FamilyLife Today® Podcast

What College is Right for Your Student?

with Thomas Shaw | March 3, 2008
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Today on the broadcast, Dennis Rainey talks with Thomas Shaw, vice president of student services at Moody Bible Institute, about the need for parents to coach their kids as they make the big step toward the college of their choice. Hear why it's important to visit the campus before you make your decision and just as vital to talk to students and faculty that teach there.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Today on the broadcast, Dennis Rainey talks with Thomas Shaw, vice president of student services at Moody Bible Institute, about the need for parents to coach their kids as they make the big step toward the college of their choice. Hear why it's important to visit the campus before you make your decision and just as vital to talk to students and faculty that teach there.

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Today on the broadcast, Dennis Rainey talks with Thomas Shaw, vice president of student services at Moody Bible Institute, about the need for parents to coach their kids as they make the big step toward the college of their choice.

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What College is Right for Your Student?

With Thomas Shaw
March 03, 2008
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Bob: If you have a son or daughter who is in high school, you're probably starting to think ahead to college.  And if you've never done the college thing before with a son or a daughter, you may have some questions.

Woman: The other night I was talking to my 17-year-old daughter about college, and she said to me, "Mom, I don't even know that I want to go to college."

Man:  How much should I help them in applying to college, and how much should I give them the responsibility?

Woman: I've got two children, and I was just wondering what would be a good age for me to start talking to them about that?

Woman: I'm trying to plan a trip with my daughter to see and view different colleges, and my husband is worried about the money and all the expense of that, but do you think it's a good idea for a student to visit a college before they apply?

Woman: This may sound like a dumb question, but how does a student actually apply for college?

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, March 3rd.  Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.  Before you get overwhelmed, grab a couple of Advil and sit back.  We'll see if we can answer some of those questions for you, okay?

And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us.  You're not asking any questions like that anymore, although you're probably pretty excited about now, aren't you?

Dennis: We have graduated our …

Bob: Graduated you have written your final tuition check for college for the rest of your life, right?

Dennis: This is true.  Could we hear …

Bob: … some applause for that?


Bob: Could we play "Pomp and Circumstance" in the back?

[Orchestra plays "Pomp and Circumstance"]

Dennis: And there's a standing ovation by Barbara and me.

Bob: Is it nice to be free of all of that?

Dennis: It is nice to be free of that.  The only regret I have is that the author we have with us on the broadcast today didn't do his work earlier so that we could have benefited from the wisdom of a book called "College Bound."

Thomas Shaw joins us on the broadcast.  Tom, welcome to our broadcast.

Tom: Thanks, it's great to be with you.

Dennis: You know, your book has to contain a lot of wisdom because of your experience at Moody Bible.  You work there in Student Services.  You are a Vice President along with our good friend, Michael Easley.  You have also served in other Christian colleges and universities.  What prompted you, in the first place, to get off on this?  Is it because you have four college-bound kids yourself?

Tom: That's a large part of it.  Plus, I have spent 23 years in Christian higher education, and my advanced degree is there at the University of Tennessee, and during that period just experienced a lot of phenomenon that took place in regard to students' decision of a college and the increasing presence and interest among parents to be involved in that process.

So out of that I saw a lot of miscues where parents weren't necessarily handling it real well maybe being a bit overprotective or overinvolved; some just handing off the decision to their kids without a lot of coaching and so, over time, this would really scratch an itch in our society to help bring that about.

Bob: Let me ask you how you would coach a parent, because I remember in the days when we have visited various college campuses, you can ask some specific questions about what may be going on or not going on spiritually on a college campus, particularly if you are at a public university.

But you can also pick up some cues without asking questions.  You can kind of get a sense of what's going on even as you tour a campus, can't you?

Tom: Yes, when you're on those campus visits, you want to talk to as many people as possible.  You will have the opportunity to meet with admissions folks, because they'll help you set up your schedule and do an appointment with you, but you want to get into the classrooms, observe how the professors are interacting with the students …

Dennis: Now, wait a second, you're saying parents ought to ask to go to a classroom?

Tom: Yes, yes, that's very appropriate.

Dennis: So maybe a classroom on gender equality or some of the social sciences?

