Youth Culture Window

Underprepared for Undergrad

Dynamic ImageAcceptance letter? Check. Class schedule? Check.Responsible roommate? Check. Today’s incoming college students seem to have everything they need to “start” college, but do they have what it takes to “finish” college?

And, in the end, what will they really get for getting a degree?

College Prep
Just about everybody has an opinion on America’s educational systems. Everything from elementary school curriculum to interest rates on college tuition loans is debated in barber shops, living rooms, and cable news studios. And how the future looks depends on who you ask.

For instance, the latest study by the ACT (American College Testing) found that 89% of high school teachers believed their graduates were “well” or “very well” prepared for entry-level college course work. By comparison, just 26% of college professors agreed.

We call that a gap…a really big gap.

At the start of this past year’s academic season, the ACT released the findings of 1.7 million students who’d taken their test which centers on four academic subjects: math, English, science, and reading. The results weren’t pretty. More than 25% of the students failed to meet college readiness benchmarks in all four subject areas and a whopping 60% fell short in at least two of the four subjects.

Sounds like those geography-challenged kids from a few years back.

You can access the ACT’s full report online which delves into detailed areas such as educational requirements, comparisons from different grade levels, use of technology in the classroom, and much more, but keep in mind this sobering “Educational Olympics” infographic from the Huffington Post. While the United States leads the world in “most gold medals” won for athletic accomplishment, when it comes to academics, we wouldn’t even win copper.

But there are more problems than just poor academic performances. Some are asking bigger questions about college education, beginning with, “Is it worth it?”

“You Want Fries With That?”
At the end of last year’s academic season, the AP reported that 50% of college graduates were either jobless or underemployed in roles that didn’t fully require their newly earned skills. In other words, a kid with a bachelor’s degree might choose to work as a bartender just so he could have an income.

Trust me; no college student crawls out of bed for an 8am Micro Economics class every Tuesday and Thursday so they can flip burgers!

Further, a reality known as “degree inflation,” whereby a company expects its employees to have 4-year degrees even though the position doesn’t require college training, is becoming more and more common. This recent shift has prompted some education and work force experts to compile a list of degrees and fields that really aren’t worth the time and money anymore.

And remember, we still haven’t talked about debt.

Education-related debt continues to climb higher and higher. In 2011, the average student loan was north of $25,000. Last year, the national average swelled to $26,600 (though it varied from state-to-state and school-to-school, of course).

Without a doubt, these are some of the reasons why college students – and college grads – continue to be in the minority. Roughly 90% of young Americans intend to go to college, but only about 55% actually do. And, of course, “going” to college is altogether different from “graduating” college; in 2011, just 32% of young people (ages 25-34) had earned a college degree.

There’s a lot that needs to happen if our young people are going to be better prepared for college and the life that follows.

Making the Grade…by Making Some Changes
These trends mentioned above can be reversed. We don’t have to send underprepared teenagers off to college, nor do we have to abandon them to years of debt-laden underemployment afterward. In addition to 12 years of youth ministry experience, I had the privilege of serving in college ministry for 7 years as a Teaching Pastor on the campus of USF. In that setting, our team worked with the 43,000 domestic and international students who chose Tampa for their advanced educational endeavors. In other words, I had a front row seat to lots of college students’ unpreparedness. But the good news is, parents and youth workers are uniquely poised to make a few needed changes so these problems can be avoided. Here are some ideas taken straight from our experiences.


  1. Help them understand the importance of building the right relationships. No, I’m not just talking about fraternities and sororities. Each year, when we celebrated students’ graduations, we gave them a chance to share their experiences and their counsel with those just starting college. Time and again, the “veterans” harped the importance of developing the right relationships, especially with others in the Christian faith. For many, college was one bump in the road after another; for them, it was essential to have others they could call on in times of trouble. Teach your soon-to-be college student how to cultivate – and offer – strong, godly, encouraging, and loving relationships. This aspect of college preparation could very well be the “make or break” factor for the young people in your life.
  2. Teach them how to handle temptation. Trust me; temptation isn’t hard to find on a college campus…secular or Christian. It has the potential to wreck academic records, relationships, and whole lives. Young people need to know how to handle temptation before they are confronted by it at college. One of the best ways to help them learn this important lesson for college (and life!) is to give them “incremental freedom” to see how they use it. Don’t let their first taste of freedom take place in a dorm room halfway across the country. Start with small things like curfew or time management to give them genuine opportunities to discipline themselves on their own so they learn wisdom and maturity. If they succeed, celebrate; if they fail, talk about why. Then, when they are in a dorm room halfway across the country, they will know how to stay between the guardrails.
  3. Help them develop effective study habits. Since the whole point of college is about learning, make sure they’ve learned how to…well…learn! They don’t have to think, read, and study the way you do; they just need to know how to think, read, and study for themselves. Learning styles can be as distinct as fingerprints. The key is that students are aware of their own. One student might be a “visual” learner while another is an “auditory” learner. Encourage them to find their style and develop it. Equally important, students need to be taught the self-discipline that is necessary for studying on a college campus. There will be plenty of distractions (and temptations) so they need to know that study time won’t automatically present itself, it has to be intentionally built in to their schedules.

Hopefully, you’re well on your way to preparing your teenager for success in college and beyond. The more time you’ve got, the better. But if your teen only has a few weeks before they ship off for school, put them through a “crash course” of these lessons. That crash course could keep them from crashing courses at college.

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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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