One of the most anxiety-inducing choices for parents, including Christian parents, is the selection of a college for children. Public school? Community college? Private? Christian? Vocational school? Apprenticeship?
Having so many choices can seem overwhelming. Once you get into the process itself, there are college visits, filling out FAFSA, applications and scholarships, and more. No wonder many parents feel stressed about it!
As I write this, my wife and I are nearly “empty nest.” I’ll go ahead and do our college “reveal” at the outset – both of our kids are going to Dallas Baptist University. But as much as we love DBU, this is not a commercial for it, or even a recommendation that you should make the same types of decisions we did. Here I just want to offer eight guidelines based on what we’ve learned over the years, and what I know about the world of higher education.
- There is no “one size fits all” approach to college for Christian parents. There are simply too many factors involved for us to impose our decisions on other families. There are, however, some good and bad reasons to choose a college.
- If you choose a Christian school, make sure it is thoughtfully and thoroughly Christian. As my friend Perry Glanzer has noted, there are practical ways to gauge the level of seriousness of a Christian college. Do they have a statement of faith for faculty? Do they have required chapel? Who speaks in chapel? Are Bible classes required? Who teaches them?
- Finances are a big deal. Do whatever you can to minimize debt, especially for your student. Start a 529 or similar college savings plan as soon as possible, to enjoy tax-free savings. Unless you get major financial assistance, there is likely no good reason to choose a more expensive private school, which can now run you $70,000 or more a year. There are a lot of strong private schools that are not as expensive as the most famous or pretigious ones. Elite public schools can be quite pricey, too, but regional public universities are often a great choice for those who simply want a college degree (in business or a similar field), in order to compete for jobs that require one.
- Be cautious about paying top dollar for bureaucracy, bells, and whistles. Your child will likely be dazzled by the elite gym facilities, sparkling arenas, and the like at prestigious schools. Prestigious schools also often have massive bureaucracies – innumerable vice presidents, vice provosts, and more, tasked with interfacing with government, accreditation boards, donors, and attending to the latest educational fads. These do not immediately benefit most students, if they benefit students at all. Choosy parents should see over-the-top facilities and huge bureaucracies as potential red flags. Is it worth it to pay a cumulative $100,000 more for a student’s degree just so she can (possibly) use the school’s world-class gym?
- Help! My child wants to major in the arts, humanities, or social sciences! Fields like History or Political Science are not as bad for job prospects as they’re sometimes made out to be. It is very common for people with such degrees to go on to teach school (especially if they pair it with certification in education), work in government, go to law school, seminary, or to do almost any other kind of job you can imagine.
- You learn to do most jobs by on-the-job training. Admittedly, in some fields (accounting, engineering), there are foundational skills that you will likely learn in college, but most of what you do in most jobs is learned after you get the job. This means that, within reason, a child’s major and the prestige of a school does not make as much of a difference in job success as one might think. But learning to communicate more clearly – through college writing and presentations – will help you no matter what your profession.
- When should I consider paying more because of a school or faculty’s reputation in a given field? This can be a factor when your child has a clear idea of what he or she wants to study or do for work. For example, many liberal arts colleges or regional universities do not offer engineering or specialized science degrees. Or, if your child definitely wants to go to a top law school or medical school, you should ask questions about placement records at such schools. There can be a correlation between the prestige of the school and access to top professional and graduate programs. (The college does not necessarily have to have extensive graduate programs, or a law or medical school themselves, nor does attending an undergraduate school that has an affiliated professional or graduate school make it more likely that your student will get in.)
- What do I really want my child to learn? Some schools/programs have an extremely rigorous core curriculum, in which students learn from great books in traditional disciplines. Some schools basically let the students make up the curriculum, offering a mishmash of courses in fads of the moment. Some Christian-affiliated schools require almost nothing as far as education in the Bible or Christian tradition; some require those courses but professors are hostile toward the traditional faith in which students were raised. The strongest Christian colleges require rigorous, challenging, and faith-enhancing study of the Bible and church history. I assume Christian parents will want the latter – if they’re going to choose a private Christian school.
In summary, there are a ton of factors to consider when choosing a college – or another post-high school option. As with all such decisions, much prayer is needed! Take the time to think through all the factors.
Ask yourselves: What are our realistic options, without going deeply into debt? What do we know about my child’s vocational inclinations (tentative as that information may be)? What function would a college degree actually serve for my child? Trust that the Lord will give you wisdom and insight as you plan for these transitional years after high school.