Admissions Insanity

John C. Chalberg

\  Andrew Ferguson. Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course on Getting His Kid into College. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011. 228pp, $25.00 hb

Crazy U?” How about “Crazy Me?” A self-deprecating Andrew Ferguson must at least have been tempted by the idea. And who knows, his self-absorbed son (and what seventeen-year-old isn’t?) might even have agreed, if only he’d been remotely aware of the grief that the whole crazy process was causing his father.

Grief? OK, the elder Ferguson did have more than his share of laughs along the way. He also, as the phrase has it, “learned a lot.” Those three little words are usually uttered by a “D” student who is pleading for a C, but in Andrew Ferguson’s case it happens to be true.

So let’s get down to cases. While boning up the history of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), Ferguson made the mistake of actually taking the SAT. Not a good idea when you’re thirty-plus years past your SAT-taking prime. That embarrassment aside, he did learn a few things. He first learned that colleges initially adopted standardized testing in the name of objectivity and fairness. He then learned that colleges are now either abandoning such tests, or placing minimal emphasis on their results, in order to promote, you guessed it, fairness—and, of course, diversity.

Has this shift worked? Ferguson isn’t convinced. Moreover, he finds it more than slightly ironic that the old Harvard of legatees and jocks, frat boys and failures, geniuses and jerks, was in many respects more intellectually diverse, and in some respects more culturally diverse, than its modern counterpart.

This business of harvesting a diverse crop of similarly-minded freshman can be very tricky indeed, so tricky that many colleges now use what they like to call a “holistic (meaning, so far as Ferguson can tell, wholly subjective) method” to decide the fate of their applicants. The serendipitiness of the process, coupled with the relative scarcity of seats in exclusive schools and the absolute bonanza that awaits many of their occupants, has led to the creation of an “only in America” growth industry. Maybe there is something to all this talk about American exceptionalism after all. Where else but here would the possibility of a bonanza create opportunities for other bonanza-seekers? These would be firms that charge exorbitant fees to help families negotiate the admissions game by offering their own version of a crash course so that a son or (more likely) a daughter can secure a spot in a wildly over-priced college.

And while on the subject of money, Ferguson learned from two highly reliable sources that the term “wildly over-priced college” is a laughable redundancy. The first of the two would be the personal experience of a parent dealing with the after-shocks of sticker shock. That would be a fellow by the name of Andrew Ferguson. The second would be Ohio University’s Richard Vedder. An authority on the economics of the modern American college, Vedder drew from his dual reservoir of expertise and cynicism to inform an about-to-be-impoverished Andrew Ferguson that colleges charge what they charge because “they can.”

High tuition is also a function of the fact that colleges now masquerade as country clubs, which they do not because they can, but because they must, as in providing the amenities necessary to attract clients, who can then masquerade as students. Speaking of guises, Ferguson learned that the decision of U.S. News and World Report editors to publish a college guide, complete with rankings, set in motion a process whereby the popularity and profitability of that single publication enabled a once great magazine to keep up pretenses somewhat longer than would otherwise have been possible.

At the risk of milking the masquerade analogy for more than it’s worth, Ferguson learned that college officials must feign indifference, if not express open hostility, to any ranking system—unless their college scores high marks in which case they have to pretend that the results were as fair and accurate as, well, as their variously uniform admissions processes.

All this knowledge should earn Ferguson at least a “C” for his efforts. And if such a grade should damage his GPA (Good Parent Assessment), he can always claim that he learned a lot. He can also take comfort from knowing that the laughs he had along the way far outnumbered those occasional bouts of grief.

Still, there were moments in his “crash course” when it appeared to Ferguson that the whole thing was itself about to crash. More often than not, such a moment surfaced whenever it became painfully obvious to the parent that he was much more interested in mastering this course than was his son. Another arrived when the senior Ferguson began to weigh the current cost of a college degree (as opposed to a college education, but who cares about that?) against his ability to finance it, not to mention the very real possibility that the value of the degree in question would ultimately “collapse under the weight of its own unreality."

What to do, he wondered out loud to another concerned, college-obsessed parent of another less-than-concerned, college-bound kid, otherwise known as a fellow member of the “Kitchen People.”  Identified by first names only (to protect the guilt-ridden guilty?), these were parents who gathered on various Saturday mornings to commiserate with one another, lie to one another, and otherwise trade war stories.  And stories there were to tell of a campaign that began innocently enough in late summer when glossy college “viewbooks” were being wedged into mailboxes--only to be ignored by their target audience--before climaxing traumatically enough (for parents at least) in early spring when letters of acceptance—or rejection—could be found in the same location nestled among the bills and ads.

