Youth Culture Window

Today’s College Experience

Dynamic ImageIn August, anxious parents packed up their high school graduates and nervously shipped them off to colleges around the nation. In the back of their minds, they wondered if the “college experience” had changed since they were students themselves.

Yes, it has. And not exactly for the better.

An Unforgettable Four Years
Who are we kidding? These days, it takes an average of six years to earn a typical four-year degree. But those additional two years might be the simplest change facing today’s college students.

Let’s start by talking about sex, specifically sexual assault. You know college life has changed when discussing sex requires the advent of terms like “Red Zone.” No, this has nothing to do with the college football team moving the ball inside their opponents’ 20-yard-line; the alternative meaning of Red Zone is far more sinister. It refers to the first few months of school, typically the start of the fall semester to the Thanksgiving break, in which sexual assault on college girls tends to spike upward.

Based on previous national reports, more than 50% of sexual assaults on college campuses occur during the months of August, September, October, and November. While some colleges report even higher numbers during these same months, the other common denominator is that the victim of these assaults is usually a freshmen girl.

It’s a staggering reality to try and comprehend, but these days, a whopping 28% of female undergraduates will fall victim to sexual assault while at college. Yes, the degree of assault ranges from an unwanted touch all the way to rape, but all of it is inexcusable. Unfortunately, the recent story of Delaney Robinson from the University of North Carolina highlights the varied – and often lacking – ways that colleges deal with reports and allegations of sexual assault. Too many young women are paying an unnecessary price for higher education.

Speaking of high prices….

According to a report released by Student Loan Hero, 9 out of 10 college students claim they chose their major based on their passion for a particular course of study. That’s great, of course, but 8 out of those same 10 students also said their choice of college was dictated by costs. That’s not a big shocker given that tuition at a public college was $9,410 in the 2015-2016 school year (and $32,405 at private colleges). For the record, those numbers don’t include books, fees, room and board, and other related expenses. Perhaps that’s why USA Today reports that the average college grad left school in 2016 with a degree…and $37,000 of debt.

These costs make grants and student loans highly attractive to college-bound kids. But sadly, many students who actually score these financial aids use them to fund non-education related expenses. For example, the Student Loan Hero study also found that:


  • 41% of college students spend their loans on other bills such as cell phone expenses
  • 19% of them spend loans on car costs (payment, insurance, etc.)
  • 15% of them use loans for clothing and accessories
  • 13% of them use their school-allocated money on meals at restaurants
  • 3% of students use loans for vacations
  • And 3% of college students even admit to using their loans for drugs and alcohol.

Speaking of drugs….

The University of Michigan just released the findings of their annual study entitled Monitoring the Future and discovered that two-thirds of college students believe that “smoking weed every now and then” is a relatively safe practice. Consequently, the number of students who have smoked weed at least once in the past year has leapt from 30% to 38% in recent years. Moreover, 1-in-22 college students say they smoke marijuana on a daily basis (or at least 20 times per month).

No wonder a four-year degree takes six years these days….

Aside from the economic impact of using marijuana, there are the obvious academic side effects. The National Institute of Drug Abuse even warns of the cognitive impacts marijuana use might have on college students whose brains are still developing throughout those particular years.

Different But Doable
Was there sexual assault on college campuses 20 years ago? Without a doubt. Drugs? Absolutely. Was higher education inaccessible to some because of high costs? Yep. But in these ways – and others – today’s college experiences are quite a bit different than they were for previous generations. But parents and youth workers who desire to make a continual impact on students’ lives find it doable, nonetheless. Here’s how.


  1. Maintain influence. While influence is greatly enhanced by close proximity, it need not be decreased due to distance. Our church just launched a Life Group that was intentionally formed to care for the specific needs of college students who’ve left their homes for the first time. This group of parents puts together care packages of homemade goodies, writes encouraging notes, and prays for the individual concerns facing every college student in our church. The ministry was birthed by parents who wanted to continue caring for their kids in practical ways. It requires intentionality, but the effort is paying off in powerful ways in the lives of college students we love.
  2. Keep talking. In fact, use the upcoming holiday seasons when your college students come home to talk about any and every point of college life you can. Without bombarding them with questions as soon as they step through the door, find a way to ask intuitive questions about their collegiate experiences. For example:
  • What has been your most rewarding experience at college so far?
  • What has been the greatest struggle you’ve faced?
  • What lessons have you learned about life that have nothing to do with your major?
  • Which friends have you discovered are trustworthy/responsible? How can you enhance those relationships?


Today’s college experiences may have changed, but our obligation to our kids has not. Make the most of every opportunity to help steer your students through the landscape of today’s college campus.

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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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