It happened sooner than I had expected. Suddenly, my son is a senior in high school and considering colleges. It seems like yesterday that we brought him home from the hospital as an infant. The first day of Kindergarten wasn’t that long ago. Middle school graduation just happened! But now he is filling out college applications, deciding where to spend the next phase of his life learning and growing. The Apostle Paul tells us “Do not be anxious about anything…” (Philippians 4:6), but I found that advice hard to follow.
And while young adult decisions are daunting, they aren't impossible. I’ve worked in youth ministry for the last twenty years, and I have seen hundreds of students work through the decision of what to do after high school. Some made the decision in a few minutes. Others struggled for months. I’m not sure there is one right way to go about this process. Over the years, I have observed a few things that I used with my own son and would give as advice for those working through this time of decision making.
I haven’t applied for college for well over 25 years, so I was not the most informed person for my son to talk to about any of this stuff. Proverbs 15:22 says that “plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” So we sought out people who work in higher education, students currently attending the schools that my son was considering, admissions counselors or other staff at his schools of choice, and professionals who work in his favored careers. All of them gave great advice about questions to ask, things to consider, and ways to go about this process. One of them suggested doing a college visit to a local school even if my son had no interest in going there just to get a feel for what a college visit is like. Another suggested looking at the size and age of the department of study that my son was looking at. Smaller departments aren’t always bad since the opportunity for more one-on-one attention is greater. Still another told us to pay attention to the other parts of campus and not just the academic aspects. So much learning is done in the dorms, cafeterias, social spaces, and library or academic support. All of those areas are vitally important and can make a huge difference in the experience of college. Search your social circles for wise people that can speak into this decision for you and your student. If you can’t find anyone to talk to, ask any admissions counselor for some names of people you could reach out to.
I am a big believer in support structures for students. In our youth ministries, we often try to identify 5 adults that can form a “safety net” for each student. It is harder to carry that into higher education when students often move away from home. But it can be done. When my son was looking at colleges we wanted him to focus on schools in areas where we knew someone. A family member, an old friend, a former classmate even. Someone that we trust to be there for him in case of emergency or if he needs a good home cooked meal on a Sunday. We will do our best to connect our son to a local church or a group of people that we know once we drop him off for college. In the same way, investigate the support structure at the schools you are looking at. What kind of academic support is offered? What support is there in the dorms? What counseling or medical services are available on campus? All of these support structures can make a huge difference during this phase of life.
There are literally thousands of options. I’ve been recycling college mail from hundreds of colleges and universities for well over a year now. My son's inbox is flooded daily with emails from schools from New York to Hawaii. It can be overwhelming. I’ve known students that have applied to over a dozen schools. While I can’t say that’s the wrong thing to do, it wasn’t for us. For many of those schools the only difference is location and alumni network. A mid-sized liberal arts college on the east coast or the Midwest or the west coast are relatively similar in what they offer. My son limited his search to a few schools that offered programs he was interested in, that were in locations where we had pre-built social networks, and were in geographical areas in which he was interested in living. For him that narrowed the search a great deal and made things simpler in the long run. Had we expanded the search we certainly could have found a school that he would have been happy at in another location or a program that offered something a little different, but we decided that it wouldn’t have made that big of a difference. This simplified the search for him and made his final decision easier than it might have been.
I know this is a little contradictory, but focusing on the wrong things can be unhelpful. Depending on what study you read, between 50%-80% of college students change their major at least once throughout their college years. Choosing a college based on a certain major or program can be important, but shouldn’t be the only reason to choose a school. I’ve known students who choose a school based on a chosen major only to change that major and feel lost because that was the only reason they chose the school. I’ve also known students who have put so much pressure on deciding on a major before they chose a school that they were unduly stressed out. One student was between two schools thinking that whichever school he chose meant that his career decisions had to be made. Don’t get me wrong, academic departments are important. Choosing a school without a nursing program when you’re pretty sure you want to be a nurse doesn’t make any sense. But choosing a school that only fits because of a given major doesn’t make much sense either. Your college education will be greater than your major.
The most meaningful thing for all of us throughout my son's search happened after touring a campus and hearing him say, “I think I’ll fit in well here.” It was a culmination of talking to a professor, hearing stories about dorm life, seeing the cafeteria and weight room, learning about clubs that interested him, and getting real life stories from a current student that led him to say that. That was a big deal and finalized the search for us. My wife and I prayed for that feeling throughout the whole process. We wanted him to find a place where he could thrive. Where he could learn and grow. Where he would feel at home. And where he could become more of the person that God created him to be. In some ways his sentiment had an echo of God’s declaration in Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you…plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.”
None of these things will make this process perfect or even easy. The decision on what to do after high school is life changing. College certainly isn't the only answer either. For some students taking time away from academics can be a really good thing. For others, finding a job that fills their passions is a great solution. For many students there can be more than one right answer. Multiple schools or career paths might fit well and the choice might not be crystal clear. And for some students the choice that gets made might not be the right choice. But even that doesn’t mean that it was a waste of time. Pivoting to another school or another career option isn’t a bad thing and doesn’t mean that life is over or that dreams are shattered. Expectations might just need to be shifted.
Proverbs 16:3 says, “Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he will establish your plans.” Whatever happens and however the search for what’s next might go, cover the decision in prayer and include a great support structure throughout the entire process. And always be there to support your student every step of the process no matter what happens.
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra