Sorting mail has created a new pile at our house: college stuff. Our 16-year-old daughter, wrapping up her junior year in high school, receives a steady stream of materials from colleges and universities, large and small, near and far.

As one who couldn’t see beyond my own locality at that age, I confess to living vicariously through her search and look forward to upcoming campus visits. I’m also seeking the advice of those who have gone through this experience before me.

One friend said the only parameter set for his daughter was that the school must be within the same time zone. Guess he wisely envisioned late-night phone calls.

Others get my attention anytime the advice relates to scholarships, grants or other financial aid that won’t result in deep debt.

My goal is to be a helpful resource to my daughter without attempting to write her script. Therefore, I win some and lose some in my advice-giving. She considers my alma mater too small but looks favorably at the university campus on which I worked when she was born.

And I’m not above putting some mailings on the top of the stack while making others less noticeable. But she has me figured out.

The New York University material stayed around long enough to scare me. She finally said: “I’m not sure an 18-year-old female in Greenwich Village is such a great idea.” (Good point; wish I’d thought of that.)

The marketing strategies of these colleges and universities interest me as well. Some admission offices send postcards, letters or small brochures. Others send impressive printed pieces – even posters. Duke, Wake Forest and Vanderbilt, for example, must keep local printing companies very happy.

Recently a large white envelope, addressed to our daughter, arrived from the “Scholarship Information Center” in Forest, Va. Emblazoned across the lower front was: “Your scholarship information is enclosed.”

While tossing the envelope into the proper pile, a small gold imprint on the back caught my eye: “National Guard.”

The letter did not make it into the college pile. While military service is commendable, a deceptive letter (with no mention of the deployment of National Guardsmen to Iraq and Afghanistan over the last several years, just lots of talk about scholarships and training near home) to a 16-year old – bypassing her parents – didn’t set well with me.

There are a lot of things that can be said about me, but gullibility is not one of them. And this letter was a reminder to me that one of the most important aspects of education is to teach young people to avoid deception.

From infomercials to TV preachers to telemarketers to cleverly-crafted recruitment letters to young teens, deceptive practices abound. Their continued existence suggests that the quote often attributed to P.T. Barnum, that “there’s a sucker born every minute,” is correct. I just don’t want to help create any more in the world.

The Bible offers a lot of counsel about avoiding deception. It seems to be a part of what Jesus meant by being “wise as serpents but gentle as doves.”

John D. Pierce is executive editor of Baptists Today. This column appeared previously on his blog.

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