A week after graduation, Laura was hauling her luggage back up to her bedroom at her parent’s house. Everything was just as she had left it before leaving for college. She surveyed the room with a sigh. She was happy to be home, but not too pleased about her professional direction. She wished that, before she had headed off to school for five years, someone had sat her down and told her that graduation is not synonymous with career direction.
Now Laura had her degree, but she still didn’t know what she wanted to be when she grew up. Everyone had encouraged her to “find herself” and “discover her passion” in college, but that led her in circles—trying class after class, searching for her niche.
She had started out in pre-med, wanting to be a sports medicine doctor. But once she reached organic chemistry, she decided that wasn’t for her. Then she switched to exercise physiology, figuring she could still work with athletes that way. But that too, didn’t seem quite right ... a bit too demanding on her social life. So, she changed to pre-law—thinking she could be an attorney for athletes. However, she had trouble keeping up with all the writing. She finally settled on a sociology degree, hoping the right career path would fall into her lap before she graduated.
Well, here she was, five years and one diploma later and she still had no idea what career to pursue. What could she do with a degree in sociology, anyway?
Needing money to pay off her student loans, Laura applied for a department store job. After a few months of working there, she decided she wanted to go into business management like her dad. So, she deferred her loans (by taking out more) and went to graduate school to get a masters degree in something she could actually use.
Does this sound familiar?
Too many of us are jobless, directionless, with the wrong degree, and in thousands of dollars of debt.
The Scriptures encourage us, as Christians, to be good stewards. “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?” (Luke 16:10-12, NIV)
Jesus calls us to be good stewards of our (and our parents’) money. College prices have skyrocketed! In just the last year, public in-state tuition increased 8.3 percent and private tuition increased 4.5 percent.[i] While housing prices have gone down, the cost of education has continued to rise. Although college dropouts like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs illustrate that college degrees are not necessary for success, the truth is, unless you’re going to start your own business, you probably need a degree. Most prospective employers today won’t even look at your resume if you don’t have a degree listed.
College is one of the largest investments we will ever make. So how can we make wise decisions about our education while being good stewards of our finances and time?
1. Choose Responsibility
It’s easy to fly through college and think that one day our debt will magically disappear. When you’re applying for a student loan, the astronomical figure of 40k doesn’t seem a whole lot different than 60k. But these numbers become real very quickly when it’s time to pay up.
As Christians, we should be responsible about our educational choices because they significantly impact our finances and futures. A responsible college choice might mean waiting and saving for a few years before attending—shocking idea, I know! Or, it might mean starting at the local junior college if you aren’t sure what you want to do yet but don’t want to fall too far behind.
Our culture tells us that we must attend a university right out of high school, whether or not we know what we want to do. However, wouldn’t it be better to have an idea beforehand since one of the main purposes of higher education is career preparation? Society says, “It’s okay, go discover yourself at college.” But is that smart? Or could that mindset actually hinder—and prolong—our studies? We can’t afford to base our decisions on the “cultural thing to do,” especially now that we’re seeing more and more graduates falling into a post-graduation what-do-I-want-to-do-with-my-life stage.
So, how do we avoid that stage? By planning.
Choosing a degree starts with figuring out what you want to do. Too many of us wait (or waited) to determine this during college. This can cause us to change our major so often that our schooling is extended an additional year—or years! So, first and foremost, try to narrow down what you want to do before you apply to colleges.
We often jump into choosing a degree when what we really need to focus on is our career. We need to think ahead to what we are going to do with our degree once we graduate. If you’re unsure, then consider volunteering, interning, or job shadowing to get a taste for the job. Nothing could be worse than waiting to experience your field until after you’ve graduated (as many people have done) and then learning that you don’t even like it.
If you are still undecided after exploring different career options and asking the opinions of your parents and school counselors, consider completing your general education at a community college and waiting to transfer until you discover the field you would like to work in.
Once you’ve decided on the career you want to pursue, here are some other questions to consider:
1. What kind of degree do I need for this?
2. Where would I have to live for this job? Do I want to live there?
3. How many of these jobs typically open each year? (If you have to wait for someone to die or retire for a job to open up in that field, it might not be the best career path…)
4. Will this job allow me to use the gifts/abilities God has given me?
5. What’s the average salary? Can I support my family with that? Can I pay off my school debt with that salary in a reasonable amount of time?
