Preparing Your Teens for College: An Interview with Alex Chediak
R.C. Sproul Jr: Who is responsible for “preparing” teenagers for college? What role does the church play in this preparation?
Alex Chediak: Primarily, it’s parents who are responsible, because preparing teenagers for college is a subset of preparing them for life. The two-fold duty of every parent is to raise their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord and to prepare them to live responsibly and wisely. The former is the firmest foundation for the latter, because the call to follow Christ is comprehensive. But whether or not our children experience the miracle of regeneration before leaving our homes, we must prepare them for responsible living. That includes helping them assess their talents, interests, and the lines of work in which they’re most likely to experience success, as well as how to best access those lines of work. Teachers, coaches, and mentors can also be helpful in these areas.
Church involvement is an important component of bringing up our children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). For one, the church comes alongside parents and equips them to better train their teenagers. But the church also ministers directly to those teenagers by teaching them how the Bible applies to every stage and facet of life, by including them in the worship services, by encouraging them to serve and contribute, by creating a culture of high expectations, and by helping them wrestle with and come to own the Christian faith for themselves. Some adults in the church (e.g., youth ministers) are often uniquely skilled at engaging teens in matters of the faith. Their efforts can helpfully complement (though not replace or render unnecessary) what occurs in the home. Teens benefit profoundly from a multiplicity of relationships with godly adults.
RC: Why is there a need for a book on preparing teens for college? What are some of the dangers?
AC: College is more expensive than ever. Seven in ten students from the class of 2013 graduated with student debt. The average balance at graduation was $30,000. Why do so many go to college if it’s unaffordable? Because good-paying jobs for high school graduates are disappearing. In 1979, high school graduates were paid 77 percent of what college graduates made; today they make about 62 percent.
But here’s the kicker: With college costing so much and more students than ever going, the U.S. has the highest college dropout rate in the industrialized world (fewer than six in ten graduate). The numbers are even worse for associate degrees. In short, too many of our teens are graduating high school unprepared for the academic and professional challenges that await them. Such struggles later stunt their ability to assume financial independence and form new families.
I also spend several chapters in Preparing Your Teens for College explaining how to prepare teens for the spiritual, moral, and social dangers associated with college. Spiritually, we must help our teens know that Christianity is intellectually defensible (1 Peter 3:15). It’s not a faith devoid of reason; it’s a faith based on reason. Morally, our teens must be convinced that God’s commands aren’t meant to rob them of pleasure but to maximize it. Socially, our teens must understand that close friendships have a profound impact on their character (Proverbs 13:20). Therefore they ought to be formed with care.
RC: What are some of the dangerous unexamined presuppositions parents and teens tend to bring to their thinking about college?
AC: The assumption that success in high school will invariably translate into success at college is misguided. For one, too many high schools have lowered their standards. While some college professors have followed suit, many others have not. (Those that have should be avoided. Why pay good money not to learn?) But secondly, and more significantly, college is different from high school with regard to class time (about half as much as in high school) and homework (about twice as much). The college freshman has far less structure in his weekly schedule than he did just a year ago—but he’s required to do much more during that time. Recognizing priorities, time management, and the willingness to delay gratification—these things must be learned progressively in high school to avoid a rough transition.
The “four-year college for all” assumption should also be rejected. I’ve seen too many students drop out of college when they never should have been there. Their skills and interests were not in the classroom. They’ve since become cooks, mechanics, and firemen—things they had wanted to pursue, but they didn’t have the courage to admit it. We need to recover the dignity of all legitimate professions, including the skilled trades and “dirty jobs” (which pay surprisingly well over time). Though education beyond the high school level is increasingly important (see above), it doesn’t have to be a four-year college. Associate degrees and technical certificates can access many “middle skill” job openings (which economists expect to increase).
RC: How should a robust Christian world-and-life view impact the way a Christian college views education?
AC: The faculty and administration should see all truth and beauty as having their origin in God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. The laws of science and math are the laws of God. That’s why we apply our minds to understand them and to push the frontiers of knowledge forward. The study of history, literature, the arts, music, and everything else is likewise conducted from a glad recognition that God is the Lord over every sphere of knowledge and insight.
Secondly, it should impact our motivation for teaching and the way we motivate our students to learn. We learn to love God with our minds. We learn to be good stewards of the talents with which He’s entrusted us. We learn to inform and thus stimulate our worship of God. We learn to more competently love our neighbors in the specific lines of work to which we are called. These are the reasons we call our students to academic excellence. A longing to be useful in this world, as an expression of love for God and love for neighbor, is the foundation for obtaining gainful employment. An overt focus on the latter will not ensure the former and is not a distinctively Christian education.
RC: Should Christian colleges seek to communicate more effectively to parents and teens how they might better prepare themselves?
AC: If you take the view that preparing teens for college is preparing them for life, then that endeavor really starts from their childhood, long before the colleges know who they are. At a college, we might “meet” a student at the age of 16 or 17 when they come for a campus tour or express interest. But at that point, yes, I think there are things Christian colleges can do to more effectively convey to parents and prospective students what it would take to be successful at the college level. Discussing the out-of-class work load, the relative difficulty of various majors, what kind of academic background it takes to be successful in those majors, the job prospects of different majors, and the dangers of excessive dependency on student debt—these are a few areas that come to mind. Last year World magazine ran a story on the rising student loan default rates for graduates of Christian colleges. This is an area in which it’d be good to see improvement.
RC: What area are college freshman least prepared in?
AC: The lack of personal discipline and its corollary: undeveloped time-management skills. They haven’t had to study much in high school. Perhaps their well-intentioned parents told them what to do and when to do it so they’ve never had to think about it. Now it’s all on them. It’s a rude awakening.
One of the things I discuss in Preparing Your Teens for College is the danger of over-parenting—of treating teens like children rather than adults in training, or of shielding them from natural consequences when they make mistakes. The truth is that painful lessons in the school of hard knocks are long remembered, but only if the pain is allowed to do its work (see Psalm 119:67, 71, 75). While protecting our teens from excessive temptation, from developing sinful habits, and from failures that would have long-lasting implications, we should look for ways to give them greater measures of freedom along with commensurate levels of responsibility and accountability. That way they develop their decision-making muscles and learn to be discerning.
Alex Chediak is professor of engineering and physics at California Baptist University and is the author of the newly released Preparing Your Teens for College.
R.C. Sproul Jr. is rector and chair of philosophy and theology at Reformation Bible College and is the author of several books and teaching series.