Tom: Yeah, I think so.  I think they need to integrate into the residence life experience.  So the student should probably stay in the residence hall overnight while the parents go to a local hotel and hang out and have an evening off.

But, really, to experience campus life as it is, is very important, and that spiritual aspect that you mentioned earlier is so important, and it's different for each one of our kids, and there are so many different types of colleges.  There's over 4,000 post-secondary institutions in the U.S., and narrowing that list down to a manageable few and bring that to a point where God wants you to be is a big decision, but if you pace yourself and do the right things and the right timing, the Lord can really unveil that plan.

Bob: Let me tell you a couple of stories, and I'll do this without naming the specific institutions, but when I was looking …

Dennis: Oh, come on, come on, tell us.

Bob: You want the dirt, don't you?

Dennis: I want the real dirt on these institutions.

Bob: When I was I was actually thinking about going to law school, post-graduate, and I saw one particular law school that I was looking at that indicated that we function from a presupposition that God's laws are higher than man's law, and that our understanding of man's law needs to come in the context of understanding God's law, and I thought, "Well, that's pretty interesting.  I want to go visit that school."

It happened to be that this was 1,000 miles away from where I was living.  So I took a long trip out to where this school was located, and sat down with the admissions counselor, and we were talking about the school and about the requirements, and I said, "You know, I saw something in the catalog about you guys having a conviction that God's laws are higher than man's laws, and that's a part of your approach to the study of law."

And this admission counselor said, "You know, some wealthy alumnus wanted that put in there.  You don't have to worry about that."  And I said, "Oh, okay, well, thanks, I wondered about that."  And I walked away I'm sure this person thought, "Boy, I saved the day on that one," when, in fact, it exposed just the opposite for me.

Tom: Right, you really want to be careful with the websites and what you see in the content in the brochures and catalogs and those kinds of things, and they espouse certain things, but it's not until you get on the campus to really witness and experience it; until you really gain a clear understanding of what that place is really like.

Bob: I'll tell you about a second experience.  We were doing a campus visit at a large, private, well-respected university, and one of the things that I tried to do is we would tour dorms on these campus visits is just see what's posted on the bulletin boards.  And I remember seeing lots of stuff posted on the bulletin boards for extracurricular activities, things that students could get involved with very little spiritually going on, at least from the bulletin board standpoint.

Now, frankly, I think the bulletin board test is a pretty good test of what the climate is going to be like.  Do you agree?

Tom: Yeah, that's true.  When you walk around campus there are those bulletin boards throughout, and just as you talk to students, they'll tell you what's on their mind, and the types of activities they're involved with and, fortunately, we have a lot of great campus ministry groups that surround many of the universities that are really a mainstay and a support system for Christian students to grow in their faith.

Dennis: Tom, over the years, you undoubtedly have observed a lot of parents, probably a few thousand of them, making this choice of where their son or daughter goes to school.  Are there a handful of most often-repeated mistakes that these parents make or the students make in terms of selecting a college or university?

Tom: Yeah, there are some, and I think overinvolvement is a trend that is a little disturbing.  I remember my days at a small, private college in Tennessee that I worked at where the parents were actually insistent upon coming into the admissions interview with their son or daughter, and this was the same family that had been very involved.  And it was kind of suspicious when you look at the paperwork to see the types of essays that were written, the types of references that were coming in.  It sounded almost as if the child was angelic, and, really, these parents were really a little bit too focused and being too involved in that.

Dennis: Do you think the parents actually may have written the essay, perhaps?

Tom: Yes. 

Dennis: A Christian parent would do that?

Tom: Well, they're just helping. They're staying engaged, and so I think it's okay for parents to have some interaction with their kids and looking over their essays, but allow the students to do the work and maybe help them with editing, you know, spell check kind of things.

Bob: Well, if you see a phenomenon of parents being overinvolved, then coach a parent.  What's the right kind of involvement, what's the wrong kind of involvement, and how can I know whether I'm doing what I ought to be doing but not doing too much?

Tom: I think, as you're getting into those years, you, as a family, are receiving a lot of mail and a lot of e-mail from college and universities, and helping walk through that material with your kids, maybe once a week, once every two weeks, just say, "Hey, let's look at these brochures that have come in through the mail" and start sorting through and saying, "Well, I didn't realize this school even existed.  What do they offer?  What are their specialties?" And that's one way you can be involved with your kids during that period of time.

