The First Year Out: Helping Students Transition to College

“We have a choice. We can minister in the world we wish we had. Or, we can minister in the world we do have.” Those words have stuck with me from a conference I attended many years ago. The speaker was talking about the church and was challenging church leaders to examine more closely the changes in the world around us and the actual lives of the members of our congregations. Simply put, according to the speaker, the church was doing ministry in a world that no longer existed. On that day, I remember making a commitment to be attentive to cultural trends, to the shape of youth culture, and to the stories of the young that I am privileged to hear. If the Gospel is going to make a difference in young peoples’ lives, then my hope is to truly understand and empathetically embrace students.

Tim Clydesdale is a sociologist at The College of New Jersey. Not too long ago he had a similar realization about the state of higher education. He may not have used these words directly, but after studying students during their “first year out” of high school, Clydesdale reached a similar conclusion: college and universities can teach the students they wish they had or the students they do have. Clydesdale reports the findings of his research in his book, The First Year Out: Understanding American Teens After High School (University of Chicago Press). Here’s what he learned about the majority of today’s students: colleges and universities aren’t producing the “future intelligentsia” they claim to be. Rather, today’s students are “practical credentialists.” School is for upward mobility and not much else. The narrative that has captured students’ imaginations is not one of deeper learning in order to better serve their communities, as most college mission’s statements would have you think. Instead, during the formative college years, students are solidifying the dominate cultural script: go to college, to get a degree, to (hopefully) get a job.

But what about students of faith? Don’t they have a bigger vision for learning? Aren’t they interested in wrestling with “big ideas” both inside and outside of the classroom? Not really. In fact, most students put their faith in an “identity lockbox” during the college years. They don’t abandon it or examine it. According to Clydesdale, “It seems most Christian students want to keep their faith in a nice safe box: they attend church, they read the Bible and pray, but they largely pursue the same work-spend-borrow-consume lifestyle that their non-Christian peers do… Mainstream American life has become a relentless work-spend-borrow-consume cycle that discourages all questioning or reflection, and teens have become as caught up in this as adults are.” Ouch. But wait, there’s more. Here’s the kicker: some teens do want to “think deeply about their faith and engage it with the wider world. Unfortunately, few of these youth possess the mentorship that nurtures this sort of faith development, and without it, the tug of work-spend-borrow-consume may ultimately prevail.” Now there’s a rallying cry for college ministry!

The First Year Out is an important read for those who long to transmit the faith to the next generation. It offers a window into the lives of today’s students. As we look ahead to the coming school year, I offer three ministry implications drawn from Clydesdale’s research:

First, help students navigate and adjust to college life. Clydesdale points out that the students who transition the best are those who are able to adapt to the new campus environment. Do all you can to ease the transition. Show students around campus. Host panel discussions of upper classmen offering advice to survival and success. Keep it “light” early on. Remember, first year students are looking for a place to belong. There will be time for creating space for deeper reflection about what they believe and why. But many students will never get that chance if they fail out after the first semester!

Second, be patient with asking life altering questions. According to Clydesdale, one of the reasons most students put their faith in a lockbox is because they intuitively know that it can be dangerous: “such reflection can lead teens to an unpopular choice… which in turn puts teens out of step with the American cultural mainstream.” Certainly, we want students to count the cost of following Jesus. But don’t write students off if they are uneasy with this at first. Most students have very little experience asking tough questions. Help them along. Be sure they know that you will be with them along the way.

Third, challenge the cultural script (work-spend-borrow-consume) in engaging ways. Many students sense the shallowness of the “American Dream” and know that a life following Jesus should be different (Romans 12:1-2). But these ideas need not remain abstract. Students need models and mentors. They need to see the Gospel lived, on the ground. It’s not enough to critique the dominate, American story. We must be ready to point students in the direction of resources and people who help us live-out the Biblical story in transformational ways.



Derek Melleby is the director of the College Transition Initiative, a ministry of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding and the Coalition for Christian Outreach. He is the author of Make College Count: A Faithful Guide to Life and Learning (Baker Books) and coauthor of The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness (Brazos Press).