I Don’t Care Where My Kids Go to College, Neither Should You

I truly don’t care where my kids go to college. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement. But it is.

Many parents are fanatical about where their children end up. They might not admit it, but they are. They fantasize about putting the prestigious university sticker on the back of the car. 

It’s not just about ego (although, that’s part of it). It’s the belief that a good college is an essential first step to a successful adulthood. The more selective the college, the more likely it is that a child succeeds. 

Of course, I want my kids to flourish. I just don’t believe in sacrificing the last few years of my kids’ childhoods for the sake of improving their options. 

I want my teens to flourish but I don’t believe in sacrificing the last few years of their childhoods for the sake of improving their options. (Photo credit: Noel Besuzzi)

I did not push my daughter to do “resume enhancers”

So when my daughter Casey was in 8th grade I decided that I would avoid pushing her toward doing anything that was solely in pursuit of building up the college resume. My daughter wasn’t going to volunteer simply to check off a box. She would select activities based upon genuine interests (bye bye piano). And she would work hard for the sake of learning, not to improve her chances of landing a spot at Harvard or Stanford. 

There was, however, a tiny voice in the back of my head that worried. What if I was wrong? What if my philosophy would ruin her chances of living a happy, successful life?

As my daughter wraps up the final few months of her senior year of high school, I am more confident than ever in my approach. It turns out research repeatedly shows where one attends college doesn’t actually even matter in terms of student learning, future job satisfaction, or well-being.

There is no relationship between college selectivity and the ability to thrive in five distinct areas of wellbeing. And yet, many of us are deeply devoted to a misguided pursuit of landing our children in the most highly selective programs. Some parents are so focused on college entry that they are actually negatively impacting what they care about most, their children’s health and happiness.

Helicoptering, it’s all of us, and it’s a problem. 

The recent Operation Varsity Blues college admissions scandal is the most extreme example of parents going too far. But even without the cheating and bribery, the mindset behind this behavior (namely: top colleges=future success) is alarmingly prevalent and just as damaging. 

Helicopter parenting is not good for our kids

As a licensed clinical social worker and college professor, I have seen firsthand the rise in depression, anxiety, suicide and stress in teens. A study conducted in 2018 by The American College Health Association found that in the last 12 months 63 percent of college students surveyed had experienced overwhelming anxiety, and 42 percent reported being so depressed that they struggled to function. Studies also show that overly involved parenting (aka helicopter parenting) correlates to higher levels of depression and lower life satisfactionlower levels of self-efficacy, and higher levels of chronic stress

This is what I worried about. Getting into a top college wouldn’t be worth it if Casey didn’t have her mental health intact.

Plus, a parent’s energies are better served elsewhere. Denise Pope, cofounder of Challenge Success, a nonprofit focused on redefining success and promoting student wellbeing, recommends parents focus on four quadrants to foster independence: academics, social and emotional learning, life skills and positive coping strategies.

Too many parents are focused only on the academic growth that they aren’t concentrating on health of the whole child. “You want a kid who is healthy enough to get out of bed every day,” says Pope, “and engaged enough to want to.”

Parents, truly with the best of intentions, are too busy monitoring their children’s whereabouts on Life360, their grades on school portals and the checklists of requirements for college that they forget to teach their children the life skills needed to thrive outside of the family home. And they often overlook signs that their children are not okay. I’ve seen this in my practice over and over again.

Many kids start falling apart somewhere between their junior year of high school and junior year of college. All of their hard work starts to unravel leaving both child and parent distraught. 

There is another way.

The perfect college doesn’t exist

Barbara Kalmus, an independent education consultant and the director of Equity in Access, insists there are two words mothers and fathers are not allowed to use: good and bad. When parents say they want their child to go to a good college, Kalmus asks, “What’s a bad college?” She wants parents to focus on what’s the best fit for their child instead of arbitrary rankings which many parents equate to a symbol of their child’s worth. 

According to Kalmus, there are 300 perfect colleges for each student. Similarly, Pope asks parents and teens to list what is absolutely essential for them to be happy in college. Then, inevitably, she replies, “All of these things that you are saying are absolutely essential, thousands of colleges provide.”  

With all of this in mind, when it came time for Casey to apply to college, no schools were automatically on or off the table. She wanted a big school near a city in California. Any school that fit the bill was put on her list, regardless of rank or acceptance rate. Of course, we made sure there was a range of acceptance rates, but we stayed away from labeling them “reach,” “target” and “safety.” That was a good move says Kalmus. Those labels somehow imply another kind of ranking system, one that is equally flawed as the U.S. News & World Report.

Help kids succeed in any college

I once heard Julie Lythcott-Haims, the author of How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare your Kids for Success, say something that changed how I parent. “The job of parenting,” she said, “is to put ourselves out of a job.” What should have been obvious, wasn’t. Parents want to feel needed. But our need to be needed is making it difficult for our children to adjust to college life. 

With Lythcott-Haims in mind, my husband and I pivoted. Instead of advocating for our daughter, we mentored her to advocate for herself. Instead of checking texts and installing tracking software, we encouraged Casey to make good decisions and not be afraid to make mistakes.

We wouldn’t drop off forgotten homework or sign her out of class if she wasn’t ready for a test. Once my daughter asked for help opening a cheese stick. I joked; Do you want to eat cheese sticks in college? She got the memo. Solve your problem because we won’t always be able to solve it for you. 

My suspicions were confirmed by both Pope and Kalmus that it’s not the school that makes the difference in one’s future. It’s the kid’s willingness to engage in the presented opportunities that ensure success. 

 “Where will you be happy?” asks Kalmus. “If you are not happy, you are not going to be successful. Nothing beats happy.”

This week my daughter made her college choice. I can now say with certainty that I truly don’t care where she decided to go. She could have chosen to enroll in community college or a trade school and that would have been fine, too.

By taking my needs out of the equation, we avoided nagging, fighting over grades and a lot of tears. My daughter internalized that there are no perfect colleges and thus wasn’t terribly disappointed by the inevitable rejections.    

Life doesn’t begin and end with college admissions. It’s the foundation of skills and the values instilled that will promote children’s future well-being. I did what I could to make sure that I didn’t hold my daughter back or push her too hard.

Now it’s up to Casey to make herself a success. I will happily cheer her on from the sidelines.  

More to Read:

The Alternative to College That Could Be a Great Fit For Your Teen

About Catherine Pearlman

Catherine Pearlman, PhD, LCSW is the author of  Ignore It!: How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction which is available from TarcherPerigee. She’s also the founder of The Family Coach and an assistant professor at Brandman University. Follow Catherine on Facebook and Twitter

Read more posts by Catherine

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