This is the second in a series of posts advising young women how to think about their future after high school. Read Part 1 here.
In my first post, I provided some questions young women should consider as they plan. In this post, I’d like to delve deeper into three of the most common options young women can choose: work, community colleges, and traditional four-year colleges.
Before we start…
I realize these three are not the only options! Determine the options available to you, and don’t be afraid to think outside the box. There are a number of non-traditional options out there worth investigating. Or, you can always modify traditional paths for your own purposes. Here are a couple ideas to get you thinking:
- Start at community college and then transfer to a four-year institution
- Finish a typical four-year degree in three years
- Pay as you go by working a semester, then going to school for a semester
- Volunteer / apprentice somewhere until you have the skills to get paid
- Take online classes
Also, keep in mind these are generalizations! Each option can vary pretty widely. For example, a one-year program at a community college is going to be very different from a three-year honors program at the same college. A major like nursing will probably look very different from, say, a fine arts major in the same university. And of course the environment at a small Christian institution will be very different than that at a large secular university. Nevertheless, I think it’s worthwhile to attempt some generalizations. Why?
- As you examine specific options available to you, you can see if they actually offer the benefits I mention (not all do!)
- You can be aware of the pitfalls in whatever option you choose, and be prepared to face them from the get-go.
Finally, another option, especially if you’re still uncertain about a path forward, is to take a “gap year” to figure things out. I did this after high school, and it’s been one of the best decisions in my life. I lived for 7 months in Mexico with missionaries (and spent the rest of the year working full time to save for college). During that time I was involved in service (teaching children, cleaning, and decorating the nursery), participated in church activities (youth group, choir, and camps), and picked up a valuable skill in the process (Spanish). This cross-cultural experience changed my perspective and gave me direction for my future. I highly, highly recommend it.
That said, let’s look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of each of the options: work, community colleges, and four-year institutions.
Money & Life in the “Real World”
The obvious advantage of working full time after high school is that you can immediately begin to make money. This not only allows you to be more independent (live on your own), but it also forces you to deal with the realities of adulthood—paying bills, figuring taxes, dealing with insurance.
However, one thing to consider is that the jobs available to you may be limited. Typical jobs will be in food service or retail. While you will be making money immediately, you may not be able to save much once expenses are deducted. Additionally, consider whether the specific skills you acquire in these types of jobs will tie over to future work, either in a better job or in raising a family. Running a cash register may help you in retail work, but it may not help much with a family.
In most workplaces you will be surrounded by co-workers who do not know Christ. If you’ve come out of Christian schooling or homeschooling in particular, this may be your first real opportunity to be salt and light on a daily basis. This was certainly what happened when I turned 18 and got a full-time job. For the first time in my life, I was challenged to live as a Christian around those who didn’t know God and to “give an answer for the hope that was within me” (I Peter 3:17). It was strengthening to my faith to have to do so, and kept me on my toes!
But while you may be able to influence your workplace, bear in the mind the reverse is also true. You must be aware of the dangers of being immersed for hours each week in a godless environment. The particular dangers will depend on the sins of your workplace. Some of the most common struggles I’ve heard young women mention are sins of the tongue, especially vulgar talk & constant complaining. In my case, I had to deal with co-workers tempting me to drink and party with them.
As a reminder, your closest friends should be growing believers, not unbelieving co-workers. Your friendships should be like iron sharpening iron (Prov. 27:17). Much of this process happens in the church, so if you end up moving somewhere for work, you’ll need to make sure ahead of time you will have a good church community there! Or if you’re working a job in your hometown, be aware that your existing church community may change as you move out of the high school youth group into a college/singles age group. This can be a positive change in some cases, but I have known young ladies who needed to change paths (find a job or go to college in another town) because their church community had changed. All or nearly all of their Christian friends had moved away, or the few left were immature and detrimental to their spiritual growth.
Money & time
A clear advantage of community college is their economy. At my local community college, the cost per credit hour is almost half the cost of a state institution. Private colleges typically cost even more. In addition, you can often finish your program more quickly—often two to three years, and sometimes as short as one year. This means that by age 20 or so you’d have a marketable skill allowing you to make a decent salary. Or, if you married and had children quickly, you’d have a skill you could use part time, or later on when your children were older.
However, the low cost and narrow focus of community college can come with disadvantages. In general, lower cost comes at the expense of the quality of education. In some cases, the professors are simply not as good as their counterparts at a state or private university. Often, even good professors must lower their standards because of the level of the students in the class. In addition, the narrow focus of an associate’s degree program means you will be limited to one skill, rather than the multiple skills and broad educational experiences that I’ll discuss in the traditional four-year college section.
