Busyness. It’s among the most common complaints from parents today. It isn’t just the rise of dual working families, which means both parents must weave child-rearing responsibilities in with careers. Life with kids today is busy in itself. 

Standing on the sidelines of a sports field, parents exchange battle stories: “My kids have three games today, and we’ve got two overlapping practices tomorrow. How can I be in two places at once?” I tell the other parents. They invariably come back with equally jammed schedules, replete with language lessons, music recitals, sports travel teams, and Odyssey of the Mind.

Why do we knowingly over-schedule our kids?

Despite the complaining, part of the reason is because we enjoy it: I enjoy seeing my children gaining skills and confidence at an activity they love, and I enjoy the chit-chat with other parents while we watch our kids. Yet we also go overboard and commit to activities that yield little pleasure, and create a whole lot of headaches, for both parents and children. That’s at least in part because, much as we hate to admit it, college applications are already on our minds.   

The specter of student loans 

Mostly public discussion of the burden college places on families focus on costs. Wise elders begin refreshing blear eyed parents — many of whom still are paying off their own student loan debt — about the power of compound interest, explaining why saving early will be the key to minimizing junior’s future student loan debt, as soon as the baby’s home from the hospital.

The specter of huge college costs creates a lot of pressure, and even impacts people’s decisions about whether or how many children to have. More than half of respondents in one survey reported planning to have fewer children than their parents had, and more than 1-in-10 of those who don’t want children or weren't sure cited concerns about college costs as the reason.

When having my fifth child, I was often asked how we planned to pay for college for all these kids? My husband and I both work and are comfortably middle class. It seemed crazy to me to think we couldn’t afford to have as many children as we wanted. We have done the best we can to save for college and figure we will make it work when the time comes.

But, really, financial worries are only part of the college burden. For those who aspire for their children to not just go to college, but go to a competitive or even prestigious college, there’s also pressure to do everything you can to help your kids build the skills and accomplishments that will impress future admissions committees.    

My daughters dreaded the violin lessons I enrolled them in when they were starting elementary school. So did I: Classes were expensive and required a long drive across town where there was little parking. I should have been relieved when they asked to quit. Yet there was a sense of such failure: I was letting them down by not ensuring they had some musically ability on which to build. Sure, in part I sincerely wanted them to be able to have the pleasure of being able to play an instrument, but those future college applications were also a factor. 

We parents know it’s a little crazy to resume build when your son or daughter still sleeps with a security blanket. But there’s a fear that if kids don’t start developing skills early, they’ll be irretrievably behind the kids who do and never have a chance to excel.

Getting back to what college is really about

Parents will always want to advantage their children. For the most part, this is an overwhelming positive instinct. Yet changes to our higher education system could help redirect parents’ efforts so they are more effective for the long-term. 

Instead of fixating on how children will appear to a college admissions committee (which is often looking for a mix of qualities which have little value outside of the college arena) parents could focus on helping their kids gain skills and experiences that will actually help them find careers that will be remunerative and that they’ll enjoy. 

The sad truth is that depressingly little actual learning goes on during the typical college experience. According to the 2011 book, "Academically Adrift," 45 percent of students learn little to nothing after two years of college, and more than 1-in-3 learn next to nothing after four years.

Many companies, including giants like Google, Apple and IBM, no longer require four-year degrees, likely because they recognize that someone with a college bachelor’s degree isn’t necessarily more qualified for a job than someone who chose a different path. 

Increasingly, there are other ways for students leaving high school to gain skills that will prepare them for careers. Computer-code schools and boot camps, for example, can work directly with employers to train people for jobs in the tech field that are currently unfilled. Other education providers offer more traditional degree programs, but tailor classes to prepare students for more specific industries. 

These new education providers, which often offer more flexible schedules and encourage online engagement, also understand that education doesn’t just happen between ages 18 and 22. It should be an ongoing process. 

Of course, four-year colleges still have plenty to offer and are the best path for some students. Many parents will always start planning early for how to give their kids the shot at one of the few coveted spots at elite colleges. Yet parents should be able to take comfort that a four-year degree at a liberal arts college isn’t the only path, or even the best path, to success. 

Knowing that success doesn’t rest on the resume you build by age 17 may help parents relax a little, so we can enjoy our weekends, and our families, more today.