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Questions every parent should ask their kids as they consider college and career

In order for your teenagers to be able to make adult-level decisions, they need guidance. You can help them by asking good questions.

Helping your child choose a college

It seems like only yesterday that I was learning to change a diaper. Today, my daughter is almost ready for college.

With every passing moment, I become more aware that my time is almost up. She is on the cusp of adulthood, and the decisions my daughter makes now will set the course of her life in ways not easily changed. Though I have nearly 18 years of parenting under my belt, I sometimes feel as helpless as I did on my first day.

According to the law, my daughter will soon be an adult, able to choose her own paths. But does that mean my job as a parent is done? Do I still have a say in what college she chooses? How about her career?

And what should my relationship with an adult child look like, especially one who is not yet ready to take complete responsibility for herself?

As I have watched other parents struggle through this season, I have seen many limit themselves to the role of financial underwriter. They let their children choose a college on their own, and whether they like it or not, they assume that their role is to support it.

While this approach has worked for some, I have watched in horror as many kids have strapped their parents with unnecessary financial burdens and chosen paths which have undermined the moral foundations their parents have laid.

Your role as archer is not over

Scripture compares children to arrows in the hand of a warrior (Psalm 127:4). If our children are arrows, then at some point they must be released. They must be free to make their own choices.

But as anyone who has ever shot an arrow will tell you, those final moments right before, during, and after the launch can have a significant impact on the direction the arrow ultimately takes. How you release your child is as important as everything else that you’ve done up to this point.

Now is not the time to lose focus or let go prematurely. As you prepare to release your child, follow-through is critical.

In order for your teenagers to be able to make adult-level decisions, they need to have adult-level information. You can help them step into the decision making process by asking good questions. Here are a few to consider:

What would you like your personal life after college to look like?

Would they like to get married? Have children? Where would they like to live? Will their proposed career require late nights, weekends, overnight work, or frequent travel? How will this affect their vision of marriage/parenting?

These may seem like odd questions to consider when choosing a college. But they have  everything to do with career choices.

Many starry-eyed young adults think mostly of choosing work that will fulfill them and will pay well. But they may set themselves on a path for marital problems down the road because they fail to consider the impact that their chosen career can have on the families that they dream of having. This is not to say that certain career choices are bad, but they should consider the requirements of the job carefully.

As someone who has walked further down the road of life than they have, help them to understand the implications of their decisions. A poor understanding of the lifestyle connected with a given career can lead to feeling trapped later in life.

Have them imagine their ideal vision of dinnertime, weekends, and special occasions. Their career should help facilitate their dream, not distract from it.  If you have regrets, now is the time to share them.

What is the return on investment (ROI) for their school of choice?

In other words—is the cost of this school worth the expense? This is especially important when considering out-of-state schools or private colleges.

For many children, ROI is a difficult concept to understand. Up until this point, school was just there, whether they wanted it or not. It is hard for most kids to start thinking of school as an investment.

I know it was for me. I vaguely remember signing loan applications when I first started college.  I had very little understanding about the debt I was accruing and how long it would take to repay. This is a trap that too many students fall into today. When the bills finally come due, they are shocked and start looking for bailouts.

School choices, dorm choices, major changes, dropped classes, final grades—they all have financial implications. Most colleges charge extra for out-of-state students. When you factor in the additional cost of room and board, their decision to “go away” for college could end up costing them twice as much.

Even if you intend to pay for their education and have saved a large amount, your kids should still consider the cost. You worked for years to earn that money. It should be used wisely. When you help them to think about the cost, they can begin to understand the real value of the education they’re looking for.

But in order for them to really understand ROI, there is another question they must also consider.

What is the salary range for your field?

Not every interesting major translates easily into a career. Unless your family is independently wealthy, your children will one day need to support themselves. Show them how to research career possibilities and starting salaries. Is this a growing field? Are companies hiring, and will they continue to be hiring in another 10 years? Will the starting salaries justify the expense of the education that they are going for? What about growth potential?

The average cost of a four year, out-of-state undergraduate degree is $140,000. That’s close to the median price of a house in the U.S. Barring any donations that you might make, that amount equates to loan payments of $1,000 per month for 15 years. How many years would they need to work to recoup the investment after taking into account normal life expenses (taxes, housing, commute, utilities, food, etc.)?  Will they be able to make it, or will they be forced to live at home until they’re 37?

