- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2011


By Andrew Ferguson
Simon and Schuster, $25, 240 pages

If you’ve written a college application letter or helped a child with one recently, you probably know what Andrew Ferguson means when he writes that the college admissions process “didn’t force kids to be Lisa Simpson; it turned them into Eddie Haskell.” Aha! I’m not the only one who fibbed when I wrote that my weekend with the high school community service club helping a retired couple rake leaves changed my life. I knew I wasn’t alone in my insincerity. Now Andrew Ferguson has written a book providing confirmation.

“Crazy U” is Mr. Ferguson’s new book, and it is about much more than the inanity of asking normal 17-year-olds to channel their inner Oprah into an emotionally soaked college application essay about personal transformation. In 750 words. Over Christmas break.

Mr. Ferguson’s son recently applied to college (the book concludes with junior enrolling at his state university), and “Crazy U” traces the Ferguson family’s journey through the application process. Stops along the way include leafy campus tours led by bubbly undergrads, meetings with a counselor at a $40,000 private college (Mr. Ferguson receives advice for free) and an account of the author retaking the SAT.

It’s occasionally hilarious, as when Mr. Ferguson, an editor at the Weekly Standard, caricatures students’ “insider guides” to their college, all of which show an “impressive uniformity: every school was nearly perfect.”

Readers familiar with Mr. Ferguson’s previous book, “The Land of Lincoln,” will recognize the author’s style. For both books Mr. Ferguson traveled throughout the country meeting with everyday folks, complementing his firsthand accounts with academic research and interviews with experts.

Throw in one part doting father and two parts curmudgeon - colleges replete with climbing walls, hot tubs and wood-fired pizza ovens - what next? - and the result is a highly readable book quite free of pedantry. “Crazy U” is informative without beating the reader over the head, and funny to boot.

The first thing to note about higher education is that it is big business. How else could colleges afford to hack down half the rainforest to supply the paper surely needed to bury high school juniors in an avalanche of self-promoting, glossy brochures? Among the most important selling points a college can put on those brochures, a near guarantor of more applications and increased alumni giving is a good ranking by U.S. News & World Report. The problem is that the rankings are more subjective than people think.

Mr. Ferguson would seem to agree with Malcolm Gladwell, who in the New Yorker recently compared the college ranking system to a Car and Driver comparison of three sports cars, a Porsche, a Chevy and a Lotus. Mr. Gladwell found that by tweaking the weight given to various pieces of the ranking puzzle, he could easily put any of the three cars on top.

The same goes for college rankings. Consider, for example, that the U.S. News’ rankings don’t include as a factor the cost of the college. That, according to Mr. Ferguson, is the million-dollar (almost literally) question on every parent’s mind: “Why the hell does it cost so much?” For an answer, he consults Richard Vedder, economist at the University of Ohio and thorn in the side of college deans everywhere.

Mr. Vedder’s signature insight, in Mr. Ferguson’s words: “Normally, an increase in price reduces demand, which in turn moderates prices. In higher ed, that doesn’t happen. When prices rise, subsidies increase. With more Pell grants available for low-income students, more scholarships and cheap loans given to the better-off families, the schools are free to raise tuition again.”

It’s a classic case of reverse causality, by which more aid actually spurs rising college costs, and it’s an important reason why, according to Mr. Vedder’s calculation, the 1958 tuition at Mr. Vedder’s alma mater, Northwestern, was 15 percent of median family income. By 2003 it had risen to 53 percent.

Why do families continue to shoulder the burden? That question leads Mr. Ferguson to “the idea of college,” the warp and woof of the whole edifice. “I think that Americans,” he finds, “as a practical people, are most excited about getting things, a job or a skill or a Wendy’s coupon, that can in turn be used to get us other things, a cheeseburger or a paycheck, which, in sufficient quantities, can get us just about anything. Whatever it is we’re after, we want to make it pay.”

The problem is “we suffer from a built-in confusion of means and ends. We want college (the means) to produce results (the ends) it wasn’t built for.” College was designed for “the slow steady nurturing of the spirit. It wasn’t designed to do what most Americans want it to do: set their kids up to get a good job.”

It’s a paradox. On the one hand, that state of higher education resembles an economic bubble waiting to burst. Mr. Ferguson foresees a time in the near future when “a family could pay $200,000 for an education, borrow money to finance it, and then see the degree lose half its value, collapsing under the weight of its own unreality.”

“Economic calamity,” he continues, “has a way of dispensing with illusion.” On the other hand is this telling statistic: “Ten years ago, a large majority of American parents - 67 percent - believed that ‘there are many ways to succeed in today’s world without a college degree.’ Now fewer than half believe that.” Parents know college is a gamble, but it’s one they are willing to take, at least for now. Mr. Ferguson quotes a friend: College is “a giant nothing inflated on a foundation of nothing. Nothing but hope.” Like Mr. Ferguson, he just finished enrolling his child in college.

Philip Brand is author of “The Neighbor’s Kid: A Cross-Country Journey in Search of What Education Means to Americans” (Capital Research Center, 2010).



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