Andrew Ladd takes on Andrew Ferguson’s Crazy U, a behind-the-scenes look at the sprawling, expanding, money-hungry industry of higher education.
If, unlike me, you don’t teach at college, have never been to college, don’t plan to one day send kids to college, and would in general like to live your life without ever considering college, well—you may think Andrew Ferguson’s new book, Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College (Simon & Schuster, $25), is one that you can skip.
You’d be wrong, though, because Ferguson is one of those rare, gifted writers—think Bill Bryson—who can make a laugh riot of the dullest and most esoteric topics. The SATs, financial aid applications, the statistical algorithms used in the U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings … Ferguson pulls yuks from them all, and the book is light on its feet and entertaining from start to finish.
The similarities with Bryson are apparent, too, not just in how Ferguson treats the subject matter, but in the bumbling persona he gives himself, and in the same exasperated sort of boomer wit he so adeptly displays throughout. The following, for example, is one paragraph of a several-page-long, laugh-out-loud spoof of the unnaturally perky spiels given by campus tour guides:
There’s lots to do on campus—sometimes too much! The union shows first-run movies on weekends, and our theatre arts department is ranked one of the top five in the nation. How many of you guys are thinking about theatre arts? That’s great. Martin Scorsese or J.J. Abrams or Wes Anderson spoke at the film school or a drama class or the arts festival a couple of years ago and said he couldn’t believe how incredible it was.
But Crazy U is worth reading beyond its entertainment value, even if you don’t care—or think you don’t—about the American college industry. Because it is an industry, no matter what any of its apologists say, a sprawling, expanding, money-hungry one—whose tentacles reach into more facets of our lives than you would ever think possible.
In 2009, Ferguson tells us, three million people applied to college, the highest number in history. That’s the most obvious way colleges can affect the real world: two years from now, the job market will be filled with more degree-holding, go-get-’em youngsters than ever before.
An increase in college applicants also has consequences for schools, who increasingly tailor curricula towards college prep. It means changing pressures on the federal budget, with more money going out to student aid, and less coming in from those who can write off taxes with tuition and loan payments. It means new immigration patterns, as colleges try to attract more high-fee-paying international students. And it means transformations for family life, with kids remaining dependent on their parents for years beyond high school.
I don’t list these things in order to judge them. Instead I want people to acknowledge that the college industry is—or should be—accountable to everyone, not just those of us inside it. Because beyond these obvious effects I’ve already listed, there are others that are arguably more serious, whose true consequences are harder still to gauge.
An especially striking feature of Ferguson’s experience is the environmental impact the college industry has. Three million applicants means three million applications, many of them on paper—and of course, most people also apply to more than one college (sometimes many more).
That says nothing, either, about all the admission tests they took—also on paper—and all the test and college prep books they bought, and all the viewbooks—“printed on paper so thick and voluptuous they might have been mistaken for the leaves of a rubber plant,” says Ferguson—that were mailed to them, unsolicited, by colleges around the country.
Many colleges are now targeting potential applicants as early as their sophomore year of high school, too, so this deluge of unnecessary paper extends several years beyond what you might expect. That’s an awful lot of pulped trees, and an awful lot of money and energy spent zipping them around the country. (Speaking of zipping around the country, the carbon footprint of all the families, students, and recruiters who travel each year in connection with the college industry is nothing to turn your nose up at, either.)
You also have to wonder about the costs of the insane bureaucracy students go through during the admissions experience: not just the burden of so many forms to be filled out and tests to be taken, but the effect of reducing the choice of something as diffuse and intangible as “an education” to the mechanical process that colleges seem to want to make it. Every year more students devote their entire high school career to checking off boxes on some hypothetical list of desirable qualities, and figuring out how to game the admissions system, and jumping through each hoop put in their path with a minimum of resistance—instead of, you know, trying to learn anything.
And if the reaction from Ferguson’s son is anything to go by—and the attitudes of my own students to the requirements of my classes—all this is not actually making it easier for kids to find their perfect education. Instead it’s raising a generation who see bureaucratic rules as necessary and inevitable evils, to be circumvented or exploited rather than challenged or debated—and whose focus is always on concrete, often trivial outcomes, rather than on examining and learning from a process. That seems like the opposite of what college is meant to teach.
If I have one quibble with Crazy U, it’s not that Ferguson doesn’t make all these observations as forcefully as he could—though he doesn’t—but that he really only focuses on half the title.
Because yes, OK, the Crazy U part is clear enough, in the well researched historical sections and the interviews with the admissions world’s big players. But the One Dad’s Crash Course part feels neglected, to me, Ferguson’s son too often a device to introduce some new topic, or an afterthought when the conversation is already wrapping up.
Only in the last chapters, when Ferguson is getting ready to pat his son on the back and send him into the real world, do we finally see any emotionally meaningful scenes between them, or any self-reflection on their relationship. And, as with the rest of the book, Ferguson so skilfully pulls off that more touching material, in the last 50 pages, that you wonder why he was holding out on us for the first 200.
Then again, that structure does reflect the sudden, scrambling realization Ferguson has, towards the end of the book, that he’s really pretty fond of his kid and is going to be sad to see him go. This way his readers, too, share his wish that they’d had a little bit more time together. And perhaps that realization, of the sometimes fleeting quality of father-son affection, is why Crazy U, even for those with no interest in college, is so eminently worth reading.