'Crazy U'

March 2, 2011

Andrew Ferguson’s Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College (Simon & Schuster) shares more with National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation than it does with other college admissions guidebooks. Ferguson, an editor of the conservative-leaning magazine The Weekly Standard and a father, writes about his experiences traveling through the tangled wood of guidance counselors, college ranking guides, essay-writing guides, SAT prep, college touring, and the FAFSA. Along the way, he stops to make more than a few criticisms of academe beyond the admissions process. By the end (spoiler alert), Ferguson’s son is accepted at “BSU” -- Big State University.

Crazy U often proceeds with a logic that goes like this: many years ago, the college admissions process was found to be flawed or inadequate, in some way. As a result, a new guide, service or test was created. But, in Ferguson's view, all these so-called improvements just made everything, well, a little unhinged. Repeat that sequence enough times, and eventually there isn’t even a hinge anymore. Ferguson also notes some of the silliness that applicants and parents bring to the process -- writing, for example, about what happens when your son tells an admissions counselor he wants to major in Beer and paint his chest the school colors.

Ferguson answered questions about the book via e-mail:

Q: It is already well-known that the college admissions process is full of craziness. What are you hoping readers take away from Crazy U?

A: I hope they get answers to the questions that bedevil parents and kids when they find themselves entangled in college admissions: How did the process get so elaborate and complicated, what do all those college counselors actually do, why are they making us take the SAT and ACT, where do I find reliable advice, why in the world does college cost so much, how do we survive the ordeal -- or more specifically, how do I keep my kid from murdering me, how do I keep from murdering my kid -- and when oh when will it be over?

An editor/friend of mine planted the seed for the book when he asked me to write a magazine article about Katharine Cohen, an extremely successful and extremely expensive private college counselor in Manhattan. I spent a fair amount of time with her and discovered her to be an appealing subject. What really opened my eyes, though, was an information seminar she held one winter evening in suburban Connecticut. Like most parents with kids about to apply to college, I’d heard how the process had descended into Absurdistan. But it wasn’t until I saw the feral squint of parental ambition in the faces of these well-to-do moms and dads that I realized how weirdly competitive and confused the whole thing had become. These people were out for blood -- they were going to do whatever it took, including hire a private counselor for $40,000, to get their little Ashleys and Caitlins into Brown. My own son was a junior in high school at the time, just starting to daydream about college, and I remember thinking, “Yow, this is what we’re up against?”

I looked around for a book that would walk me through the process. There were -- are -- tons of books about college admissions, some of them written by people a lot smarter than I am. But most of what I found was either fatally dry or too cutesy, painfully obvious or highly impractical. I wanted a narrative aimed at parents like me -- not as fevered (or rich) as the people I saw in Connecticut, but not indifferent to the process either, and willing to invest a fair amount of attention and time into the job of helping our kids choose the community they’ll belong to for the next four years.

So I wrote the book I wanted to read. I thought of myself as an outdoorsman leaving broken twigs and tree markings as pointers for the next hikers who come along. I combined practical tips and useful information with horror stories and bits of history and lots of jokes, and mixed them into a personal account of what happens inside a family that’s going through this intense, sometimes surreal, experience. With jokes. Did I mention those?

Q: One thing you document is how all of the information that is created to help you navigate the college admissions process can actually seem more like a zen puzzle meant to drive you to despair. You skewer U.S. News guides, the essay books, the viewbooks, guidance counselors, SAT prep tutoring, admissions consultants, and, in my personal favorite passage, the internet forum "College Confidential," which you describe as "a web site where people from all walks of life, from every income level and background, create a communal space without fear of reprisal and in a spirit of perfect openness, so they can spread misinformation, gossip, and lunatic conjecture to people who are as desperate as themselves." Do you think that the industry around college admissions actually helps students in any way?

A: Yes, of course: even Baby Boomers, the most spendthrift generation in history, couldn’t blow 40 billion dollars a year on a product and not have something useful to show for it. But you do have to be judicious in what you seek out and pay attention to. Once my son and I started the process in earnest, it wasn’t long before I noticed the Principle of Constant Contradiction, a law of nature as ironclad as anything Newton came up with: for every piece of college admissions advice you receive, you will soon receive an equally plausible piece of advice that directly contradicts it. The principle asserts itself in questions as trivial as whether you should buy a thank-you gift for the teacher who writes your recommendation (No! She’ll think it’s a bribe! Yes! It’s only polite!) to such grand conundrums as how many schools you should apply to (anywhere from 3 to 15).