Sometime between being inundated by those viewbooks and confused by FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) instructions, Ferguson momentarily seemed to come to his senses.  Maybe, he suggested to fellow Kitchen Person – Rob - maybe the sensible solution would be to drop out of the bubble and steer their offspring in the direction of a "discount (community?) college."  Too horrible a prospect to contemplate?  Well then, how about a year away from school, period?  How about devoting a chunk of real time to performing the very volunteer work that high school seniors routinely lie about on their college applications?  How about letting them indulge in extended travel, assuming the family can afford it?  If not, why not force them to do real work for real pay?  One way or the other, maybe time away from school would lead their offspring to spend some quality time thinking seriously about what they wanted to do with their lives.  And then, Ferguson surmised, maybe he and the rest of the beleaguered Kitchen People would be able to get their own lives back.

"Rob” seemed to perk up at the prospect: “So that’s what you’re going to do?”

Not exactly, reponded Rob's fellow Kitchen Person: "And make them hate us for the rest of our lives?  I don't think so."

Having confided this much to "Rob," Ferguson proceeds to let the rest of us know that "I might be be crazy, but I'm not nuts."

OK, Andrew Ferguson may well be a natural self-deprecator, but he isn't a self-flagellator. Actually, it's hard to believe that the senior Ferguson was ever worried that "dropping out" would risk permanent or even fleeting, rejection by his son.  Still, it seems fair to conclude that this Kitchen Person did - and does - believe that the truly nutty course of action would have been to abandon the pursuit of finding just the right college, no matter how wildly inflated the price, no matter the apparent lack of interest on the part of his son, and no matter how the absence on the part of anyone, Kitchen People included, in what was actually being taught - or learned - in the right - or wrong - college.

In any case, it’s impossible to determine whether the senior Ferguson is truly nuts or just mildly crazy. It’s also somewhat beside the point. What is clear is that the junior Ferguson is neither nuts nor crazy. A somewhat ghostly figure in these pages, he simply presumes that college is his next step in life, and the bigger and glitzier the college the better. What soon-to-be eighteen-year-old male wouldn’t leap at the prospect? After all, these days colleges are 60% female, and 60% of, say, 5,000 is a much bigger number than 60% of, oh, 500.

Ghostly or no, the junior Ferguson seems to be an agreeable enough sort whenever he makes his occasional cameo appearance in what is always his father’s story. For example, he eventually takes a stab at writing and, yes, even re-writing, the obligatory essay that must accompany the college application. Not that his father failed to function as the contributing editor that he is known to be. In fact, here the elder Ferguson approaches his maddened, if not quite crazed, best. The proposed topics were either absurd, sophomoric, or solipsistic—or all three. The first (or was it the third?) draft was so chaotic as to constitute, in the editor’s words, a “verbal version of his [son’s] bedroom.” The estimate of the occupant of said bedroom was not entirely dissimilar:   “ . . . it’s a bunch of bullcrap.”

Figuring out precisely what editor-father found most maddening about his crazy “crash course” is also impossible, not to mention still beside the point.   The best bet may well be the “essay ritual,” since it constituted the only exercise that was remotely intellectual in a process that proved to be entirely beside any point that had anything to do with anything that might reasonably be related to a college education.

On the other hand, determining what is more than mildly maddening about “Crazy U” is at once easy and right on point. Having invested a chunk of his life in taking this “crash course” and another chunk in writing about it, Andrew Ferguson is prepared to do little more than throw up his hands and laugh at the whole shebang. Having exposed the bubble, he refuses to prick it—or walk away from it.

In the end, Andrew Ferguson has more than affably demonstrated that he is a good guy thrice over. Having had the good manners simply to go ahead and play the game by its current rules, as well as the good humor to keep his grief to a minimum, he has now written a book which reveals that he has the good sense to concede that he is part of the problem.

All of this goodness makes for a delightful, if maddening, read. Then again, maybe the fellow - who might have called himself "crazy me"  - has inadvertently performed a useful service, maybe even done a good deed. Perhaps others will read this book, take a similar crash course, and work themselves into an un-Fergusonian Peter Finch/Howard Beal mad-as-hell frenzy.

At that point this reader/victim might do one of two good things, neither of which good guy Andrew Ferguson ever managed to do. He might in fact drop out of the "bubble" and present his child with four grand choices: get a job, find a soup kitchen, hit the road, or take a slot in one of those local discount colleges. Or he might declare total war on a system overflowing with money and overrun with professors and administrators who could stand a good dose of the very self-deprecation that leaves Andrew Ferguson stranded somewhere in mid-air.

To be sure, as his self-styled crash course comes to a merciful end, Andrew Ferguson is close to solid ground. He and his wife have just deposited their son at an unnamed BSU (big state university). Preoccupied with the trauma and craziness of it all, he gases up the family car and pulls away with the nozzle still in his tank. So, yes, he is somewhere close to terra firma. But in another sense he is still floating along with the bubble, watching it, musing about it, puzzling over it, but otherwise doing little more than hoping against hope that he will survive the next four years without being too badly fleeced and that his dear son will somehow escape, degree in hand, without being too badly mis-educated along the way.

John C. “Chuck” Chalberg teaches American history at a discount community college in Minnesota.

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