Crazy U

One dad’s crash course in getting his kid into college.

If you just sent your son or daughter off to college, unsure of your choice and wondering if you should have done more, spent more or prepared more to get them into a “better” or “more selective” institution, relax. You're not alone.

If you have a junior in high school with good grades, be prepared. You are about to be bombarded with material and advice on how to help get your kid into the “right” university by spending more than an elite education used to cost.

In fact, as Andrew Ferguson of The Weekly Standard’s points out in Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College, his latest superbly realized mix of reporting and memoir, the system is designed to make you feel guilty and inadequate. The very first consultant Ferguson interviewed as he started his research/college search even labeled him a “Baaaaaaad daaaaaad.”

Actually, “designed” may be too grandiose a description of the college search industry, which has sprouted a myriad of contradictory branches thanks to the combination of easily available money and the conviction of parents and teachers that every kid must go to college — and the direction of their life may be determined by which college they go to.

Ferguson’s signature style of humor and pathos is perfect for the personal nature of this topic as he looks at the college search and funding industry through the eyes of a father going through it himself. Like Land of Lincoln, his last great book, this is a pure piece of Americana: part-memoir and part-journalism that offers a trenchant look at a slice of the American identity.

But the book may be just as valuable as a look at the next big economic bubble about to burst in the U.S. economy.

At least the housing industry -- whose bubble deflated the entire economy when it burst -- was centered around something that was getting bigger and better, even though easy money caused prices to outpace value.  But, as Ferguson points out, can anyone really even say that much about higher education?

Ferguson starts by going to a seminar led by “Kat” Cohen, who sells a service for $40,000 (no, that’s not typo) that maps out a teenager’s life from sophomore year on. Covered are what classes to take, what causes to volunteer for and what jobs to seek out. He later finds equally confident “experts” who can contradict every point of the Cohen plan.

Before grinningly labeling Ferguson a “Baaaaaaad daaaaaad” in their interview because his son had not started on Kat’s track by the beginning of his junior year, Kat gleefully and systematically makes every parent who speaks up in her seminar feel inadequate.  For instance, one Super Kid is criticized because he hadn't taken enough Advance Placement classes, but she calls another kid a “serial joiner” for taking plenty of them and compiling a resume of after-school activities as long as his arm.

Ferguson documents a process that — mostly inadvertently — corrupts everything it touches. For example:

[*] Schools openly deride the U.S. News and World Report college ratings, then consciously change their policies to compete for a better ranking. They then brag to high heaven when theirs improves.

[*] Some schools solicit applications from kids they know they will turn down because having a lower percentage of applicants accepted makes them “more selective.”

[*] The SATs, originally to ensure college admissions were based on merit, are now considered hopelessly biased, In the process, the tests have been watered down into near uselessness in an attempt to come up with something well-off kids won’t have an advantage in -- as though that were even possible.

[*] Kids are encouraged to write wrenchingly self-revealing essays to present to total strangers in the admissions department — or they can pay a consultant to write that essay.

Of course, the worst thing is not what the process does to admissions departments or the anxiety in induces in parents, but what it does to the kids enduring it. As Ferguson writes:

"At its most intense the admissions process didn't force kids to be Lisa Simpson; it turned them into Eddie Haskell. . . . It guaranteed that teenagers would pursue life with a single ulterior motive, while pretending they weren't. It coated their every undertaking in a thin lacquer of insincerity. Befriending people in hopes of a good rec letter; serving the community to advertise your big heart; studying hard just to puff up the GPA and climb the greasy poll of class rank — nothing was done for its own sake."

Easily the funniest chapter is the one in which Ferguson’s son must write his college essay. It's sheer torture for a normal teenaged boy — not the most introspective species on the planet to start with — who has had a relatively happy life, to wrench angst out of his soul period, much less for the benefit of strangers.

Among the myriad guides Ferguson buys for his research is 100 Successful College Essays. He tosses it to his son, who flips through it.

“’…I was four when my brother Timmy died…’  He went quiet, then almost whispered, ‘What am I going to write about?

He looked at me.

‘Couldn’t you guys get a divorce?’ he said.

‘No,’ I said

‘It would give me something to write about.  You can get back together once I’m done with the essays.’

‘Not going to happen.’

‘I wish I’d grown up in the inner city.’

‘No you don’t.’

‘I wish I’d become a drug addict.’

‘There’s still time, I said.

He lowered his forehead to the desk.  ‘I’m a white kid living in the suburbs.  I’m happy. My family is happy.  My brother Timmy didn’t die.’

‘You don’t have a brother Timmy.’

‘Exactly.  Then what am I going to write about.’”

Crazy U contains deadpan moments of head-shake-inducing ludicrousness that will make the reader realize that Ferguson is not so much a satirist as a reporter — the satire is built in. As they say, you can’t make this stuff up.

Here’s a quick quiz.  What do the initials “SAT” stand for?  If you said Standardized Achievement Test, sorry.  They stand for … nothing!  Both “Achievement” and “Test” were at some point considered too judgmental, or stress-inducing … or something.

But even as he gets settled and satisfied that his son is able to go to the school he really wants to attend -- a place identified as BSU (Big State University), where the boy could go to major football games with his chest painted the school colors and “major in beer” -- Dad gets a peek at his son’s course load.

Since his first few choices for history credit are filled, the selections come down to a course about the TV show Mad Men, “Intro to Queer Theory” and “The 1960s.”  Ferguson is reduced to being relieved that his son is able to get into the '60s course, despite the fact it is taught by someone who waxes rapturously about Abbie Hoffman and the Port Huron Statement, and whose “enthusiasm was greatly increased by virtue of his being too young to have seen any of it first hand.”

Ferguson writes like a more amiable Mark Twain. While he may lack Twain’s sharp elbows, he has a big heart and the insight to find the humanity in those whose methods he is skewering.

While this is mostly a memoir, Ferguson also hints at what many see as the coming higher ed bubble. There has simply been too much money thrown at a diminishing product, in a manner that really amounts to a wealth transfer to a select group of people and to communities whose economies have come to depend on the trickle-down effect of such wretched excess.

As in the housing bubble, the rising prices are driven by debt that is encouraged by those who have nothing to lose if it is not paid back. He notes:

“Colleges have no incentive to discourage students from taking on debt; when a kid borrows money to pay for schools, the school itself has no 'exposure,' as the bankers say. The lender — a bank or the government — holds the note, and the student assumes the liability. The school gets paid up front.

‘We’re borrowing eighty billion dollars a year to go to college…’”

There are plenty of exposes out there on each topic Ferguson delves into, but possibly no other single volume covers this much territory — and I guarantee none of them are nearly this entertaining.

Whatever you're second-guessing how your kid ended up where he or she is or just beginning to be bombarded by the whole panoply of hucksters and guilt mongers clustered around the university scene — or even if you just enjoy great humorous writing -- you owe it to yourself to read Crazy U.