6. If I want to move up the corporate ladder, what kind of education will I need (i.e. Bachelors, Masters, additional certificates)? Will I be able to achieve these degrees?
3. Apply your Research
Now that you have a career and degree program selected, it’s time to look for a school. Remember that, as Christians, our basis for selecting a college should be different. We shouldn’t be concerned about impressing people but with obtaining the best education possible in a financially responsible way. When I first considered attending junior college, I honestly thought, “No way! That’s definitely not for me. It’s for kids who can’t get into a good school. Plus, it’s not really college; it’s more like 13th grade. For a real education, I need to go to a university all four years.”
Looking back now, I am so glad I attended junior college for the first two years. Not only did I save a ton of money, I received a quality education with one-on-one interaction with my professors. Instead of being one of several hundred in a lower division university lecture hall, I was one in a classroom of thirty students. Am I glad that I saved all that money? You bet, but that was only one of the ways I learned to cut costs during my journey through higher education. Here are some additional tips on how to save:
1. Take CLEP tests to save money on your general education.
2. Consider online classes (the way of the future!)
3. If you’re offered a partial scholarship, highly consider attending that school even if it isn’t your first choice.
4. Market yourself by finding your strengths (i.e. sports, music, dance, writing, science) and honing them. Then, apply for scholarships in those areas.
5. Intern with a potential employer during college. I know several people whose employers grew to like them so much that they helped pay for their education.
4. Above All Else
“Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” (Proverb 4:23).
When making educational choices, the most important thing to keep in mind is guarding our hearts. Our walk with Christ is significantly affected by our college choice because it is a battlefield for the mind. Secular universities are typically anti-God and anti-Christian. Christian students who make a case for Christianity or God often face ridicule and may even be persecuted.
Timing is another issue to consider. Going away to school when you turn eighteen is the American way. Everyone is expected to do it, even though not everyone is truly ready. Is this a wise trend? Are you prepared to go away? Are you mature enough in your faith to stand your ground for Christ?
This is a very serious question because more than sixty percent of students lose their faith during college.[ii] Are you willing to risk your soul for the sake of an education? Parents, are you going to spend thousands of dollars only to see your child turn away from Christ?
I am not saying that Christians should abandon academia—we need to be there! I am simply suggesting that we equip students with more than just a new dorm bedroom set. The worldly, intellectual, and societal pressures at college are immense. We need a solid biblical foundation to stand strong against them.
Another option, of course, is attending a Christian college. Nowadays, you can find a vast majority of majors at any Christian institution of higher education. Pray and see if that may be where God is calling you. However, if you still feel compelled to attend a secular university, here are some helpful ideas:
1. If you do not feel ready to go away, then stay close to home and attend community college or the local university. Being close to your family and being able to discuss controversial issues with them will help you hear both sides of the argument instead of just one.
2. Know what you believe and why you believe it. Learning how to defend your faith is one of the best investments you can make. There are a number of college-prep books and even DVD studies available for Christian students. So, gather up a group of friends and dive in.
3. Stay connected with strong Christian mentors from home, find a good church, and get plugged in with other Christians on campus (like Campus Crusade for Christ). The Bible speaks about the value of like-minded friends. “If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!” (Ecclesiastes 4:10)
We are presented with many choices during our lives and college is one of the biggest ones. It influences our future career and living place, our financial situation and credit score, and it might even play a role in who we marry. Obviously, our college selection is a big deal. We should treat it as such, living “not as unwise but as wise…” (Ephesians 5:15, NIV). Don’t wait until it’s too late, take the time now to seek the Lord and discover how you can honor Him with your educational direction.
Felicia Alvarez is a twenty-something author who is passionate about reaching her generation for Christ. She graduated summa cum laude from Liberty University and is currently working on her second book which addresses the intersection of worldview and Christian relationships. Her mentor, Pam Farrel says, “Felicia is a talented new voice bringing wisdom to her generation.” Actively involved in discipling youth in her community, Felicia speaks to youth and parents at church and homeschool events throughout the US .
[i] “New college board trends reports price of college continues to rise nationally, with dramatic differences in pricing policies from state to state,” October 25, 2011, The College Board. Accessed at Collegeboard.org
[ii] “Most twentysomethings put Christianity on the shelf following spiritually active teen years,” September 11, 2006, The Barna Group. Accessed at Barna.org