An open letter to high school seniors and their parents:

Now is the time of year when millions of students and their parents are hard at work on the college application process. For many, this is the culmination of several months, or even years, of planning. As the parent of a high school senior myself, I know how exciting and stressful this process can be; so many hopes and high expectations are pinned to the college experience.

Over the past few years, as you can imagine, many of the conversations I have had with other parents has turned to college planning. In many of these discussions, I have noted one underlying theme: the primary goal for these parents was to get their son or daughter to the most prestigious college possible. In fact, many parents seemed disappointed if a top-tier college is not within their child's reach. But I am not one of these parents.

The value of a college education itself can be debated, but it is pretty well agreed that a college degree is still highly valuable. Higher education is expensive. For a family to send their child to college for four years can easily cost $100,000 or more. Financial aid is available, but many students end up getting trapped in student loans for years after graduation. In fact, my first bit of advice to you is this: if at all possible, do not take out loans to pay for your education. Work part-time, do a year at a community college, apply for scholarships: these are all better choices than student loans (and will have the added benefit of having the student take the college experience more seriously as well).

The decision to attend college is one of the biggest decisions a family can make; one that will have life-changing implications. When trying to decide about this important, and expensive, decision, the question ultimately comes down to this: what is the purpose of a college education?

If you believe, as many do, that the sole purpose of higher education is to prepare you for a career in your chosen field, then your choice is clear: find the university that will best (and least expensively) prepare you for that career. You should choose a university near your home so you can save even more by living at home.

But wait, you say, shouldn’t I try to get into Stanford or Harvard? Won’t I get a better education and, therefore, have a better career? Maybe. Maybe not. In my experience, working fifteen years in the business world before teaching here at Biola, nobody cared where I got my degree from. They only cared that I had one. It was my performance on the job that mattered to them. This will be true for the vast majority of college graduates.

To me, a university education is about so much more than preparing you for your chosen career. College is a time of personal and spiritual growth; it is where lifelong friends are found and values are embedded. It is vital that students, and their parents, think about these ideas at least as much as they do the academic part of the equation.

But how do you go about doing this? Most colleges do not market themselves as character-building institutions, at least not anymore. I would suggest that there are two primary ways you can answer these questions. First, find out what the faculty are like. Faculty members, especially those in your chosen field, can have a disproportionate influence on your child's values. You can find out what faculty believe by seeing what they’ve published, what courses they teach, and which books they require for those courses. You can find much of this information on the faculty member's page in the university' directory or on the university bookstore's website. And if the university has the kind of faculty you want, you may also want to be sure that you student has access to them. Are they going to be sitting in a class of 25 or 250?

Second, find out about the community life on campus. What sorts of clubs are there? What is dorm life like? How important are fraternities and sororities? College is where lifelong friends are made and it is important to understand the type of students that attend. These questions can be answered by some online searches, looking up terms such as "student life" or "clubs". But they are probably best answered by visiting the campus, seeing the dorms, and interacting with the students. Many universities are happy to provide opportunities for just such a visit, such as Biola's "Biola Bound" and "University Day" events.

Besides these two methods of researching a university, there are some other questions you could ask. Noted columnist and talk-show host Dennis Prager has many of the same concerns about college that I do. His article, entitled “Before Sending Your Child to a College, Ask these Questions”, contains a list of questions you should ask before choosing a college. This is a great list of questions and I encourage you to read it.

Incidentally, one of the reasons we created this blog is to help prospective students (and their parents) answer these sorts of questions about us. In this blog you will see into the hearts and minds of our faculty and you will be able to sit in their classrooms. Naturally, we think Biola University and the Crowell School of Business are great choices for your son or daughter, but you should come to that conclusion yourself.

As your son or daughter continues the college application process, I encourage you to think beyond academics. What kind of a person do you want to be four years from now? What experiences do you want to have? Once you have asked these questions, pray about them. Then pursue them with all your heart. And make it matter.

What are your thoughts? If you have completed college, do these ideas resonate? If you are a parent or student planning for college, do these give you new things to consider? Share your thoughts in the comments below.