Many times, though, the mail comes, and it gets dropped in one of the kid's dresser drawers or a box, and all their stuff just stays there until they go off to college, and then you throw it in the dumpster.

But that can be a productive time for you to investigate all the different types of schools that are out there, and some of those schools are targeting your young person because of characteristics that they exhibit as far as interest in a certain vocation, a certain major, certain extracurricular interests.  So that can be real helpful to go that way as far as involvement.

Dennis: Yeah, and I just would encourage parents keep in mind the object of parenting is to let go.  You have to release your arrow toward the target.  You can't determine the flight; you can't determine the speed of the flight; and you really can't even determine if they're going to hit the bull's eye.  It's up to the arrow to determine if they are really going to stay on track.  So you have to let go.

And, it's interesting, at the point of selecting a college or university that you would still see that at that time.  One of the feelings I have in terms of watching some parents, and I've wanted to ask you this question do you think we're giving young people too much freedom in terms of self-selecting the school they go to on their own?  I mean, without the parents being involved at all?

Tom: That can be a real danger, and sometimes parents get uninvolved and maybe outsource their responsibility to help shepherd their kid to college, and so they expect the guidance counselor at school or maybe the youth pastor at church to be the one that is more of the expert.

But, really, if parents kind of walk through this with their kids, step-by-step, one of the ways they can do that, too, is through watching the deadlines that are approaching.  If they're in their sophomore or junior of high school, chart out what the deadlines are, when you need to take the ACT or the SAT test; determine what the scholarship deadlines or so when you get to that end of junior year, first of senior year, then you have things charted out, and you can kind of, as a parent, just nudge your kids and say, "Hey, did you remember that your application is due by this date," or "This particular institution will waive your application fee if you apply by this timeframe?"  "This is when our financial information needs to be filed with the government so we can fill out the fast form for financial aid?"

So those are some ways that you can just kind of prod occasionally is just to chart it out on a timeline.

Dennis: Yeah, but what about the child that you're goading, you're pushing, you've got the deadlines, they miss them, and you're wondering, "I wonder if college is where they need to be going to the university in the first place?"

Tom: Yeah, it could be that they need to take just a year or two off and get more focus and direction.  It could be that because they're hesitating that they're just uncertain and a little bit insecure about what should be the next step for them as far as college.

Dennis: You undoubtedly know of some students who have, instead of graduating and then going directly into college, have taken a year and done some other things, right?

Tom: Yes, that's exactly right.  A friend of mind from Pennsylvania, before he went to do his undergrad program, saw in himself maybe some uncertainty about what his future path should be, and so he took a year off and did a touring music group, and it was a great experience for him because he got to minister, he got to travel around the country, and even a couple of international stints that was real helpful for him.

And then when he came to college, he was really engaged and really ready and had saved some money along the way to make the cost of college more affordable.

Dennis: And, you know, to that parent who is kind of hyper-controlling, that can be a tough thing to allow your child to not go to college.

Tom: That's right, because a lot of your friends are sending their kids off to college, and so you're, like, "Well, what's wrong with Junior, that he's not ready for college?"

Bob: Well, let me ask you about that if you take that year off, and then you start applying, are most of the scholarship options that are available for graduating seniors still available if you've taken a year off and now you're applying?

Tom: Yeah, they would still apply.  Most schools will recognize you a first-time freshman and allow you to file for those or interview for those kinds of scholarships.

Bob: You're the father of a 16-year-old daughter, right?

Tom: Yes.

Bob: You went to Moody Bible Institute as a student yourself.

Tom: Yes, I did.

Bob: You've worked at Christian colleges throughout the time.  Let's say your daughter came to you, and she said, "You know, Dad, most of my friends are going to go to IU.  They're going to go to Indiana University."  You live in Indiana, right?

Tom: Yes, yes.

Bob: "And I think I can get a pretty good scholarship to go to Indiana University."

Dennis: This is just theoretical, of course.

Bob: This is hypothetical, right.