Eventually we came up with a few rules of thumb. The nearer you are to the source of helpful advice, for example, the more disposed you should be to take it: trust your cousin before a booklet from College Board. Less expensive is always better than expensive: a guidebook that costs $16.95 is as useful as one that costs $24.95. And no matter what happens, stay away from

Q: In a discussion of how some university administrators decry the SAT and the U.S. News rankings, but then, once they are released, waste no time in prominently displaying their good results in their marketing materials, you write that the "corruptions that distort college admissions are abetted by the people who are most outraged by them." Can you outline what you see as some of the most glaring hypocrisies of the admissions process?

A: It’s not for nothing that higher ed is called the ivory tower. The air of unreality hypnotizes the people in the admissions office as effectively it does the absent-minded professor in the Department of Medieval Hermeneutics. Higher education is a highly competitive industry run by people who 1) won’t admit it’s an industry and 2) won’t admit they’re in competition with one another. You mention the U.S. News rankings. Any gathering of college admissions officials will eventually erupt in outraged complaints about how reductive, unfair, statistically naïve, and destructive of educational values the U.S. News rankings are. Then August comes and the new rankings are released. Every admissions official whose school moved up a few spaces will be releasing a blizzard of press releases and rewriting viewbooks to brag about the improved ranking from the “prestigious U.S. News and World Report.” Then at the next meeting of admissions officials they get outraged again.

A lot of these hypocrisies -- a word I use briefly and reluctantly --- are forced upon admissions officials. I have a good deal of sympathy for them, against my every crabby impulse. They’re in a tough racket, made all the tougher because they don’t want to think it’s a racket. I talk a lot about the SAT and the (so far) unsuccessful movement to force schools to abandon it as an admissions device, because the test is reputed by some to be culturally discriminatory. As good egalitarians and multiculturalists, they know they’re supposed to hate the SAT, and at the same time they can’t live without it: if the average scores in the incoming class start to slip, they’ll be out of a job. And if the scores rise, they’ll be pretty pleased with themselves.

Q: You dismiss most of the criticisms of the SAT as being unfair. Why?

A: I’m no fan of College Board or the Educational Testing Service (or the SAT, for that matter) but the lengths to which their well-meaning test-writers and statisticians have gone to wring every last drop of ethnocentrism from the test are simply astonishing -- at times even comical. And it’s useful to remember that standardized testing was itself conceived as a means to reform college admissions and make it fairer. Reformers thought testing would undo the old boy’s network and open schools up to deserving applicants, particularly among the poor, who hadn’t the advantages of birth or bloodline. As I argue in the book, this recent effort to expel the SAT from the admissions process is essentially regressive. It brings us closer to a system from the bad old days, when officials could just admit a kid on the basis of personal whim or worse, with no statistical or objective measurement to check their judgment.

One of the reasons why higher ed controversies (like the issue of standardized testing) grow so intense is that many people in the industry and many of the industry’s customers are talking at cross purposes. There’s no consensus about what American higher education is for. Some of us cling like Matthew Arnold or Cardinal Newman to the idea of the university as a place to nurture the young into the glories of civilization -- to furnish their minds with the best that’s been thought and said, as a preparation for a spiritually fulfilling life. Others of us in buck-hustling America see a college education in purely utilitarian terms, as a way to train for a high-paying job. Still others see it as a tool of social transformation, righting the inequities of society. And a very large number of people, particularly those under the age of 22, see it as a four-year booze cruise.

The result is a system of higher education that’s neither one thing nor the other -- a perfect recipe for frustration and disappointment.

Q: You conclude that college is a place where "learning is beside the point." Does this upset you? Should higher education be more focused on the acquisition of knowledge? Does it need gainful employment regulations or some other kind of moderating influence to provide focus?

A: I’m not a reformer. I wouldn’t know how to pretend to remake a system that has built up over sixty years or more, even if some crazy person gave me the opportunity. As a parent I wasn’t “upset” by the process, not really; I just wanted to get through it with my eyes open and my wits intact. And as a reporter I wasn’t stopping every few paces to form a global opinion about it all; I’m just jumping up and down saying, “Hey! Look at this crazy thing that’s happening all over the country! You’re next!”

A lot of the changes we’ve seen in the college admissions industry since I went to college have been the adjustments of well-meaning, fair-minded professionals; a lot have been the work of main chancers and bunco artists. I try to make these distinctions in Crazy U. My instinct tells me that more regulation of the kind you mention will simply make the process more confusing than it is already. Parents and their college-bound kids don’t need new rules. They need knowledge and sympathy -- and jokes. That’s what I aim to provide.

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