Community colleges also offer the advantage of flexibility. Typically the course load is not as challenging as that of four-year colleges, and the times courses are offered can allow a fair amount of freedom in your schedule. Many take advantage of this to work a significant number of hours to pay their way through school. Others use this time in service to their family or their church.
Unfortunately, what I’ve sometimes seen is that instead of making profitable use of this gift of flexibility, students grow lazy in the comfort of a familiar environment (their hometown), their same friends, and relatively easy classes. They skate by in their classes, and use the extra time for their own enjoyment. This time of life is more like an extension of high school, and they drift along with little thought or work towards the future.
The very nature of community colleges (brevity & flexibility of the programs) works against community. Students generally want to be in and out of their classes quickly. A good number are “non-traditional,” and their schedules are already full with work and family responsibilities. They’re often less interested in getting to know people in their classes or make friends. What this means is that, like with “work,” your community will end up being the one you came into college with. (Again, this can be an advantage or disadvantage.) But unlike working a full-time job, you’ll find fewer opportunities for evangelism, because it’s more difficult to develop relationships with people you only see in one class, and who aren’t looking for new friends.
TRADITIONAL COLLEGES & UNIVERSITIES
Breadth of knowledge, skills, and experiences
An advantage of a traditional four-year college is that you will take classes in other areas besides your major. These might be required courses, designed to give you a broad understanding of the world, how to think and how to communicate. They might be part of a minor: I’ve seen students make profitable use of a foreign language, computer science, or business minor. Or, you could take a smattering of electives you might find useful someday, such as courses that could help you teach your own children. Children’s literature, art history, or music classes can all be helpful for the future.
In my case, I am very thankful for coursework in Western Civilization, Systematic Theology (I went to a Christian college), English Composition, and Speech. They not only helped in other classes, but also have been useful in my daily life, in a wide variety of circumstances: personal Bible study, leading of Bible studies, speaking in front of others, and interacting on social media. I’m also confident they’ll be helpful in teaching my children as they get older.
In addition to classes, colleges offer a number of experiences for broadening your horizons. Study abroad programs immediately come to mind (I did a semester abroad and highly recommend it!), but there are others, like alternative break trips, conferences & cultural events (concerts, plays, and lecture/artist performance series) that community colleges and work do not typically offer. Don’t underestimate the impact of a program that forces you to get outside of your language, culture or experiences.
Lastly, I want to mention again (see my first post) that you should consider how getting your degree could affect your future family. A college education has the potential for being quite helpful to your marriage and family. It might help you earn money in a short-term or emergency situation, such as helping your husband get through school. It might help you understand your husband’s work, and even assist him in it. Or it might help you manage your household and educate your children well. Unfortunately, many young women don’t consider these matters, and waste time on a degree or classes that hurt rather than help them in having or caring for a family. Certain competitive careers in business, law, or medical school, for example, can prevent a woman from having a family for many years.
Cost vs. job market potential
The downside of the university path is that it may require a significant investment in time and money. Start with tuition and fees, which at an in-state public university currently run around $10,000 per year, not to mention a Christian or other private institution! Then add the books and resources you’ll need. And finally add living expenses, especially if you’ll be living in a dorm (as is often required the first year) or elsewhere away from home. And remember, you’ll have four years of expenses, rather than the two years typical in an associates program. Finally, consider if it’s worth four years to get your degree. Look into the job market, and the likelihood of finding a job with a bachelor’s degree in your field. Some majors, such as anthropology, psychology, and, increasingly, liberal arts like history or literature are extremely difficult to find jobs in, and students are almost always “forced” to go to graduate school if they want to continue in that field. Even then, a job in the field is not guaranteed.
There are many opportunities in college to develop friendships with people who come from different backgrounds than your own. Universities tend to attract people from a much larger geographic area than community colleges. Many colleges have students who come from around the world. It is a challenging experience to be removed from your comfort zone—particularly when the college is not in your hometown—and interact with others of different cultural and religious backgrounds, but it has the potential of being highly beneficial to you. As you engage with others who have different beliefs and practices, it causes you to examine your own. This can and should strengthen your faith. When you don’t have an answer for why you believe or do something, you are forced to search it out for yourself, and then to articulate it to your friends and peers.
