BOOK REVIEW: Put Down Those Rating Books, Test Prep Guides and College Viewbooks and Pick Up 'Crazy U'

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: Put Down Those Rating Books, Test Prep Guides and College Viewbooks and Pick Up 'Crazy U'
If you've long suspected that the nation's 1,400 or so four-year institutions of higher learning are like runaway trains with the engineer slumped over the controls, Andrew Ferguson's "Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College" (Simon & Schuster, 240 pages, $25.00) will confirm your suspicions.

It's no secret that the cost of a higher education in this country has far outstripped inflation and Ferguson, in this often hilarious book introduces us to  academic economist Richard Vedder, who has the guts to explain why. It's simple, Vedder says: "Because they can." Vedder and his colleague Dan Bennett at the Center for College Affordability & Productivity crunch the numbers on a subject few others would touch. Vedder tells Ferguson no college, scrambling for a smaller pool of students,  has any excuse to control inflation by keeping fees and tuition down.  Colleges are building Taj Mahal facilities, if the Taj Mahal had climbing walls, "Mediterranean" sized swimming pools and luxurious dorms at a time when construction elsewhere has collapsed, Ferguson reveals, and they have to get the money from students -- actually, from their parents -- to pay for  facilities that have nothing to do with education.

A boomer himself, born in 1956 in Chicago, Ferguson graduated from Occidental College in Los Angeles in 1978. His annual tuition bill was $5,100. If Oxy's tuition had tracked inflation, the bill today would be $16,500. Instead "it's nearly $40,000 -- an exponential rise repeated at nearly every school in the country."

Ferguson says many journalists have written  about the high cost of medical care and economists have explored every reason for medical hyperinflation  but only Vedder has the guts to rip off the mask of the Phantom of the Campus and expose the disfigured face of out of control higher education costs at even ordinary run of the mill state schools.

If you're wondering if "Crazy U" is another one of those earnest self-help books designed to ease the way for those parents and their kids facing the  cutthroat competition to get into the perfect college, you'll quickly change your mind after a few pages. It IS a self-help book, but one with a sense of humor.

Ferguson, who has been called "my all-time favorite writer" by Christopher Buckley (high praise indeed from a very funny writer), shows how applying for and getting accepted into the "right" college can drive students to the brink of madness and push their parents over the edge and bury them in an avalanche of books that claim to hold the secret of success.

"Crazy U" pulls back the screen that's hiding the Wizard (Boy, am I mixing literary allusions in this review!!) to give us a  candid and funny  subversive tale of the journey that millions of parents and their children undertake each year -- a journey through the  rituals of college admissions.

Pummeled by peers, creeped out by counselors, and addled by advice books,  Ferguson starts to believe that a single misstep could cost his son a shot at a happy and fulfilling future. He feels the pressure to get it right from the moment the first color brochures land in his mailbox, sent from "fishnet stocking" clad colleges soliciting customers as if they were sailors come to port. They're more than brochures, they're called "viewbooks" in the arcane lingo of academic marketing.

Ferguson introduces us to the most sought after, most expensive and surely most intimidating private college consultant in the nation, Katherine (Kat) Cohen of Ivy Sense in Manhattan, who for a fee of up to $40,000, will guide a high school student to a suitable college. 

Then come the steps familiar to parents and their college-bound children, seen through  the eye of a trained journalist who says he stumbled into the profession because he ended up with a college education that a guidance counselor at Occidental told him that prepared him for nothing;  a session with a distracted high school counselor, preparations for the SAT and an immersion in its mysteries, including the original progressive origin of the SAT;  unhelpful help from essay coaches and admissions directors, endless campus tours, and finally, as spring arrives, the waiting  for the envelope that bears news of the future.

Meanwhile, Ferguson passes on the tips he has picked up during their crash course. (Tip number 36: Don't apply for financial aid after midnight.) He gives the reader a short history of higher education in America, recounts the college ranking wars paced by those U.S. News & World Report guides that college administrators love to hate  and casts light on the obscure and not-terribly-seemly world of higher-education marketing.
 Along the way, something unexpected begins to happen: a new relationship grows between father and son, built from humor, loyalty, and  more than a little shared anxiety. Along with its tips and trials, "Crazy U " in the end is also a story about family.  The quiet boy who pretends not to be worried about college has lots to teach his father about what matters in life, about trusting your instincts, about finding your own way.  

Even if you're not in Ferguson's position -- he has a daughter, too and he's going through the process all over again -- "Crazy U" is worth reading. It's an education about education.

About the Author

Andrew Ferguson, a senior editor at the Weekly Standard, is the author of Fools’ Names, Fools’ Faces, a collection of essays, and Land of Lincoln, named by the Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune as a Favorite Book of the Year. Formerly a senior writer for the Washingtonian magazine, he has been a contributing editor to Time magazine, as well as a columnist for FortuneTV Guide, Forbes FYI, National ReviewBloomberg News, and Commentary. He has also written for the New YorkerNew York magazine, theNew Republic, the American Spectator, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and many other publications. In 1992, he was a White House speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. He lives in suburban Washington, D.C., with his wife and two children.