Youth Culture Window

College Prep

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We’re in the second half of summer and several million teenagers are just weeks away from the biggest change in their young lives: leaving home and going to college. That means millions of parents are wondering if they’ve paved the way for a successful future.

After all, college prep involves much more than prepaid tuition plans and parking decals….

Based on data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics (with the help of the U. S. Census Bureau), roughly 21 million young people will attend college this fall, with 2-3 million kids experiencing college life for the very first time. The NCES also estimates that a mere 60% of them will actually graduate with a 4-year degree within the first six years of enrollment.

That’s not exactly encouraging news. Are graduation rates so low because the academic work is so difficult? Are more kids failing to graduate because they chose to go to the “kegger” instead of the library? Are more kids dropping out because college is just too expensive? Maybe it’s a combination of several possibilities?

The disappointment may stem from a lack of readiness; if more than half a million college kids with high school diplomas aren’t prepared for college level academics, in what other ways might they not be prepared for independent living and advanced study? Here are some simple questions to ponder as you prepare kids for life on their own at college.

I’m not really talking about the estimated $57,000 it will take to get your kid a college degree, though that’s certainly important. Instead, let’s look at the financial responsibilities on their end.


  • Have they created a budget…and can they live by it?


  • Can he or she differentiate between needs and wants?


  • Do they know how to manage a bank account?


  • Do they know how to go about paying bills they’ll be responsible for while at school?


  • Do they know how to shop by comparison (for meal plans, textbooks, gas, entertainment, etc.)?


Just do whatever you must to make sure your kid isn’t one of the college students with more than $2,500 in credit card debt on top of tuition debt.

Again, we’re talking much more than just their high school buddies, or even a boyfriend or girlfriend. Achieving relational wholeness is as big a task as it is important.

  • Are they equipped to handle confrontation in positive ways? (After all, it’s inevitable.)


  • Can they operate in a team-based environment (like the ones certain classes will require)?


  • Do they possess the skills to determine which of their peers are healthy for them vs. unhealthy?


  • Have they been trained to sidestep negative influencers?


  • Do they understand that communication with peers is different from communication with professors, faculty members, employers, etc.…and can they comply?


Relationship troubles can be just as upsetting as a bad grade. Make sure your college-bound kid is prepared to avoid as many as possible, and properly handle those that arise.

With anxiety and depression at all-time highs, parents can’t overlook a careful development of young minds and hearts.

  • How “self-aware” are they? In what areas do they need to improve?


  • Do they demonstrate a proper balance between work and play?


  • Do they know how to deal with setbacks and outright failure?


  • Do they have good ol fashioned “grit”?


  • Have they developed enough self-discipline to govern themselves in various areas of life?


Anyone who owns a vehicle understands the importance of maintenance (preventive or curative). Essentially, we need our kids to understand how important it is to take care of themselves…and be able to do it.

Though I’m mentioning it last, it’s far from the least important. My wife and I spent almost 8 years as campus pastors at a large state college in Florida, so I know the importance of faith firsthand.

  • Can your teenager articulate their faith?



  • Does their faith wax or wane under pressure…and are they aware of that reality?


  • Have they picked out a church or campus ministry to attend?


  • Do they have a devotional life?


  • How often does their faith inform their decisions? How can that be further developed?


College is all about expanding mental horizons. It need not decrease our spiritual fervor for Jesus.

Crash Course
Maybe your child is several years away from leaving home and heading to school. If so, you’ve got time to help him/her develop the necessary strengths and aptitudes to be successful at college. Just make sure you maintain diligence on the task without becoming lackadaisical.

And don’t do it alone. It takes a village. That’s why one of the key elements we teach in youth ministry is “people” over “program.” The most important thing parents, family and the church can do helping young people today is providing positive mentors in their lives that engage them in conversations about real life, helping them apply their faith to day to day issues. In fact, most “program” is really there with the purpose of connecting kids with positive mentors in arenas like small groups where real conversation happens.

But maybe you read these questions and thought, “Oh my gosh! Heather’s not ready for college!” Freaking out won’t help, so plan on spending the next few weeks working through the most crucial points to prepare your kid for life away from home. Additionally, you can develop a plan for ongoing communication even after they’ve left for college.

Intentionality on your part will go a long ways toward success on their part.

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David R. Smith

David R. Smith is the author of several books including Christianity... It's Like This and speaks to parents and leaders across the U.S. David is a 15-year youth ministry veteran, now a senior pastor, who specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. David provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.

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