Magazine | April 18, 2011, Issue

The Parent Trap

Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College, by Andrew Ferguson (Simon & Schuster, 240 pp., $25)

When Andrew Ferguson attended Occidental College in the 1970s, colleges were already moving away from fussy old requirements like American history, English composition, and foreign languages, and towards the anything-goes curriculum of today. If he was not playing in his rock band, visiting a Zen center, or engaging in “a dozen other forms of fun that had nothing to do with traditional education,” Ferguson pursued classes like “Women in Film” and “Our Bodies Our Selves for Men.” But it was still the pre-self-esteem era, so when he went to his college counselor for career advice, she spoke bluntly: “You have no marketable skills whatsoever.” So, says Ferguson, “I became a journalist.”

Ferguson became not only a journalist, but a widely admired writer whose fans include Christopher Hitchens, Tom Wolfe, P. J. O’Rourke, and this humble reviewer. Florence King has hailed him as “the Buster Keaton of the cultural essay.”

What happens when Buster Keaton stumbles into the mad world of early-21st-century college admissions? In Crazy U, Ferguson is at his dazzling best, using humor and narrative as portals to very serious subjects. The book is both a hilarious chronicle of his 18-month ordeal helping his not-always-cooperative son apply to college and a devastating exposé of the buying and selling of higher education in America.

There have been dozens of worthy books in recent years about how our institutions of higher learning have “lost their mission.” These furrowed-brow tomes are much admired, but rarely read. Ferguson’s story, by contrast, is irresistible. His perspicacious discussions of SAT politics, U.S. News rankings, runaway tuition costs, and knowledge-free curricula are woven into an endearing family sitcom. Ferguson says, “If the book seems to veer recklessly between the two poles, between matters of the heart and the big booming issues of culture and politics — well, that’s one reason it seemed worth writing.” And equally worth reading.

Ferguson’s story begins when he finagles his way into a seminar with Katherine Cohen, one of a new breed of expensive “independent college admission counselors.” For $40,000, she and her associates shepherd high schoolers through the entire application gauntlet: helping them choose just the right mix of schools, prepping them for the SAT, tutoring them on the application essay, and coaching them for the interviews. Why would anyone pay forty grand for such a service? Because, as a growing number of students are competing for a fixed number of places in elite schools, the application process has evolved into a treacherous lottery. Experts like Cohen claim to offer tips that help applicants avoid the rejection pile.

Ferguson the journalist is appalled by the excess and frenzy; Ferguson the parent is panicked. He listens with dismay as Cohen speaks of the need for high-school freshmen to begin assembling a “portfolio” and to devote their summers to worthy projects. Working at a job is okay; starting a business is much better. One job to avoid is lifeguarding, which conveys “slacker.” Ferguson’s son (he never gives his first name) had worked as a lifeguard for two summers and was planning to do it once again.

Ferguson falls into “the bottom quintile of the lower upper middle class,” a demographic of parents with huge ambitions for their kids but without the means to pay for elite private colleges, let alone fancy admissions counselors. So he resolves to be his son’s own do-it-yourself admissions counselor. Ferguson devours insider’s guides, visits Internet chat sites, swaps tips with other parents at parties, and slowly becomes an expert.

#page#His son had a monumental struggle with the college essay. Typical college-essay questions are: “What do you think people who know you would be surprised to learn about you?” or “Tell us about a moment in your life when you refused to be embarrassed.” According to a Haverford dean, the essay should be cathartic — “You must share some part of yourself.” Cohen had warned Ferguson that students often are relegated to the waiting list because they did not “dig deep enough” in their essays: “Tell your son . . . to talk about his innermost thoughts.” But as Ferguson says, “Seventeen-year-old boys do not have innermost thoughts, and if they did, neither you nor I would want to know what they are.”

This psychological focus in admissions essays is part of a broader change in the process. In the late Seventies, when many colleges feared extinction because Baby Boomers were having far fewer children than their parents did, a battle for survival ensued, led by high-powered marketers. Suddenly prospective students were a “customer base” — and, as Ferguson says, “a large, lucrative, and parasitic industry puckered up and suctioned itself onto the tumescent host of college admissions.” Demographers, psychologists, color-palette experts, and graphic designers went to work branding and rebranding colleges and universities to suit the presumed desires and aspirations of high-school juniors. Vast fortunes were invested in landscaping, food courts, sports facilities, and “atmospherics.” Here Ferguson quotes economics professor Richard Vedder’s sardonic take on the winning strategy for today’s successful college president:

You buy off the alums by having a good football team. . . . You buy off the faculty by giving them good salaries. You let them teach whatever they want, keep their course loads low. You buy off the students by not making them work too hard. . . . You make sure the food is good and the facilities are nice. And you buy off the legislators and trustees in various ways: tickets to the big football games, admit their kids if they apply, get a good ranking from U.S. News.

