Choosing a college can be thrilling and agonizing, hopeful and grab-your-kleenex-where-did-the-time-go emotional. As Christian parents, we pray not only for the right school for our children, but also that they will get involved in campus ministries and build solid relationships with other believers.
How can we guide our children through the process of choosing a school, and help get them established once they’re there?
Here are some practical tips I hope will help — with thanks to my daughter Allison, who provided input. It’s hard to believe our two oldest grandkids are now college-aged!
It’s best to begin visiting colleges your junior year or before. This will enable you to know what the realistic options are, and will help relieve the stress of the unknown. (A visit with a college counselor might also inspire your child to work harder to be considered.)
A few tips to get the most out of these visits:
- Meet with campus ministries.
Before your visit, line up a college tour, and arrange to meet with a representative of one or two campus ministries. You’ll want to find out what the fellowship is like on campus. A college administrator should be able to give you names or check out groups like Cru, InterVarsity, Navigators, Reformed University Fellowship, etc.
- Visit during the week.
It’s best to visit a campus during the week rather than on the weekend. Time your trip so your son or daughter will be able to attend one of the campus fellowship meetings.
- Take notes!
Have your student take notes on each place, listing the pros and cons. It’s easy to forget the details when you’re looking at several schools.
- Consider budget and scholarships.
Be careful looking at colleges you know you can’t afford. This will set you and your child up for disappointment. However, do check out financial aid and scholarship possibilities. There are many — often unpublicized — options and you don’t want to miss them.
Determining which school
Set a date before the beginning of senior year for the college applications to be finished. This is a long process and your child may need your encouragement along the way (even if they roll their eyes, they appreciate it more than you know).
Once you’ve heard from schools, it’s wise to visit the ones your child is most interested in again. This time, arrange for them to spend the night in a dorm with a believer. Going to class and attending another fellowship meeting will give them a better picture of what college life is like. If you’re visiting with them be sure to give them space to attend activities by themselves.
Consider a gap year
Many students benefit from taking a gap year off before beginning college. If you’ve been accepted at your school choice, you can apply for a deferment for one year, which will secure your place.
A gap year should be a meaningful experience. There are many opportunities that integrate discipleship as well as service. Our long-term goal is that our kids love Christ and love their neighbor, so you want to choose a program that has these components. Simply hanging out at home is unlikely to contribute to maturity. Choosing a gap year should be a family decision.
Before they go
- Encourage your child to find a believing roommate.
They may not become best friends, but they’re more likely to have the same moral standards. This is crucial because your child can’t always control what will go on in their room. There will be enough adjustments and they don’t need to add a difficult roommate situation to the mix. Right after our granddaughter was accepted to her school, she found a Christian roommate on the college Facebook page and it has proven to be a huge gift.
- Connect with ministries from day one.
Many campus fellowships host “moving-in day” luncheons for families. Find out if there are some on your campus and sign up to go. It’s a great way to meet other believers the first day. Statistics show that who a student hangs out with their first ten days of school will largely determine what group they align themselves with.
Expect your child to attend a campus fellowship. It’s wise to check out several and then commit to one by the end of the second month of school. The same is true for church. Especially if you’re supporting your child financially, it’s fair to expect this in return.
- Communicate clearly about financial expectations.
Be clear about extra expenses, credit cards, and who pays for what. This will avoid misunderstanding in the future. It may be wise to write out an agreement.
Along the way
A wise parent will have begun preparing her child to leave for several years. We want to raise independent, confident kids. This involves the turning over of responsibilities along the way. Your high school kids should be doing their own laundry, making and keeping their own appointments, waking themselves up, writing their own thank-you notes. (It’s important to thank those who wrote a recommendation. Gratitude is a character trait, and we need to thank those who take time to help us.)
Teach your teen how to use online resources for reconciling their bank accounts and using a budget app for planning expenses.
Pray and trust
This may be harder for mom and dad than the student. As parents, we’re used to providing for our child. But we have little control over what a college will say. Our child may feel rejected when he is not admitted by a school. We must remember that God knows our child and He knows what is best for them. He will lead them to the right place. In the final analysis it must be their decision, not ours.
If your child does not get into his first choice, he needs your reassurance that God has a better plan. He may need to rely on your faith — and your faith will be stretched as well. But God does have a plan for your child. And He will cause all things to work together for good as we trust in Him (Romans 8:28).
Although this can be a stressful season, do enjoy the blessings of it. You are about to launch your child whom you have had the privilege of raising. You are entrusting him or her to God in a deeper way. They have the privilege of a good education in a free country. None of us want to lose the perspective that education is a gift.
May God guide you and your child through the process of choosing a college.
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