Depending on their field, a large upfront investment in college might be worth it, but they should have a realistic understanding of how long it will take to recoup the costs and begin to see a profit. They may decide that a less expensive option—like an in-state school—is a wiser choice.

What do you really need for the career you prefer?

Choosing a college can be a lot like buying a car. A two-seat sports car might be fun to drive, but not if you need to transport a family of four. Teach your kids to focus on how they plan to use their degree. What kind of job will it help them get?

If they are unsure, consider letting them complete a volunteer internship in a field that interests them. It will be better for them to work for a short time and learn that they are not interested in a field than to pay for classes that they will never use.

For some careers, practical experience trumps a formal education. What are employers actually asking for? Is a degree a requirement or is experience preferred? Our daughter volunteered at a prestigious architecture firm for a week and gained critical insights into the type of education that she would need in that field. This has been helpful.

The classes that your kids take will determine what they learn and what specific skills they will be able to offer an employer. As your children consider a school, show them how to find the school’s degree completion plans and read the course syllabus. Help them to understand what books they will be reading and what projects will they be completing. Sometimes the right class or project can have more of an impact on hireability than a school name.

Help them to buy the right education for the kind of career they want.

Who are you?

As your child approaches college, they will be asked two questions by well-wishers.  “What school are you going to?” and, “What do you want to be?”

If their answers align with the right state, sports team, prestige level, and career choice, they will find looks of glowing approval. If not, they will see a mixture of confusion and disappointment. The pressure to meet the expectations of others can be immense.

In our performance-driven world it can be hard to believe, but what we do is not the same thing as who we are. I am not an engineer, janitor, programmer, pastor, executive, counselor, or writer, although I have done all of those things. Seldom can someone predict at 18 the profession that they will have when they retire.

And no matter my job title—or lack thereof—I am a child of God.

The real question to ask your child is not what do you want to be one day, but who are you, now?

Does your child know who they are apart from what sport they play, what school they go to, or what career they choose? Have they confessed a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and been baptized? Have they made their faith their own?

When they can understand their identity in Christ, the pressure to impress fades and they are able to see their choices more clearly.

Note: If you need help having these conversations try using a resource such as Passport2Identity™ to spur you on.

What is the spiritual atmosphere at the schools they are considering?

College campuses are often beautiful, and touring them can sometimes feel like you are walking around an all-inclusive resort. But let’s face it, most college campuses are not typically known for their spiritual development plans. Many kids are caught off guard by the prevalence of alcohol, drugs, and sex.

To make matters worse, many professors use their position and influence on a quest to eradicate views which they see as ignorant. I remember taking a required philosophy class (at an engineering school) where the professor spent three months attempting to disprove the existence of God.

As your kids attempt to navigate these minefields, they will need more than a “Sunday school” faith. Simply knowing “Jesus loves them” won’t be enough.

Help them to consider schools which will not only prepare them for a job but ones that can also help prepare them for eternity. Are the colleges on their list openly hostile to believers? Are Cru, Intervarsity, or other Christian organizations present?

Help them look for colleges with communities that will help them wrestle their faith into maturity.

What has God created you for?

It is easy to get so caught up in the possibilities of the future that we forget to consider what God’s call on our lives might be right now. Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”

A high-paying job that can finance a house in the suburbs and frequent vacations may sound like a dream come true, but what if God has a different plan? Many young Christians feel the call to a life of ministry, but find that they are unable to answer it because of heavy student debt burdens accrued while chasing the American Dream.

Help them consider what God’s call on their lives might be. But be forewarned, this may take some courage on your part. As parents, we desperately want our children to succeed, but sometimes our ideas of success are not quite in line with God’s.

A comfortable, trouble-free life might be God’s plan, but it might not. Often His plan is grittier than that. We need to be prepared to let our children follow God’s call, wherever it leads, even if that means college is not for them.

Children are like arrows in the hand of a warrior. They have been designed by God to achieve a specific purpose in life. As you prepare to release yours, focus clearly on your target, take a deep breath, and then gently, slowly, deliberately … release.


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