Dennis: And the guy from Moody Bible wouldn't have a daughter going to go anywhere else.


Bob: She's got the friends going there, there may be some scholarship money available, you live in state, so you've got in-state tuition working for you.  Are you open to that for your daughter?

Tom: I think we definitely want to talk to her about that.  My wife, Carol, and I have had a long commitment to our kids being at the right college and, given our experience at Christian universities, we really feel like we'd like for our kids to have that experience if, in fact, that's what they want.

If one of our kids, or multiple of our kids wanted to go to a state university, I think we'd entertain that and talk through that what that meant, and we'd want to assure that they were ready for that environment because, frankly, those environments are challenging, and, in some cases, antagonistic towards believers, and you want to make sure that your son or daughter is equipped for those type of encounters.

Dennis: You quote a researcher who really tracked what happened to followers of Christ who went away to the secular university and, in the process, either lost their faith or have their faith diluted substantially?

Tom: Yes, that's true.  Gary Railsback did his doctoral dissertation at UCLA and using higher education research institute data came to that conclusion that 52 percent of students that are Christians going into college no longer claim to be Christians or have stopped their faith walk by the time they graduate, and that's pretty startling.  You know, if you think about if we had a situation where somebody in this organization had to have a heart valve replaced, and they had various hospitals to go to to have that heart valve procedure done, and you found out that, well, there's only a 48 percent chance that that's going to be successful, then are those good odds?  Maybe there's a better hospital to go to, and when you think about the heart idea, aren't the hearts of our kids essential?  Don't you want to send them to the right type of college or university where their faith will flourish rather than flounder?

So it's really an important consideration is that faith walk.  And that same study was replicated a few years ago by a graduate student at the University of Arkansas named Steve Henderson, and he came to the same conclusion about 10 years later the study validated the earlier study and also showed that students that go to a Christian college or university, their faith actually grows and increases, as you would hope.  But through that national study, which was validated and scientifically proven, it really is an important consideration for parents.

Bob: All right, then, let me take you back to your daughter who you said, "Yeah, we'd be open for this state university.  If she wants to go to IU, we're open to considering that," but in the back of your mind you're going, "And there's a 52 percent chance statistically that if we send you off there, you're going to lose your faith."  Are you really open to it?

Dennis: I'm looking at the door here that's opening, and I'm thinking the door is only cracked open just a little bit, Tom.

Tom: If Emily, who is our 16-year-old, if she was strong in her faith, and she could withstand the difficult environment; she could articulate her faith; she knew the Scriptures in and out and all of that, I think we would be open to that.  And, certainly, on those campus visits to IU, we would have her visiting the campus ministry locations around the campus, and we'd also have her visiting local churches so she could have a support system during those college years.

Dennis: Barbara and I are advocates of all forms of education.  We did some home schooling for a number of years, although we didn't put our children in Christian schools, Bob and Mary Ann have, and Bob knows I'm an advocate for Christian schools and might make a different choice today given the same set of circumstances. 

But we chose to put our children in secular schools, growing up, and then when they went to college they went to secular universities.  But our intention and our purpose was to train our children to make an impact on the university spiritually and to go there with a mission in mind of being a disciple of Christ and instead of being influenced negatively, to be an influencer.

And I opened an old book in my library just this past week, Bob, I haven't had a chance to tell you this and out fell a little piece of paper that was a letter from Dr. Bill Bright, and it was a letter about my son, Benjamin, and how Benjamin, at the University of Arkansas, along with a handful of other students, had called the Christian community on the campus to pray and fast during the day at the place where they have the pep rallies at the university, and they had 10 percent of the student body show up.  They had 1,500 students out of 15,000 come and, at some point during the day, visit that amphitheater and hear Dr. Bill Bright speak and talk about spiritual renewal on the campus.

And I was just reminded of how risky that felt when we sent Benjamin and Ashley and Samuel and Rebecca and all of our children away to university, every time you send them to the secular university, you're wondering, "Are we playing into the hands of the enemy?" because it does seem like, at points, there's a brainwash going on, and yet the call of the Christian, if they're strong enough, and I think that's how you answered it about your daughter if they're strong enough, they need to take a stand for Jesus Christ at the university and seek to penetrate the darkness; seek to be a representation of Christ and bring Christ to those who are lost.

