Recently, I’ve heard many Christians challenging the idea that college is something our kids should be considering once they finish high school. Most of the complaints fall into two groups: the high cost (including student loan debt) and ideological objections (colleges are too liberal and too secular).
I completely understand these concerns. Parents may not be able to afford college; the basic answer to this concern is to not get sucked into the PR machine of colleges that will cost you an arm and a leg. One important way to do this is to have a specific goal in mind for going to college so you don’t waste your time and money. In short, go to college with a purpose.[i] From the financial perspective, students can work while in school, even if it requires a “gap” year or two, earn scholarships, and go to college while they live at home, or pursue an online degree—all of which so that they need not incur huge student loan debts. Like the guy in this Facebook photo.
Or parents are concerned that their kids will lose their Christian faith in college, given its secular liberal and sometimes anti-Christian environment and pressures. Let me suggest that the real problem here is not the secular or anti-Christian environment and ideas. The real problem is the fact that most churched high school grads are not schooled on the rational, factual bases for the Christian faith. So the issue is that the kids are not adequately prepared with a biblical worldview and apologetics arsenal when they’re sent into Canaan. This is not a reason to avoid Canaan, it’s a call to arms for better, deeper teaching and discipleship in churches. I wrote about how kids can keep their faith in college here.
With those objections briefly noted, there are several reasons why objections to college miss why it is important for most Christians to go to college. Let me propose three.
1. The Great Commission
As Christians, our “marching orders” are to go into “all the world” and make disciples, teaching Christ’s commandments. By “all the world,” I have a strong sense that Jesus didn’t mean “all the world except centers of higher learning,” or “all the world except where postmodern-secular humanist-LGBTQ-New Age-atheist-Marxists are going to challenge my most cherished beliefs.”
Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.” (Matt 28:18-20)
Colleges and universities are short-term mission opportunities. There are many good Christian campus fellowships and ministries where college students can grow their own faith while also meeting other, less mature or new believers. Moreover, study groups, dorm life, and a wide range of social opportunities are where Christians are very likely to encounter non-Christians—the people who need to hear the gospel. Even better, these groups are prime audiences for apologetic conversations—most of them genuinely want to know whether there is any reasonable, rational, logical, factual basis for the Christian faith. If Christians are not participating in those conversations with their arsenal of historical and apologetic facts and arguments, many of these students may never hear them.
14 How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? 15 How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!” (Rom 10:14-15)
Colleges and universities are also long-term mission fields. Biblical Christians are extremely under-represented among college faculty. While the college environment is in many ways antagonistic toward Christians, one major reason for that is that so few Christians choose higher education as a career. How can Christians contribute to scientific knowledge? How can Christians influence such fields as philosophy, sociology, political science, social work, and English, all of which currently seem antagonistic to the faith? How can Christians rise to positions of administrative influence in colleges and universities? There literally is only one answer. More Christians have to choose careers in college education, and this requires Christians to go to college and graduate school in order to be eligible to teach and participate in the intellectual leadership of colleges and universities.
To refuse to go to college so is to abandon these crucial mission fields.
2. Economic self-sufficiency
A central economic principle of the Christian life is that we are supposed to provide for ourselves and our families, and even to take responsibility for our extended family if needed (e.g., 1 Tim 5:9-16).
But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Tim 5:8)
The question is, in modern and future American society, what is the path that provides the most opportunities for economic success? (Keep in mind that God can provide material blessings to whoever He pleases, and that there are no guarantees of any particular income, regardless of one’s education or religion.) In the American economy, a college education provides the best chance of getting a job, and getting a better paying job, according to US Bureau of Labor Statistics, which produced this figure.
Education and Unemployment Rates. The red bars show the unemployment rates for people based on their level of education in 2014 (the latest year for which data is available). The average for the whole population was 5%, while the rates for people with less than an Associate’s degree are all higher than average. Meanwhile, people with any college degree have lower than average unemployment rates.
Education and Earning. The green bars show 2014 earnings for people of different education levels; the values represent median weekly earnings—the midpoint of all wage earners in each group. The median US worker earned $839 per week ($43,628 per year). People with less than a Bachelor’s degree earned less than average, while those with at least a Bachelor’s degree earned significantly more. For example, people with only a high school diploma earned a median $668 per week ($34,746 per year), while those with a Bachelor’s degree earned a median $1,101 per week ($57,252 per year).
This pattern of college education producing lower unemployment rates and higher incomes is not unique to 2014. The charts at this site and at this site show that this has been a consistent pattern for many years, for both younger and older workers.
Giving. Of course, the point in holding a job and getting a better paying job is not simply to earn more money, but to have more opportunities. A materially “comfortable” life is not the main point. But the reality is that having a better paying job means that, at the very least, a person can be more generous to the causes one holds dear. If Christians tithe on their income, the annual tithe on the median high school graduate’s income is $2,250 less than the tithe on the median BA degree-holder’s income. What could your local congregation or ministry do with an additional $2,250 next year?
10 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house.” (Mal 3:10)
The Future Employment Outlook. What will the future hold? What are the jobs that are likely to grow and have good incomes over the next decade? In this report, Kiplinger projects those jobs to be: Speech Language Pathologist, Computer Systems Analyst, App Developer, Registered Nurse, Information Security Analyst, Health Services Manager, Medical Stenographer, Physical Therapist, and Nurse Practitioner. All of these require education after high school, and seven of the ten require at least an Associate’s degree.
