On Campus

The Ongoing Nightmare of College Admissions

An interview with journalist Andrew Ferguson, author of Crazy U, a compelling new book about the Byzantine apparatus of America’s Higher-Education Industrial Complex, as well as the highs and lows of seeing his son leave the home nest.

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There's nothing hilarious about the demeaning college admissions cattle call that rotating high school students and their parents endure annually. If your son or daughter is hoping to attend a college or university, whether it's a public or state institution, merely expensive or downright exorbitant, the odyssey from notional thoughts about higher education to a ridiculous amount of standardized testing to plumping up an attractive resume to the actual applications and then, finally, receiving either acceptance or rejection letters is brutal. It creates a low (and then high) level of household tension, and the indignities visited upon both teenagers and parents are many.

The oldest of my two sons, a high school senior, is now college-bound, and he’ll be off to New York City in August to attend an arts institute, where, my wife and I hope, he’ll develop his filmmaking and musical skills. Should he squander the opportunity to immerse himself in work; well, that can happen. But I’m confident Nick will make the most of his collegiate experience; just as I’m certain I’ll wince and suffer stomach somersaults upon receiving the semi-annual tuition bills. As Andrew Ferguson points out in his fine new book, Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College (Simon & Schuster), many colleges are by and large recession-proof.

Ferguson graduated from Occidental College in 1978 and the tab for his senior year was $5100; adjusted for normal inflation, that tuition today would be $16,500. But no: it’s now in excess of $40,000 (not including room and board), an example of how higher education occupies a rarefied category in American industries. This isn’t breaking news, but when it’s not simply an abstract head-scratcher, meaning when if affects you, the obscene cost of college is staggering. Ferguson interviewed Richard Vedder, an economics professor at Ohio University who’s “studied college tuition so long, so thoroughly, and so honestly that college administrators can’t stand him.” Vedder’s “short answer” when the author queried about how colleges can get away with this legal larceny, he simply said, “Because they can! I mean, who’s going to stop them? Parents? The government? There’s nothing stopping them—literally nothing.”

So, for parents in the middle of the college admissions rat race, or anticipating it, consider the above a triple dose of castor oil. That unpleasantness dispensed with, I’m happy to report that Crazy U is not only an instructive primer about college admissions, but also short, insightful and really funny. I don’t care for self-help books—in fact, I think the Boy Scout manual is the only one I’ve ever purchased—but Ferguson’s accomplished the trick of turning a sensitive and often gut-wrenching subject into a salve for those who’ve spent too many days and nights fretting about SAT and ACT scores, high school GPA’s and herding like sheep to mostly useless “meet & greet” sessions with representatives from colleges across the country.

One of my favorite segments of the book is when Ferguson chronicles a mind-numbing tour of Northeast colleges—after it was completed father and son agreed it would be the last such road trip—that ended up at Harvard. An admissions dean, after showing a cheery video about the famous university, rattled off statistics, names of famous alumni, the vast number of student clubs, skipping over the crucial question: just how impossible is it to gain admittance to Harvard? After describing how many high school valedictorians and students who received perfect SAT scores were still denied entrance, the woman breezily, and rather disingenuously (a tic not confined to Harvard wage-slaves by any means; it goes with the territory), said, “[W]e admit people with weak math, weak writing scores all the time. I’d never count myself out just because of low scores. And if you don’t apply you’ll never know.”

An Asian man then began a mutiny of sorts, asking her what percentage of successful applicants were “legacies,”  teenagers who were the offspring or descendants of Harvard alumni. The lady tried to shoo off the uncomfortable question, but the crowd wouldn’t let it slide, even after she protested, again with a nose that stretched from Cambridge to New Haven, that she wasn’t even sure such information was tabulated. Finally, she allowed that “thirty, maybe thirty-five percent” were legacies. Ferguson writes: “There was a moment of shock before the murmuring began. The number was hard to square with the egalitarianism of the video we’d just seen. The numbers suggested the traditional Ivy League primogeniture.”

As it turned out, Gillum Ferguson, after months of angst over writing application essays, getting hounded by his parents to study harder for tests, was accepted by a number of colleges, including his first choice. As a reader, that delighted me.
Ferguson, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, who also contributes to numerous other publications, is an astute and witty observer of American politics, a combination that’s almost extinct in today’s media. The following is an interview that was conducted by email last week.

SPLICE TODAY: What was the single worst moment for you in the year-long odyssey of helping your son navigate the college admissions process?

ANDREW FERGUSON: It’s sounds sappy, but the worst moment was also the best: the moment we heard he’d gotten into the school he wanted to get into. He was delighted and I was delighted for him. The mixed feelings were summed up by my wife when we got ready for bed that night. She said the wonderful thing is—he’s going to college; and the terrible thing is—oh no!—he’s going to college! It’s the parental experience in concentrated form. We spend our lives preparing the people we can’t live without to live without us.

ST: You mention in Crazy U that admissions counselors might spend 15 minutes or 15 seconds reading an applicant's essay. Who knows the truth—I skew to the shorter attention span—but it brings up a larger question that drives parents (and their kids) nuts. After so much preparation, yay or nay might be checked off by someone who's in a good or bad mood on any given day. Have you any words of wisdom for parents who consider the "human element" involved?

