College Choice: Why Are We So Obsessed With Our Kids' Decisions?

A woman I know -- let's call her Joan -- recently took a leave of absence from work in order to focus on her son's college search. "His choice of school will determine the outcome for at least the first part of his adult life," she explains. "I want him to give him every chance to succeed."

Joan isn't talking about Stanford vs. Princeton. Her son is a B student, on a good day, and would rather play video games than go out for varsity sports. At 16, "he hasn't shown much interest in college yet," Joan admits. But she's convinced this will change when he finds the right "fit."

Another parent of a 16-year-old, New York nonprofit executive Barbara Heisler, is also concerned with fit. "I care less about which school my daughter picks than that it offers (her) opportunities to figure out where she wants to make her mark, and support to help her get there."

Heisler adds, "Name schools don't impress me. Having worked in higher education for 15 years, I know that a bad fit at any level can disillusion an otherwise passionate learner."

For a humanities professor doing the college search with her daughter, it's all about options. "If my kid decides at age 18 that she wants to throw pots and sell them at craft fairs, I'd support that," she says. "But let her throw pots at Williams, so that if at age 32 she decides she wants to be a civil engineer, she will have the degree and network to succeed without being penalized for choices she made as a teenager."

Still others worry about return on investment. As one dad puts it, "I'm not going to pay $60,000 a year for a school no one's heard of." These parents want a name that will open doors when employers see it on a resume.

With one child immersed in the college search and a second on deck, I've shared many of these concerns. Furthermore, I believe that my own college choice -- made much more casually -- influenced my life in important and long-lasting ways.

Still, I can't help thinking that Joan is over the top. And I'm wondering if I'm right there with her.

Full disclosure: If there was a master's degree in Naviance, I would qualify. I have spent hours comparing "scattergrams" and compiling lists of potential schools for my daughter to visit. I am a power user on College Confidential, although I mostly lurk. I've read Princeton Review's Best 373 Colleges cover to cover.

I spent far less time learning about the school district where my children have spent the past twelve years. When we moved, I remember thinking, "If there's a problem, we can always pull them out."

Other potentially high-impact choices that didn't involve years of research included buying a house, choosing a pediatrician, and deciding on a religious community. Some of these worked out better than others. When mistakes were made, we changed direction as soon as we could.

So why does part of me believe that this one decision -- where my kids attend college -- will make or break their future lives?