College is for Christian Women, too. For many Christians it is not a given that our young women should be college bound, but there are as many reasons they should go to college as there are for young men. This should be obviously the case if God’s calling for her life needs a college degree. But if you are even skeptical of this, consider her worst-case scenario. It is possible your daughter’s husband will die, or that a divorce may unexpectedly rock her world. As news analysis has shown, “The percentage of female-headed households with children living in poverty has gone up, from 33 percent in 2000 to 41 percent in 2011. All told, more than half of all children living in poverty in this country are part of single-mother households.” The economics of being a single mother are daunting, and having a college education is a hedge against the possibility that, God forbid, a young mom will have to support her own family. This chart, which I created from data on this page, shows that women with a college degree have much higher incomes than women without a degree. It is simply prudent for our Christian young women to go to college, too.
The long and the short of it is that In order to have the best prospects in the American economy to provide for your family and to increase your giving, college education gives you the best and most opportunities.
3. More Influential and Meaningful Career Options
Part of the testimony of Christianity over the centuries has been our role as public leaders, politicians, educators, and health care providers. Christians in Europe, for example, started most of the early universities, hospitals, and orphanages (see, for example, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies by David Bentley Hart), and most of the early colleges in the US were started by Christians for Christians (including Harvard, Yale, and Princeton!).
As I began thinking about this article, I asked my Facebook friends (the vast majority of whom are conservative Christians) two questions about influential jobs or careers. (As a political scientist, I fully admit this is an unscientific survey, but the results are instructive.) I then researched the basic education requirements of those positions; if they weren’t obvious, I used this Bureau of Labor Statistics table. Below, I organize their answers into categories based on the education required to go into these professions.
In short, most of the “most influential” professions my friends mentioned generally require a college degree; and most of the jobs my friends think have the potential to have a positive influence in our culture generally require a college degree.
Finally, there is the PayScale Report on Meaningfulness of Jobs, based on surveys of workers and how they themselves evaluate the meaningfulness of their own work. The vast majority of jobs that workers consider socially “meaningful” generally require education after high school, and most require at least a four-year college degree. On the flip side, the PayScale report also listed workers who report that their jobs are not meaningful, and the vast majority of those jobs don’t require education after high school. The tables are in this footnote: [ii]
In short, the most influential and meaningful jobs and careers in our culture generally require post-high school education, and the vast majority require at least a four-year college degree. If Christians are going to be influential in our culture, they must pursue educational options that qualify them to hold those jobs in the first place.
A few other reasons…
Here are a few more reasons for going to college that I personally think are important, but would take too much space to discuss extensively here.
- College education tends to strengthen critical thinking skills—so that as citizens in our society and culture we have the ability to evaluate and see through most of the logical fallacies and polemic we are fed by the mass media (liberal and conservative).
- College education provides an opportunity to interact with a more diverse set of people than most of us will have for the rest of our lives—students get to spend unstructured social time with people from around the world, from different cultures, speaking different languages, and practicing different religions. (Yes—this is genuinely a good thing…see point #1 above!)
- College students are forced to read an expansive set of works from an expansive set of topics. These improve our literacy and our ability to interact with a wider range of people on a wider range of subjects than we would absent a college learning environment. Yes, yes, you can read all those things without going to college, but once you get married and have children, it is much harder to find the time to do so.
What College Will Not Do
A college education is not the be-all and end-all of a person’s identity and value. People who don’t go to college are not inferior to those who do; indeed, many of the best people I have known in my life have not been college educated. So it’s important to acknowledge what college doesn’t do for us.
- College will not change your value in God’s eyes. God’s love for us does not depend our level of education. An important result of this is that a person’s educational or social status should never be a cause of favoritism among Christians. Every person, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, influential or not-influential, blue-collar or white-collar is equal in the eyes of the Lord, and ought to be treated with equal respect and honor.
My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. 2 For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, 3 and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?…if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. (James 2:1-9)
- College will not guarantee comfort and success. Just because a person has a college degree does not mean that they are guaranteed a job, a better job, a more influential job, or a higher income than anyone else. But the statistics are in favor of people who are better educated.
- College will not change your character. Your personal integrity is not related to your education. It does not mean you will be a superior husband, wife, father, or mother.
The potential payoff of going to college is great. It is great for the kingdom of God and the possibilities are great for Christian youth and their future families. Rather than assuming that college isn’t for you or your child, look at the opportunities. The thing is, we have to be wise and strategic in using our limited resources, and we have to prepare young people for the battle over their hearts and minds.
[i] One major cost-inflator is changing majors—this extends the amount of time required to complete your degree, and the cost of doing so. If you don’t have firm career goal in mind take a gap year after high school to earn college money; you can also take this time to take general education courses that will eventually transfer into a BA degree program. Give serious prayer to what the Lord wants you to do, and then pursue a degree related to that. Even if you change careers (and most people do at least a few times in their lives) having the BA degree puts you at an advantage over other potential employees who don’t.
[ii] Payscale Report: Most Meaningful Jobs.