One of the most helpful books written in the last year concerning college transition is Tim Clydesdale’s The First Year Out: Understanding American Teens After High School (Chicago University Press). A sociology professor at The College of New Jersey, Dr. Clydesdale conducted a six-year study following students from high school into their first year after high school. His reflections offer a window into the lives of American teenagers and his conclusions and recommendations have major implications for how we prepare students for college. Dr. Clydesdale’s work has significantly shaped CPYU’s College Transition Initiative and what follows is a recent interview about this important book.
CPYU: What motivated you to conduct the research for The First Year Out?
TC: In short – I had limited resources and a false hunch. The limited resources were a function of being a new assistant professor without research funds, but realizing the one source of data that I had in abundance were eager and willing college freshmen. The false hunch was that these freshmen would be undergoing as significant an awakening intellectually and religiously as I underwent attending Wheaton College after 12 years in the Philadelphia Public School system. Of course, I didn’t know my hunch was false until I began collecting data. Once I began hearing how little freshmen felt they did change intellectually or with respect to their faith, I had a puzzle I had to solve.
CPYU: What was the most surprising thing you learned about teenagers from your research?
TC: I would say it was how open teens were to talking to a sympathetic adult listener. It was as if they yearned for a sounding board – a listening and engaged ear – and once they found it in the interview room, they poured out their hearts. Neither their parents nor their peers provided an unfettered place in which the teens could talk; it seems that the adults in teens’ lives were more interested in telling them something than they were in listening to them, and that their friends were likewise so caught up in their own concerns they didn’t listen very much either. This reveals something about American culture – that we nurture individuals so consumed with themselves that we as a culture are losing our desire if not our ability to listen. Even well-meaning folks like teachers, parents, and youth pastors get so caught up in conveying a set of ideas that they rarely let up on the barrage of information. Teens are drowning in competing claims for allegiance, and no one, it seems, is providing teens the time and space to sort through all of this.
CPYU: You suggest that most American teens keep core identities in an “identity lockbox” during their first year out. Briefly describe what you mean by “identity lockbox” and why you think this is a key insight into the world of today’s teenagers.
TC: It is not so easy to “make it” in the U.S. anymore. Housing & transportation are less and less affordable, secure jobs with good benefits are rare, and achieving the “American Dream” has become a far more difficult accomplishment than it was, say, in the post-WWII era. Back then, a college diploma guaranteed one’s place in the American Dream; today, that diploma may not even get you a job with benefits. Consequently, American teens take a highly practical view of their college education, prioritizing, like Americans as a whole, the management of everyday life. Taking a moment to reflect about deeper matters, such as teen identities as persons of faith, as men or women, or as citizens, is not only distracting, it can be downright “dangerous.” That’s because such reflection can lead teens to an unpopular choice about one of these deeper identities, which in turn puts teens out-of-step with the American cultural mainstream if not in jeopardy of never attaining one’s desired standard of living. In short, 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.
CPYU: You write, “Few and far between are teens whose lives are shaped by purpose, who demonstrate direction, who recognize their interdependence with communities small and large, or who think about what it means to live in the biggest house in the global village.” Did you notice any difference with Christian students you interviewed, or would you say that this is true for most teens, regardless of religious affiliation?
TC: I found this to be true of most Christian students, even those who say their faith is “very important” to them. It seems that most Christian students want to keep their faith in a nice safe box: they attend church, they read the Bible & pray, but they largely pursue the same work-spend-borrow-consume lifestyle that their nonChristian peers do. The majority of Christian teens are content to sprinkle their suburban middle class aspirations with evangelical faith (again, not unlike most adult evangelicals). I did find some Christian teens (say 10-25%) who are open to questioning whether these suburban aspirations represent the life of radical discipleship to which Jesus calls his followers. Such teens want to think deeply about their faith and engage it with the wider world. Unfortunately, few of these youths possess the mentorship that nurtures this sort of faith development, and without it, the tug of work-spend-borrow-consume may ultimately prevail.
CPYU: “College transition” is currently a hot topic in youth ministry these days. Churches are reporting that more and more students walk away from the faith during the college years. What do you think are the implications of your research for youth pastors as they prepare students in their youth groups for college?
TC: Those who “walked away” from their faith during college made the decision to do so long before their college years – they just waited for the freedom of college to enact that choice. In many cases, these teens reported having important questions regarding faith during early adolescence (12-14 years old) that were ignored by their parents or pastors rather than taken seriously and engaged thoughtfully. It is in early adolescence that faith trajectories (along with other life trajectories) are set, thus early adolescence is the point when preparation must occur. Middle and late adolescence are increasingly similar, as college represents less of a qualitative change and more of a quantitative change. In other words, there are few ideas and freedoms available to college students that are not also available to high school students – college students simply experience ideas and freedoms in greater quantity. Hence, early adolescence are the years when churches must prepare their youth, and must do so fully aware that youth now arbitrate among many claims for their allegiance. Sadly, most youth ministries are long on fun and fluff and short on listening and thoughtful engagement. The former produces a million paper boats; the latter produces a handful of seaworthy ships. Launching a million paper boats is an amazing spectacle on a clear summer day, but only a ship can weather storms and cross oceans.
A review of The First Year Out by Derek Melleby
CPYU President Walt Mueller’s blog post mentioning the interview
More about CPYU’s The College Transition Initiative
Tim Clydesdale’s website