When a veteran journalist tries to help his son apply to college and then writes up the experience, you get a riveting memoir that is also a much needed expose.` “Admissions stories are a staple of the news business, of course,” Andrew Ferguson writes in Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College. “They have been since the first baby boomer editor realized he couldn’t afford the tuition of the school his kid desperately wanted to go to, and he dispatched his reporters to find out why the hell not.”
What makes Crazy U different is that Ferguson dispatched himself to do the research. Along the way, he provides some welcome translations of the jargon education professionals like to use. For example, Ferguson notes that, “Admissions committees at selective schools call their method ‘holistic,’ which involves weighing a dozen intangible factors along with hard data like SAT scores and grade-point averages in deciding whom to admit.” At the end of that same paragraph he claims, “A more practical and accurate term for holistic admissions is ‘completely subjective.’”
Ferguson also found that “There’s lots of useful information about ‘outcomes’ at American colleges and universities. But it’s not public.”
“It comes from the National Survey of Student Engagement (the acronym is pronounced ‘Nessie,’ like the monster in Scotland.” If this data were publicized, Ferguson predicts, “The effect might be revolutionary. Which is probably why all but a handful of college presidents have decided to keep the NSSE results secret.”
One rather surprising trend that Ferguson unearthed was the calculation among admissions insiders that so-called legacy admissions make up between one-quarter to one-third of college acceptances. These are the children of alumni, particularly prominent ones, selected by schools in a practice that many might think went out with Gone WithThe Wind.
Ironically, Ferguson describes the admissions office at Harvard, which does admit to the above percentage, as “housed in an old forbidding brick pile fronted by a stone porch and thick columns—what Tara would look like if it had been built by Calvinists.”
Supplementing the hard facts, Ferguson shares with us his efforts to counsel his son, self-deprecating though they may be, as when he advises the lad on how to solicit recommendations from teachers and other public school officials.
“It’s a little too late for sucking up,” the boy tells his father.
“It’s never too late for sucking up,” dad says.
Additionally, Ferguson gives the wry epiphany he realized when dropping his progeny off to take the SAT. “Waiting at the doors, they all looked slightly lost, as if the combination of early-morning sleepiness and the significance of what they were about to do had settled around them like a fog,” Ferguson writes. “I learned later the real reason they were disoriented was that they had been told they couldn’t bring their cell phones into the building—none of them had gone four hours without sending a text message since middle school.”
Of the SAT, Ferguson observes, “That something so dull could have an effect so pyrotechnical is hard to credit.”
“It’s as if the Trojan War had been fought over Bette Midler.”
To show solidarity with his offspring, Ferguson took the SAT at home. “The math score,” Ferguson remembers, “I’m not giving my math score.”
“It was low enough to take your breath away, however—a level somewhere below ‘lobotomy patient’ but above ‘Phillies fan.’”
Of one of the “college nights” he attended in a hotel ballroom/basement, Ferguson observes, “It’s a strange setting for a higher-education event, but again it’s a mix of the high and the low, as if Donald Trump had decided to sponsor a chamber music festival.”
Full disclosure, one of Ferguson’s sources on why college costs so much is also one of Accuracy in Academia’s favorite subjects, and the speaker at AIA’s last author’s night: As Ferguson accurately describes him, “Richard Vedder, distinguished professor of economics at Ohio University, who’s studied college tuition so long, so thoroughly, and so honestly that college administrators hate him.”
“This is my simple, one-sentence answer to why colleges keep raising their tuition: because they can,” Vedder told Ferguson. “I mean, who’s going to stop them? Parents? The government? There’s nothing stopping them—literally nothing.”
Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.
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