Bob: And a wise parent, I think, is going to be the one that not only has a sense of what their student, what their son or daughter is capable of, where they are spiritually, what their critical thinking skills look like, but that wise parent is also going to be one who is helping to determine and evaluate what is the spiritual climate of the place where we're sending our son or daughter.

And, frankly, there are some schools that might be denominational schools or have some kind of Christian affiliation that would be a …

Dennis: … dangerous.

Bob: A more dangerous setting than some public universities …

Dennis: Absolutely.

Bob: … that have a vibrant community of faith, students who love Christ and are walking with Him and are getting together.  That's where I think a book like the one that Thomas has written can be very helpful for parents.  It's called "College Bound," and it helps you think through these issues and ask the right questions as you begin the process of getting ready to launch a son or a daughter to college.

So if you've got a ninth grader or a tenth grader or an 11th grader or maybe even a senior, and your senior may have already made a decision, probably has by this point, but it would still be a good idea to get a copy of this book and, even if the decision is made, this can help you think through the issues that are ahead for your son or your daughter.

We've got the book, "College Bound," in our FamilyLife Resource Center, and you can go to our website,  And, by the way, if you haven't been to the website recently, it looks brand new.  When you get to the home page, on the right-hand side of the screen, you will see a box that says "Today's Broadcast."  You click that box, it will take you to an area of the site where there is more information about the book, "College Bound," and other resources we have here at FamilyLife.

There is also information about a great graduation gift you can give to a high school senior, and to that senior's mom and dad.  We've got a CD and DVD combination package that is a gift for the student that's called "Congratulations to the Class of 2008."  It features music from groups like Reliant K and Switchfoot and Toby Mack, Stellar Kart, other popular Christian bands, and there is a DVD that features messages from a lot of these artists and from fellow members of the class of 2008.

Along with the gift for the student, we want to send you a CD that offers counsel for moms and dads about how to make the most of your last weeks together with your son or your daughter.  So if it's your child who is graduating, you may want to get one set of these with a CD for your and one for your student.  If you know a lot of students who are going to be graduating this year, you may want to get multiple copies of these and not only have something to give to the students but something to give to their parents as a graduation gift as well.

Again, the details of this are available on our website,  When you get to the home page, click the square on the right side of the screen that says "Today's Broadcast," it will take you to the area of the site where there is more information about these resources, or if it's easier, just call us at 1-800-FLTODAY, 1-800-358-6329, that's 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY.

Speaking of gifts, we have a gift we'd like to send you that you may want to keep for yourself or may want to pass along to someone you know.  If you have not seen the "Jesus" film on DVD, this is the story of the life of Christ taken from the Gospel of Luke and dramatically portrayed.  It's the most viewed movie in the world.  If you've never seen it, we'd love to send you a copy of the DVD.  It includes the story of Jesus for children, and each DVD has available audio in English and Spanish and German and Arabic and Korean and Vietnamese, and that brings me to the gift-giving side of this.  You may want to get a copy of this DVD and pass it along to someone you know who is a native Spanish speaker or who speaks German or Arabic or Korean or Vietnamese. 

We'd love to send you a copy of this DVD as our way of saying thank you this month when you support the ministry of FamilyLife Today.  Don't forget, Easter is just a couple of weeks away, and so this would make a great gift to give someone during the Easter season.  If you'd like to make a donation to FamilyLife Today you can do that online at  As you're filling out the donation form, when you come to the keycode box on that form, just type in "JesusDVD," and make that all one word if you can "JesusDVD," and we'll know to send you a copy of this DVD as our thank you gift for your support of the ministry of FamilyLife Today, or call 1-800-FLTODAY, you can make your donation over the phone and just mention you'd like the "Jesus" film on DVD and, again, we're happy to send it out to you.

We want to say thanks in advance for your support of the ministry of FamilyLife Today.  We appreciate your partnership with us.

Tomorrow we're going to tackle more of the questions parents have about college and how you can prepare your son or daughter for a great college experience.  We'll talk about that tomorrow, I hope you can be back with us for that.

I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team.  On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine.  We'll see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas, a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ.

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