College officials disparage the U.S. News guide as “superficial” and “destructive,” but “the same administrators read it, feed it, and fidget all summer until the new edition arrives, and then wave it around like a bride’s garter belt if their school gets a favorable review.” But here is the paradox, and one of Ferguson’s most important points: A school’s high ranking has nothing to do with how well it educates its students. Lots of factors determine where a school falls on the list, such as a school’s wealth or student SAT scores. But here, says Ferguson, is one piece of information that is left out of the equation: “Is any learning going on around here?”

Many private colleges now cost more than $50,000 per year for tuition, fees, and room and board. Higher education, like health care, grows more and more expensive. But at least we can say that there have been momentous improvements in health care. Can we say the same about college education?

Ferguson describes college tours where undergraduate guides who manifest the “cheerful gene” lead prospective students and their parents around the campus and drive home the message that at this university, students can do whatever they want. Schools offer countless majors, but visiting high schoolers are assured that “you’re always free to make your own, as long as it’s approved.” Spoiler alert: The Ferguson boy — to his father’s joy, astonishment, and relief — eventually rallied and succeeded in getting into a top-notch school. But Ferguson then discovered that the same craziness and excess that characterizes the application process carries over into the daily business of the academy.

#page#At BSU — Big State University, Ferguson’s way of referring to his son’s school — “you could get a degree in the humanities without studying literature,” he writes. History majors seeking to fulfill a European requirement do not need to take a survey course in history of modern Europe; instead they can take “Witchcraft” or “any number of seminars thrusting them into a scholarly silo built by a history professor: ‘Mercantilist Identities in Industrial Britain, 1895 to 1902’ or ‘Incantations and Charms from Chaucer to Spenser.’” BSU makes one concession to the old regime: It requires a course in composition. But when Ferguson’s son registered too late for his first choices, he had to choose among “The 1960s,” “AMC’s Mad Men and American Life,” and “Intro to Queer Theory.”

The universities do have their defenders. “Our schools are the envy of the world,” they say. It is a myth, they insist, that today’s students study less than those in the past. College students have always found ways to avoid learning. They could point to Ferguson himself as Exhibit A: He goofed off, took weird courses, and still flourished.

Let me depart from Ferguson’s text to offer a few points in support of his findings. Two labor economists, Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks, recently published an analysis of “student time use” from the 1920s to the present. The percentage of full-time students who reported studying more than 20 hours per week in 1961 was 67 percent; in 1981, 44 percent; and today, 20 percent. In Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, education sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa marshal a massive amount of data to show steady decline in the quality of the academic experience: “Fifty percent of students in our sample reported that they had not taken a single course during the prior semester that required more than twenty pages of writing, and one-third had not taken one that required even forty pages of reading per week.” Our international reputation, they say, is “largely derived from graduate programs at a handful of elite public and private universities.” Meanwhile, the indispensable American Council of Trustees and Alumni has documented rampant grade inflation along with other sobering facts — e.g., that only 15 of 70 top colleges and universities require English majors to take a course in Shakespeare; and that a large percentage of seniors from elite colleges cannot identify Valley Forge, words from the Gettysburg Address, or basic principles of the U.S. Constitution.

For this attenuated education, today’s students and their families are taking on crippling debts. When Ferguson graduated in 1978, the annual tuition bill at Occidental was $5,100. Today, adjusted for inflation, that would be $16,500; instead tuition is $40,000. Add to this the prospect that the class of 2012 will be entering a highly competitive global economy populated by children of Tiger Mothers. They have to know something to make a living; they can’t all be journalists.

Driving home after dropping his son at BSU, an overwrought Ferguson lost his composure and started rambling and waxing poetic. His wife and daughter urged him to get a grip. He tried, but when he stopped for gas, he forgot to take the nozzle out of the tank. As he pulled away, “I felt a sickening tug and heard the sound of sheet metal being ripped from welded bolts.” That is a pretty good summary of what this charming and scary book does to College, Inc.

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