More Than a Degree


Ruth Senter advises highschoolers to look for a college that will prepare them for life.

Here are important questions to ask about any school you're seriously considering: How will this college help me grow as a total person? How will this place prepare me not just to get a job, but to navigate life successfully? How will it help nurture my faith? To help you answer these questions, it's essential to carefully evaluate each school in five different areas.

1. Spiritual Climate

The best preparation for your future is to learn how to live as a Christian. This is not to say attending a certain college will necessarily make you a more spiritual person. What you do with your faith depends on you. But a college can provide opportunities for your faith to grow. You need to evaluate those opportunities when considering a particular school.

For example, ask the admissions representative about Christian service opportunities available to students. For example, playing basketball with inner-city children on Sunday afternoons may teach you things about faith you've never heard in church. When you visit a campus, check out the notices on the student center bulletin board for service and outreach opportunities. Those notices will tell you a lot about the priorities of the people on campus. Find out about local churches. When you check out campus bulletin boards, look for church announcements, too. When you talk to student representatives, ask what percentage of students go to church.

Although church attendance is certainly not the whole picture, it does give you some idea of how committed students on the campus are to their faith. Find out where students go to church. Ask: Do the churches in the area have programs for college students? Do the church members invite students into their homes on a regular basis? How do students get to and from church?

If it's important to you, ask your pastor to help you find out if there are any churches of your particular denomination near campus. Ask for the name of the pastor or campus minister of that church and call ahead of time to find out about the college group. Find out about other opportunities for spiritual growth, like small group Bible studies, chapels, special lecture series and spiritual emphasis weeks. Find out what topics were covered last year. This will give you a good idea of the kind of spiritual opportunities that will be available to you on campus.

2. Emotional Health Services

"But I don't have emotional problems," you say. "I'm not going to college to get straightened out psychologically." This may be true. But it's hard to anticipate emotional needs and struggles that may come your way once you hit campus. If your college experience is going to help prepare you for life, it cannot ignore your emotional needs. Ask yourself: Does this college care about my emotional health? How do you find out the answer to this question? Have a conversation with the campus chaplain.

Ask him or her how the school helps students who are struggling. Find out whether there's a counseling center. Find out what's available for students dealing with severe homesickness or depression. Ask if Resident Assistants are trained to spot struggling students and direct them toward the help they need. Life hurts sometimes. If during your college days you learn how to handle pain in healthy ways, you'll be better prepared to handle trouble that may come your way in the future. So be sure you look for a college that demonstrates concern for the emotional and mental health of its students.

3. Availability of Staff

Find out if professors are generally open to spending time with students. Do they seem to care about students only as students, or do they also care about students as people? During a campus visit, check out these things: When you talk to professors (and any other staff person), do they ask about things you're interested in? Do they look you in the eyes and greet you when they pass you on campus? Do any of them take time to learn your name? Do any of them take time to have a conversation with you? How often do students drop into a professor's office? Do students feel welcome? Helped? Ask students: "What signs are there that the professors (and other staff) care about you as a person?"

Class size has a lot to do with a professor's availability. The larger the class, the harder it is for a professor to spend time with individual students. So find out the average size of the normal classroom. Also ask if there are events or programs on campus for getting students and professors together in informal settings. The faculty and administration of a college can play a major role in your preparation for life. Many of them have lived long enough to have learned some important lessons. You'll want to make sure you'll have opportunities to tap into their experiences.

4. The Alumni 

Be sure you talk to graduates of any college you're interested in. Find out how well the college prepared them for their careers. Find out if they are loyal alumni who still are involved with the school. As a general trend, do they show up for homecoming and regional alumni gatherings? Do they give money to the school? How many of them send their children to the school? If they are willing to send their kids there, you can be pretty sure they trust the place.

Find out if older graduates maintain close ties with other alumni. As you head into the ups and downs of life, you'll need people to stick with you. College friendships can offer you support and encouragement throughout life. Find a school where grads keep in touch, and you've probably found a school where you'd develop your own lifelong friendships.

5. Values and Attitudes 

There is no way around it: People rub off on each other. Your college experience will be full of all types of people. Some good influences. Some bad. Obviously, the choice of friends is up to you. But as you think about which college to choose, pay particular attention to the kinds of influences you are most likely to find on a particular campus. Ask yourself: Do the students on this campus seem, for the most part, to be the kind of people who could help me develop positive character traits? As I grow and develop, can I add something to the life of this campus? Here are some things to look for when you're on campus: How friendly are the students to strangers?

How courteous are they to each other? (What happens in the cafeteria lines will give you a hint.) As you hang around different groups of students, what do they talk about? How do they talk? Of course, on any college campus, you'll find some cynicism, sarcasm and negative voices. But if, overall, students seem more cynical than hopeful, then you're probably discovering something about the general mood of the campus. So when you take that college visit, pay attention to the voices you hear and the kinds of people those voices are coming from. Ask yourself, Do I want to spend the next four years around these people?

Don't think of college as simply a place to pick up a life vocation. While it should prepare you well for your future job, it also needs to help you grow as a total person. So be sure to ask the questions that get beneath the surface. Look at the "total package." And then hopefully someday, diploma in hand, you'll find that your college experience has not only given you a degree, but more importantly, it has prepared you for life.

Written by Ruth Senter

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