AF: There are no words of wisdom about the human element in the college admissions process, except that in all cases the beliefs, whims, ambitions, and biases of the admissions deans will in the end be dispositive. The process is a black box, totally impenetrable. There are lots of reasons for this. Some are purely competitive—holding on to their proprietary secrets and so on—and some boil down to the simple truth that admissions deans don’t like to be second-guessed, especially not by serfs like us. The more secret the process, the greater the room in which they have to maneuver.

ST: I'm assuming your son Gillum has read the book. Was he a good sport about being the focus of one dad's often-neurotic obsession with helping him get into college?

AF: He has been, and will be, a good sport as long as he thinks it helps him with girls.

ST: Your daughter is now in the "waiting phase" for colleges to make up their minds on applicants. Are you more relaxed this time around?

AF: Much, much more relaxed. That’s mostly because I know how the drama ends: She’ll get in somewhere! And if she gets in, if she’s meant to be happy, it won’t matter a great deal which school she gets into. This is one of the dirty but happy secrets of college admissions in America.

ST: You make the acute point that your book is aimed at a demographic that is more fortunate than most Americans, in that they can even consider spending the appalling tuition fees at both private and public college and universities. And you describe, in funny vignettes, your "kitchen" discussions with friends who were going through same college admission torture. Can you imagine how intense it must be with similar parents and their offspring in Manhattan?

AF: I could try to imagine this, but then my head would explode.

ST: If you weren't writing a book about the subject, would you have spent so much time reading the online comment threads and blogs about college admissions? Purchased a mountain of “The Books”? Would you recommend that a parent immerse himself in an ordeal that can snowball over the months? And now, how many schools would you recommend that a high school student apply to and how many tours?

AF: Going backwards: unlike college nights, which are all the same and for that reason nearly worthless, the tours are worthwhile, if only because you get to see the possible site of your child’s transgressions for the next four years. But the law of diminishing returns sets in sooner or later, and you’ll probably want to cut the touring short. We did acquire one piece of wisdom on our tours: if you want to know what’s really going on at a school, beyond the Potemkin Village that you see on the tour, check out the bathrooms in the dorms and especially in the student union. It was amazing what we learned.

As for how many schools to apply to: you should apply to a sufficient number to guarantee you’re going to get into one of them.

I think that any reasonably conscientious parent will find himself (or herself!) entangled, if not immersed, in the college admissions process to a discomforting degree. It’s inevitable. In Crazy U I talk about how quickly you can get sucked into it further than you expected. In examining all the books and websites, I ran headlong into the Law of Constant Contradiction, which holds that for every piece of plausible advice about college admissions, a parent will soon receive an opposite and equally plausible bit of advice that completely contradicts it. Whether your frustration with that eternal law leads you to immerse yourself in the process even more or throw up your hands and quit, depends on the parent.

ST: As always, your writing cracked me up on every other page. The exception was near the end, when it hit you that with your son on to a new phase in his life, the dynamic in your relationship had changed. That's life, of course, but as a parent going through the same thing with my older son, it was poignant and left me not sad, but a touch melancholy. Have you and your wife become accustomed to what amounts as a very different way of life?

AF: I’d like to say yes, but not really. I truly believe(d) that being a parent is the only unambiguously and incontrovertibly important task that a human being will ever have, and though it had its ups and downs, I was sorry to see that phase of my life end. There’s a lot about that in the book. I put it in because that sense of losing something is essential to the process—though I would hate to get mawkish about it. In the end, it’s an uplifting story, or is supposed to be.

ST: Off topic. We're roughly the same age, mid-50s Boomers who went to college in the 70s when tuition wasn't scandalous. And, as you describe, if I might paraphrase Newt Gingrich, you had a lot of fun in college because you were alive at that time. So what's your beef with Bob Dylan? In a Weekly Standard article (about his goofy Christmas album) you eviscerated the wheezer, even making rude—some, like me, would say heretical—comments about his peak period of creativity. 

AF: Off topic is right!

ST: Again, not about the book, but your own work. Do you still think Gov. Mitch Daniels, if he runs for president and is nominated, will lose the election once a television audience realizes how short he is compared to President Obama?

AF: Daniels would have to get over a few hurdles before he loses in that way: he has to decide to run, he has to raise $50 million, he has to campaign non-stop, he has to enter primaries and win most of them, he has to acquire enough delegates to win the nomination, he has to give a nominating speech. And so on. In the words of editorial writers through the ages: Time Will Tell.

ST: Finally, now that your college admissions ordeal is almost complete, will you miss the "college nights" and tours of campuses? Strike that: I know you won’t. But did you get the same feeling as me, that attending mass events like that were rather undignified?

AF: Yes, in the way that a lot of crassly commercial life is undignified. The key to understanding higher education in America is to realize it’s a highly competitive industry run by people who 1) don’t think of themselves as competitive and 2) refuse to believe it’s an industry. Once parents realize that that’s what it is, the process itself is gravy! Well, not gravy. But easier.

DISCUSSION
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