one go about deciding whether to attend a Christian college?

Christian colleges offer distinct advantages: a greater commitment to cultivating the whole person, to teaching subjects from a distinctively Christian perspective, and to providing a supportive community in which students can better understand and more deeply own the Christian faith for themselves. Socially, there are advantages to being mostly (or entirely) surrounded by those who profess Christian faith.

That said, while every Christian student should consider the opportunities for Christian community afforded by a particular college—the local churches in the area, the Christian organizations that meet on the campus, and so forth—not every Christian student must attend a Christian college. A non-Christian college may be less expensive, offer a specific academic program, have better instructional resources, or allow a student to live at home (saving money) while remaining connected to his or her family and church. Whether to attend a Christian or secular college is an area in which Christian liberty should be respected among families.