Youth Culture Window
This time of year always finds teenagers making last minute preparations for college. They visit campuses, try to boost their GPAs, and mail in transcripts in hopes of going to their “first choice.”
But those steps still don’t address some of the biggest challenges kids will face on today’s college campuses.
In addition to graduating high school students for 15 years as a youth pastor, I’ve also seen all the (in)famous college movies. Further, my wife and I now lead a campus ministry at USF in Tampa, FL. My experiences with college students have proven that at least a few of the depictions from National Lampoon’s Animal House are true.
Most high school students who are headed to college focus on good grades, community service, and making a good impression on the registrar. That’s great. But they don’t spend too much time thinking through their financial strategies, their relationships, or their habits. And sadly, it’s these shortcomings that rear their ugly heads down the stretch and wreck – or at least delay – many college students’ plans.
I’ve collected some research on these facets of college life and will share them below in no certain order. Suffice it to say, college prep isn’t done until high school students have thought about these issues.
All Nighters…Every Night?
In early December, I wanted to conduct some research at the main library at USF, so late one evening after the family went to bed, I drove over to the campus…totally forgetting that it was finals week. There were so many students in the library that I thought I had accidentally walked into Times Square! But all of them had one thing in common: cramming late at night.
Late nights are nothing new for college kids. But some of the latest research from the National Youth Risk Behavior survey released by the Center for Disease Control shows that a lack of sleep by young people might not be incidental, but the norm. According to their study, a whopping 68.9% of teenagers said they receive less than 8 hours of sleep on an average school night, an amount deemed “insufficient” by the CDC.
What’s worse is that this lack of sleep is associated with behaviors that are far more disconcerting than baggy eyes in the morning. For instance, fighting, smoking, drinking alcohol, drug use, sexual activity, and depression-like symptoms were some of the realities that accompany a lack of sleep.
But it might not just be exams that cause lack of sleep. It could be in the way young people manage themselves…or fail to. Recently, smartphones have been fingered as sleep-robbing culprits, but college kids’ dependency on technology isn’t limited to just a smartphone, though. Most of them, 76% in fact, admit to using digital devices while they are simultaneously watching TV.
It’s true: teenagers and tech go hand-in-hand. I literally did not see one single kid at the library that night without a laptop and cell phone. And many of them even had an mp3 player plugged into the sides of their heads.
Why is this such a concern?
One word: distraction. Just a decade ago the same library was full of kids not checking their Facebook updates every 12 minutes, not peeking at their text messages every time their phone buzzed, and not streaming the Colbert report via Hulu on their laptops when their Western Civ book became too boring.
Late night cramming will probably always be a reality during finals week; it’s the rest of the year that has me concerned. Unless they learn how to tame tech, there will probably be a lot of interrupted study and sleepless nights awaiting them in their dorms.
Dorm Room Rendezvous
Of course, some of those sleepless nights have nothing to do with TV, but everything to do with sex, the most popular extra-curricular activity on any college campus in America. A couple months back, Jonathan noted that, in spite of media’s headlines, kids still have lots of sex. In case you were hoping, let me just say it clearly: college kids are not an exception to this rule. In fact, every report I’ve studied states the obvious—the older kids get, from middle school onward, the more sexually active they become. And by college age, the sexually active are in the majority.
At our campus ministry, we do crisis pregnancy testing (and counseling). As heartbreaking as it is, it’s not unusual for freshmen girls to come to us during the first week of school seeking testing because they’ve been sexually active.
The first week!
I wish I were the only one noticing the sexually active majority in college. But if you talk with others who are on college campuses frequently, you’ll hear similar stories and comparable observations.
Even sadder are the findings of a recent study of college students performed by Knowledge Networks and Liz Claiborne, Inc. They discovered that 43% of college girls who date during those years experienced “physical, sexual, tech, verbal, or controlling abuse.” Unfortunately, 58% of all college students admit they do not know how to get help for someone who has been a victim of dating abuse.
Over and over again, sex proves to be a landmine that blows holes into kids’ college careers (and lives). Today’s college student must have a plan for maintaining purity if he/she doesn’t want to get sidetracked with sex.
IOU…Is NOT a University
Every parent with college kids knows that a formal education is expensive. Whether it’s a local community college, or Harvard, there are lots of unexpected costs associated with getting a degree. Perhaps that’s why so many college students now find themselves in so much debt.
Some of the latest research, like this infographic from the Federal Reserve and the Wall Street Journal, shows just how out-of-hand student debt has become. For instance, national student debt ($829.7 billion) now exceeds national credit card debt ($826.4 billion)! Student debt has been tracking that way for a long time. In 2004, the average debt of a graduating senior was $18,650; just 4 years later, that number ballooned to $23,200.
And in an economy that’s still recuperating, those numbers are even more daunting. Mix massive debt with a higher-than-usual unemployment, and it’s not difficult to understand why America is seeing a record number of college graduates actually move back in with mom and dad after they matriculate. But as this article from the New York Times points out, this might not be a good long-term plan because the economy won’t get the annual boost from graduates buying their own car, TV, home, and crock pot.
But right now, that’s a gamble many college grads are willing to take.
The Big Picture
College life certainly comes with its fair share of changes, but not all of them are bad. Lifetime friendships can be forged, and countless people have met their future spouses at college. Of course, there is usually an education gained, as well. But still, it’s easy to lose sight of these positive aspects of college in light of all the negativity.
So, while the college years do wreak havoc on some kids, we need to be careful not to lay blame where it doesn’t belong. For example, after years of accusing colleges of robbing kids of their Christian faith, some research is suggesting it doesn’t. The Barna Group, the research agency behind the study, says it’s “too simplistic to blame college for today’s young church dropouts.” They highlight the fact that many kids drop out of church before they even graduate high school.
On a far less important note – but it’s still good news – new research is showing that the “freshmen 15” is more like the freshmen 3. Researchers from Ohio State University used data dating all the way back to 1997 to discover that kids who went to college didn’t put on much more weight than those who did go to college. The differential was literally less than half-a-pound in both boys and girls.
When it comes to college life, you’ll want to do all you can, now, to help your teenager get a successful start in college. Here are a few ideas.
- Focus on a total package. Again, college prep isn’t completed just because an acceptance letter has been received. A perfect GPA and recommendations from the National Honor Society are great, but there’s a lot more to life than good grades and other accolades. In addition to these important facets, make sure you’re talking with your high school students about how they plan to manage their lives, including areas of concern like sleep, sex, and money. Teach them strategies to help them manage themselves. That’s always easier than having to go into problem-solving mode.
- Ensure they have access to you and help. Lots of colleges offer a class entitled something like Intro to University in which they outline safety procedures, emergency contact information, evacuation plans, and access to health services. But if it’s not required by students, it’s often skipped altogether. Obviously your kids will have your cell number, but go ahead and set up regular intervals of communication, especially if they’re away from home during college. Tell them over and over again how important it is to you to hear from them. That way you can celebrate their successes throughout the semester, and also, hopefully keep mole hills from becoming mountains.
From my perspective on campus, the students who seem to do the best are those who know they have committed and supportive parents backing them, are connected to on-campus ministries, and are in relationships with godly influencers/friends. The importance of those three simply cannot be understated. Offer your kids those, and it’s going to be a great 4 years.
David R. Smith
is a 15-year youth ministry veteran who helps youth
workers and parents through his writing, training, and speaking. David specializes in sharing the
gospel, and equipping others do the same. He co-authored his first book this year,
Ministry By Teenagers
. David provides free
resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, DavidRSmith.org
David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.
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