Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course on Getting His Kid into College

A father rides out his son’s college admissions process.

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    Crazy U
    By Andrew Ferguson
    Simon & Schuster
    240 pp
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I shouldn’t admit this, but the first thing I did upon receiving Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course on Getting His Kid into College was to flip to the back to see which college his kid gets into.

Why did I care? Because having just gone through the same absurd process with my oldest child, I was not willing to listen to some guy wax poetic on how – “crazy” though it was – his bionic child clambered to the top and is now happily overachieving at, say, Harvard. And that all it cost was a few grand for SAT prep, private tutors, hired essay writers – things you, dear reader, can buy, too!

Yuck.

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Fortunately, Ferguson is no such fool, and this delightful memoir had me laughing from the first page. It’s an honest account of a devoted dad who finds himself torn between wanting to help his son win the admissions game and not wanting to play by the contradictory rules forced upon them. It’s an unflinching look at the craziness of college admissions, the outrageous price tags of higher education, and, finally, how wonderful it is to watch our teenagers step into that new unknown that begins the rest of their life. (And ends our financial security as we know it.)

Ferguson, a respected journalist with Bloomberg News Service in Washington, D.C., begins by admitting the troubles he is about to detail are those of an already privileged family. At least his son has involved parents, safe schools, and is all but guaranteed college admission somewhere. Students in struggling inner-city D.C. schools may be only miles away as the crow flies, but light years away in opportunities available. So we leap over the
inequality elephant in the room and move on.

First stop: another elephant. This time, the privilege that separates the middle class from the super-rich – in the form of “Dr. Cohen,” an overdressed ex-Brown University admissions officer in Manhattan who charges $40,000 for the “platinum” package of admissions help. For one child. Her advice? Treat the process like a marathon: start young (preschool), get involved in school activities, and “early on in high school” start sucking up to the teacher you’ll be asking to write that all-important recommendation.

So discouraged is Ferguson when he meets with Cohen that he lies about (inflates) his son’s PSAT scores, breaking a vow he’d made to keep from getting caught in the race. Cohen herself is nervous about an interview for her own child – a 9-month-old seeking a spot in an exclusive day care. Shaking his head over the craziness, Ferguson asks Cohen, “How did all this get started?”

“All what get started?” she responds, without cynicism. Ferguson writes: “[Cohen] had spent most of her professional life in this world of high competition, where children quite often served as proxies for status and parental self-worth, and she took the world as she found it. She ignored my question.”

Ferguson’s search leads next to the vast storehouse at US News and World Report, whose landmark 1983 ranking of US colleges spawned an entire industry, mushrooming into books about colleges, books about rankings, and books about books about colleges and rankings.

But it also bore a dark side: Rankings mean big bucks to colleges, leading administrators to lie and fudge data – such as “massaging” SAT averages, for instance, by choosing to leave out verbal scores of nonnative English speakers.

And then there’s the all-consuming SAT. Here Ferguson shines: He takes us from the gleaming offices of the highly paid College Board execs to the test’s humbler origins as a multiple-choice test used by the Army in World War I. Though intended to expand admission beyond the privileged white boys that earlier tests had favored, the SAT seems to have come full circle. No matter how many “Julios” and “Matsukos” are inserted to rid the SAT of bias, scores still favor the wealthy. As one activist puts it, the SAT is good only for measuring “the size of the student’s house.”

(If you can get your kid labeled ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, he/she will get extra time to finish, virtually guaranteeing a higher score, with colleges none the wiser.)

Perhaps the least satisfying part of Ferguson’s book is his examination into why college costs have skyrocketed. We readers want an answer, but – not for lack of trying – Ferguson doesn’t have one. Or perhaps we want to believe it’s more than that given by Ohio University’s economics professor Richard Vedder: Colleges keep raising tuition “because they can ... there’s nothing stopping them.”

Nor are there incentives to keep costs down, as colleges have to “buy off” professors (high salaries), alums (good football teams), students (light work loads, good food, great facilities), and legislators and trustees (get good ranking from US News, admit their kids if they apply). Of every $1 spent at public colleges, only 26 cents goes to the classroom. The average debt load of college graduates weighs in at a cool $22,000. What about those students on the upper end of that burden – dragging around $100,000 in debt and perhaps still jobless? Says Vedder, “If you look at higher education as an investment, there’s a lot of disappointed investors out there.”

The book concludes with the funniest section, watching Ferguson’s son anguish over the college application essay. Bookstore shelves are stuffed with advice on writing this “confessional” monster. (Like Ferguson, I purchased an assortment of these books for my son. Like Ferguson’s son, mine refused to so much as crack one open. They still collect dust in his now-empty bedroom.) Woe to those students who have never suffered a tragedy to write about, or who would prefer to keep their inmost thoughts private.

In the end Ferguson follows his son to “BSU” – a fictitious acronym for the state college where the boy matriculates one sunny autumn. I imagine Ferguson driving home, slipping into his BSU T-shirt (the way I wear the one from my son’s new U) and thanking his lucky stars that his son made it and is going to do just fine.

Elizabeth A. Brown’s son is enjoying freshman year at Hipster U in California, where he was the only guy in his dorm who knew how to do laundry.

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