When high school seniors at Gilbert Christian High School enter the office of their college and career counselor Christina Lang, they’re often met with a question that takes them by surprise.
“Where do you see yourself when you’re 80?”
Not 20, or even 30, but 80. Some students, Lang reports, have an answer at the ready. Others stare at her, wide-eyed, unsure where to even began. Lang walks them back decade by decade—how about when you’re 70? 60? … 30?
As Lang recounts these meetings with seniors and the conversations they have about their imagined geriatric futures, it reminds me of something one of her students said. Ashlynn Messer, a recent graduate of Gilbert Christian High School, told me she plans to attend Biola University in Southern California to study nursing.
“Why nursing?” I asked.
“I’ve always been led to the medical field,” Messer said. “And I also really, really want to have a family and be a wife. So I feel like nursing was the best path for me just trying to juggle having children—hopefully, one day—and a career that I would like to stay in for a long time.”
“That’s a really . . . you’re a good forward thinker!” I stammered in reply.
I cringe a bit as I listen back to my response. I think of myself as having a pretty high view of teenagers, but I was taken aback by Messer’s pragmatic, well-thought-through answer. As the wife of a former youth pastor, I resent the false notion that the high school students of today are lazy or entitled. When I look at Generation Z, I see flaws, as I see in any generation. I also see abundant creativity (for all of its dangers, TikTok hosts some topnotch nerd and theater culture), a global mindset, and an openness to new ideas. Even so, Messer’s response startled me. She had such a succinct yet comprehensive vision for the life she imagined—a life she knew she couldn’t conjure up or control on her own, but one she could take steps toward participating in if God saw fit to bring it about.
Lang’s description of the meetings she has with her students helped make sense of my surprise and Messer’s forethought. Lang and other school counselors I spoke with tell of a future-oriented phenomenon they see among today’s high school seniors that data from the Barna Group—a leading research organization focused on the intersection of faith and culture—attests to as well.
What’s Next for Christian Higher Education, a Barna report produced in partnership with the Association for Biblical Higher Education, found that in this era arguably characterized by tremendous financial turmoil, a student debt crisis, and increasingly competitive college and university admissions processes, prospective students are filtering their college decisions through a lens focused on outcomes. At the top of their priority list? ”Prepare for a specific job or career,” followed by “increase financial opportunities” and “stay competitive in today’s job market.” At the very bottom? “Encourage spiritual growth.” Just above that—in the second-to-last and third-to-last positions, respectively—are “develop moral character” and “learn how to make a difference in the world.”
This sounds a bit harrowing at first glance. Do today’s students really only care about money and worldly stability in their college decisions? Are they forgoing wholeheartedness in the quest for material success? If so, how do we reconcile that with the global perspective we see emerging from Generation Z?
First of all, we need to recognize the position in history that these students occupy. It’s easy for those of us who grew up in earlier eras to look at the iPhones in the hands of today’s teenagers and think that they have everything we did not as we teetered on the brink of adulthood—access, information, constant connection. But even if we grant that walking around with a computer in their pockets is a net gain, we need to recognize some of the key losses that this generation’s teenagers have experienced, too.
The high school seniors of 2020 were born in the immediate wake of September 11, 2001. A few years later, as elementary school students, they watched their parents weather the 2008 financial crisis. They’ve grown up in an age of technological disruption, mounting institutional distrust, and political turmoil. And now they’re graduating during a global pandemic, unsure if their colleges or universities will be able to welcome them on campus in the fall. With these factors in mind, it’s no wonder, really, that today’s students want to set their feet on paths that will lead them to stable jobs and adequate income as quickly as possible.
Madeleine Williams, a senior admissions counselor at Calvin University, says understanding the high priority that students, and often their parents, place on career placement and financial stability helps her to guide and inform them in a way that meets them where they are.
“Families want what they’re getting—the return on the investment of their college tuition—to feel safe in the decision process,” Williams said. “So that’s something that’s shaped our work. We want to be very clear and upfront with students and families about the excellence and success of our outcomes.”
In general, Williams said, students and families want to know about job placement and graduate school acceptance rates, career development resources, and access to internships before they want to know about spiritual life on campus. Another thing they’re interested in, though?
“That’s often a word associated with spiritual development,” Williams says. “[Prospective students] want a community that is paying attention to them in their development—that might mean spiritual, but that also can mean career development. I think it’s the connectivity that’s the draw [to a place like Calvin University].”
Perhaps, then, it’s not that today’s prospective Christian college students are disinterested in a substantial spiritual life, but, instead, that they imagine the integration and intertwining of professional outcomes and spiritual life differently than generations past.
In this vein, Clifford Mack at Calvary Christian Academy in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, specifically encourages the high school students and families he counsels to inquire about the relationships students can expect with professors. Keri Boer, director of college guidance at Asheville Christian Academy in Swannanoa, North Carolina, listed “interaction with faculty, community and relationships” as key topics she addresses with her students. And John Chilman, head counselor at Faith Lutheran High School in Las Vegas, Nevada, said that when students tell him they want his help getting into a Christian college, he helps them parse out what they mean by that—are they, perhaps, actually looking for a chance to learn from and get to know faculty members who place a high value on their spiritual lives as well as their professional ones?
