How would you define a successful college experience?

For many, simply getting a bachelor's degree would be enough. After all, as Joseph reported in our cover article, 40% of those who enter college are still without degrees after six years.

Others may ask what good does it do to get a degree that lacks significant earning potential? Success for them would be earning a bachelor's degree from a college and in a major that opens doors to attractive job offers.

Nor can we overlook the cost of obtaining that coveted degree. The challenge of paying off a mountain of student loans is daunting. Some would say that part of a successful college experience would be to avoid taking on crippling levels of debt.

All of these are reasonable concerns, but for Christian parents, another risk looms larger: the threat to their son's or daughter's faith in Christ. It's no secret that the secular college classroom is largely antagonistic — often militantly so — to biblical values. For Christian families, a successful college experience would leave a student's faith strengthened, not weakened.

This passage from the Apostle Paul provides a useful framework for decision-making for the Christian student: "When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me" (1 Corinthians 13:11).

In college, students are given, most for the first time, great freedom to make choices without parental guidance or boundaries. The tradeoffs are many. Will they be able to move beyond childish habits and behaviors and make mature choices?

  • Play hard or work hard?
    Children prefer to play and work only when they must. Adults understand that work comes first and play often must wait. Will the student choose the party scene or the library scene? Will he or she be lazy and learn little, or be diligent and acquire marketable skills? Be a child or an adult?
  • Sensual indulgence or self-denial?
    Children want to sleep in, eat what they want, and generally indulge their various desires and appetites. Maturity, on the other hand, requires getting up when the alarm goes off, working, eating and exercising responsibly, and limiting sexual intimacy to marriage. It calls for self-denial to leave the indulgences of childhood behind. Will the student make the sacrifices necessary to do it?
  • Peer acceptance or personal integrity?
    Little is more important to children than to have the approval of their peer group. Conforming to achieve acceptance is the natural tendency. But to an adult, maintaining one's personal integrity should be a higher priority than popularity. Traveling the "road less traveled" isn't easy. There is constant pressure on us to conform to the culture's standards. Will the student have enough strength of character to resist the pressure to violate what they know is right?
  • Parents' faith or personal faith?
    A child accepts a parent's teaching about the "big issues" of life — where they came from, why they're here, and their future destiny. As part of maturing, however, the student must sort out various worldviews and come to a faith that is truly their own. Will he or she childishly shrink from this challenge ("I don't know what I believe about Jesus and the Bible anymore, so I'm putting all that aside for now") or confront it head on ("It's important to me to inquire, study, learn, and come to understand the truth about God and my relationship with Him")?

The college experience reveals the extent to which we're maturing. There's much that needs to be left behind, and many new responsibilities to embrace. On the subject of "growing up," Ron Dunn said it well:

"In growth, the matter of letting go is always involved. The only way to grow up is by giving up…. All the days of your life, you've grown by giving up certain things — you have to give up the baby bottle, the diapers, the toys eventually. We call those people who are not willing to give up those things immature.…. Unless we give up now, we can never grow up into what God wants us to be." (Ron Dunn, What Does It Mean to Live By Faith?)

How would I define a successful college experience? One in which the student grows into maturity and learns to leave behind the "ways of childhood." So parents, pray unceasingly for your college students, that they will increasingly make decisions that reflect an adult — rather than childish — perspective.

If they do this, they will graduate not only with a diploma but also well-equipped for a life of significance. This will bring joy to your hearts…and to their heavenly Father who gave them life and loves them.