On the other hand, there is the danger of falling away from the faith. None of us is above this. “Therefore let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (I Cor. 10:12). Some people, instead of going to the Scriptures and getting help from those mature in the faith, are led astray by persuasive friends or professors. While it is certainly possible to be weakened in your faith at work or at community college, I think the temptation is particularly strong at a university, where you’ve been uprooted from family, friends, and church and are now seeking to develop roots in a new place. If you are not planted “by the streams of water” (Psalm 1), you will be easily carried away by worldly philosophies (Col. 2:8).
So, there you go. Hopefully my descriptions have gotten you thinking. Remember they’re generalizations, and your trajectory will depend greatly on your obedience to God as you live by faith in whatever the situation. From what I’ve seen, the two factors that most influence how young ladies fare are (1) the home environment they came from (how well prepared they are to face the dangers) and (2) the church environment that holds them accountable in their daily struggles. It’s vital to stay connected to a good church to keep you from falling prey to the dangers!
Before I conclude, then, a few practical suggestions for any of the options above:
Do your research before you commit
In my previous post, I mentioned questions you can ask to get started, but you need to go beyond that. It’s common for people to have a romanticized notion of what a particular vocation will involve. After they’ve put time, effort, and money into their goal, they regret their decision and end up changing course. For example, I’ve seen a number of young women spend almost four years studying education only to abandon it when they hit student teaching. What a waste of time and money! So, here are a few suggestions of ways to look before you leap:
- Research – Find the latest information on the job market in your field. Know the average starting salary, the requirements for getting a job, and the likelihood of getting it.
- Job shadow – Learn what life in your field is really like. To get a diverse set of experiences, try to shadow more than one professional. Also, interview each one to find out what they like and dislike about the job, what the hours are like, and so on.
- Intern/Volunteer/Work – If at all possible, use opportunities like these to gain extended experience in the field (or a related one). Even if the work isn’t precisely what you’re hoping for in the field, being in the environment can often tell you whether the field is one you’ll like or not.
Set goals and work diligently towards them, but be ready to let go of them if the Lord changes your path
Proverbs 21:5 says, “the plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance.” Even the world knows that those who set goals and work hard towards them are generally successful. But don’t forget: “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand” (Proverbs 19:21). So make plans, but remember tomorrow is always uncertain, and that our mindset should always be “if the Lord wills” (James 4). Be willing to make adjustments in your course, whether in small ways like taking different classes, or bigger ones like changing schools, or even dropping out if that becomes wisest.
Move out of your parents’ house and the dorms and live with other girls
It’s not always possible to do this immediately because of requirements to live in the dorms, or because of financial reasons, but I highly recommend having this experience when you can. It’s extremely valuable in helping you establish your own household someday. Here are just a few things I learned by renting an apartment with other young ladies:
- How to pay bills
- How to grocery shop
- How to cook for myself and others
- How to show hospitality through hosting others in my home
- How to handle conflict with others
Stay involved in regular church ministries with families
Students often get so wrapped up in their lives on campus that they forget about the broader church body that needs them, and which they need. This is a perfect time of life to be observing how godly homes work. Learn from those in stages of life ahead of your own so that you’re better prepared for what’s ahead. And remember that the flexibility and freedom of your life allow you to be a blessing to others. Offer your services as a babysitter. Give of your time and energy at church workdays. Volunteer to help with Sunday School. Ask what needs there are, and jump in!
Get connected to a student ministry
Student ministries, like the one I’m a part of, can be extremely helpful during this time in your life. If you are a student, it will help you face the dangers of college that I mentioned. Leaders in the ministry can answer the questions you’ll face and help you work through new challenges to your faith. They can also offer accountability for the temptations you’ll be surrounded with. Finally, it’s a great opportunity for you to minister to others on your campus by inviting them to attend as well. If you are a community college student or if you’re working, student ministry groups can offer a taste of the “broader community” that I mentioned as an advantage of a four-year college. Who knows? You might even meet your husband there. It’s happened before.
Stay connected to your parents/spiritual parents
Especially if you move away for school or work, you will need people who have known you for a long time and can help you watch out for dangers. Make sure to connect with them on your breaks. Tell them what’s going on in your life and don’t be afraid to ask difficult questions. I was very blessed to have parents who were able to help me on a number of occasions in this regard.
There’s a lot more that could be said on this topic, but hopefully I’ve hit on the highlights. In my next post, I’ll address young ladies a few years down the road when they’ve finished college or have been working awhile, and marriage doesn’t appear on the horizon.