These students, families, and high school counselors want to see evidence of how a school offers connection, guidance, and mentorship. In Christian terms, we might say they’re looking for shepherding—a desire that often starts out as a practical pursuit (“what should I do?”) but inevitably leads to spiritual cultivation, conversation, and, ideally, the rejection of compartmentalization.
David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, points out that even though today’s prospective students are heavily focused on career outcomes and financial stability, they’re also part of a generation that’s less likely to see the world as divided into the sacred and the secular. It may simply be that they need the guidance of a Lang, or a Williams, or a Mack, someone who will place an emphasis on helping students “confirm, clarify, correct—or even construct” what God may have in store for them, so that they can go on to live according to the notion that the Spirit of God can guide them in all things.
“I like to think of it this way,” Kinnaman said. “Christian higher education is meant to be an embodied formational community of the very things we believe about all these aspects of life—about our time, our resources, our sexuality, our relationships, our vocational choices. And, I think, part of the restoration of that Christian vision of higher education is to fully lean into the kinds of fully formational activities that will create students of impact and of consequence—how to think about technology and stewarding that, how to think about life in an increasingly secular and science-driven society.
“I think there’s a great vision for Christian higher education that can be realized,” he continues, “but it’s going to take some real careful thinking, and a commitment to taking what’s really good about Christian higher education and building on it toward those kinds of more complete outcomes.”
This resonates with the vision of Shirley V. Hoogstra, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. “At our schools,” she says, “the classroom and the laboratory are just as much arenas of Christian integration as the college chapel. In every discipline, faculty and students are encouraged to ask the question, ‘What does this tell us about God?’”
Complete outcomes, indeed.
Kimberley Wiedefeld, vice president for enrollment management at Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester, New York, says that prospective students want to know how their degree will help them get a job and whether the faculty members will learn their names and become part of their professional network. “They’re looking for the best pathway to get to that next part of their story,” she says. “And sometimes they don’t know what that next part will be, so they’re looking for a place that is going to prepare them and help them figure [that] out . . . but it’s still career-focused.”
In order to serve students in that pursuit, Roberts Wesleyan College is building a community engagement center that will house a student union. “It’s not going to look like your traditional student union,” Wiedefeld explained. “It actually puts the career development center in the student union along with community institutes” like The Business Solutions Institute, which provides training and development opportunities to local organizations. In other words, those potential future bosses and job opportunities? They’ll be walking right through the doors of the student union, bringing career readiness that much more to the forefront of the everyday college student experience.
Wiedefield also says that while parents have always asked about safety on campus, there’s a specific component they’re asking about more often in recent years—schools’ focus on mental health. As rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide rise, some parents may not care about the old traditional markers of the student experience—the football games, the clubs, the rock-climbing wall in the rec center—but they do want to know that their students’ wellbeing will be prioritized as one form of ensuring their safety.
For a student like Katherine Fine, a sense of felt safety mattered a great deal in her college decision. Diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia between her sophomore and junior years at Faith Lutheran High School, Fine found her way to academic success through the school’s Student Resource Program, which supports students with learning disabilities. The community at Faith Lutheran helped Fine find safety and success, so when Fine toured Colorado Christian University (CCU), she says she felt like she’d found her next home. Fine wanted to attend a college where she felt safe, grounded, and free to develop her ministry and outdoor education skills, which she’d already begun to hone by working at a summer camp with middle school students.
“I want to teach every single kid who I work with that God loves them unconditionally and will never leave their side,” Fine said. For her, that career goal aligned perfectly with the programs, environment, and emphases CCU has to offer.
Similarly, Isabelle Pico, a college-bound senior from Gilbert Christian Academy, has a strong sense of her career goals. She aims to become a nurse practitioner and to start a small interior design business on the side, so she’s planning to major in nursing and minor in business at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Arizona. Their programs are a good fit for her career goals, but she also loves to be involved in multiple activities and recognizes that going to a small school like Grand Canyon makes that more possible. In addition, she felt drawn to the campus because she saw it as an environment in which her faith can thrive.
“Christian higher education attracts committed, compassionate students who want to engage deeply in this world, not in spite of their faith, but because of their faith,” said Greta Hays, senior director of communications and public affairs at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Some students, it seems, may articulate this desire primarily in terms of career outcomes, or they may need some help connecting the dots between their 18-year-old self’s vision for their 80-year-old selves, or between the concrete steps they need to take to be career-ready and the grander calling God has placed on their life. But one thing is for sure: Today’s prospective Christian college students are oriented toward preparing their whole selves—mind, body, and soul—to enter the world. Christian colleges have a tremendous opportunity to cultivate a comprehensive vision for a life that integrates career and character, stability and spirituality, in a powerhouse generation.
Abby Perry is a freelance writer who lives with her husband and two sons in Texas. You can find her work at Sojourners, Texas Monthly, and Nations Media.