The Customer

The College Derby

Andrew Ferguson’s delightful plea for sanity about college admissions.

I have this problem. I can’t read self-help books. Like everybody else, I’ve experienced my share of life challenges—“life challenges” being the self-help euphemism for “problems”—and I would never pretend not to need any help in facing them, solving them, or at least getting through them. I accept the principles of, and am myself no stranger to, modern psychotherapy. But whenever I try to cope with one of life’s predictable stress points by reading a self-help book, I can’t manage it. My eyes glaze over. I think “This person is an idiot,” or “This person thinks I’m an idiot,” or “Maybe I am an idiot, because I can’t follow this.” Within minutes I toss the book aside and start digging around for a decent novel.

What I’ve come to believe is that psychological advice isn’t worth much if it isn’t rooted in personal experience. So instead of reading self-help books I read memoirs about the kinds of experience I’m trying to cope with. It doesn’t especially matter whether the author went about confronting his problem in a sensible way, nor even, necessarily, whether the author came out of the experience with a clear understanding of what he did right and what he did wrong. For instance, just about the last person I’d look to for personal advice about anything is Joan Didion. But when my wife died six years ago, I devoured Didion’s best-selling memoir about widowhood, The Year of Magical Thinking, and then for good measure I read the script she wrote when she adapted it into a one-person show starring Vanessa Redgrave. (If asked to blurb either, I’d write, “Loopy but compelling.”) I read Donald Hall’s lovely book of poems about his wife’s death, Without, and Hall’s more tedious nonfiction reworking of the same material, The Best Day, The Worst Day. I read a mediocre book called Widow written three decades earlier by a publicist for Little, Brown named Lynn Caine, and a brilliant book—the gold standard on widowhood—called A Grief Observed, written four decades earlier by C.S. Lewis, an author I’d previously avoided like the plague. Some of these books were more helpful than others, but all provided some form of “self-help.” Meanwhile, a stack of self-help books pressed on me by well-meaning friends gathered dust.

Nobody has ever attempted a humorous memoir about widowhood, probably for very good reasons. But when facing life problems that fall well short of grieving for a lost family member, or surviving imprisonment or physical torture or sexual abuse, or losing your life savings, or enduring grinding poverty, or surviving some great cataclysm of nature or some fierce terrorist attack, or discovering some ghastly family secret—in other words, when muddling through more garden-variety miseries of the sort that seldom provide fodder for best-selling nonfiction narratives—I recommend the genre of the humorous memoir. We could all stand to lighten up about everyday traumas, and a book that invites us to chuckle more and “work through” less, while imparting nuggets of useful information here and there in a self-effacing narrative context, is the best kind of self-help guide I know. So thank you, Andrew Ferguson, for publishing Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College as my oldest child enters the final phase of the college-applications triathlon.

Perhaps you think that applying to colleges is an ordeal only for the applicant. That’s how I remember it back in 1975, when I applied to colleges. I didn’t visit a single college with my parents. My grandfather went on the Yale tour with me because he happened to live nearby. My sister drove me from Berkeley, where she was an undergrad, to Stanford, and enlisted her boyfriend’s childhood friend Larry Diamond (then a grad student, now a well-known Stanford expert on democratization abroad) to show me around. A few other colleges I visited through the East Coast summer school I attended the summer before my senior year. All my college visits took place either the summer before or the autumn of my senior year, and they were probably more extensive than was the norm for that time.

That world has vanished. When Ferguson visits Katherine “Dr. Kat” Cohen, a pricey college-admissions consultant and author of The Truth About Getting In, she is fretting about getting her nine-month-old into the right day care center in Manhattan. “How many schools have you visited?” she asks Ferguson. This is only halfway through his son’s junior year! “None,” Ferguson replies. “Oooooh,” Cohen replies. “Baaaaaaad daaaaaaad.” When Ferguson and son finally begin making the rounds, the author discovers that the function of the college tour is to obscure every conceivable difference between this school and the last one you visited. (When my son and I made the circuit we heard the same anecdote—about a kid who failed to notice that the spell-check on his application essay changed “tutor children” to “torture children”—told by two different admissions officers at two different colleges.) “There are,” Ferguson writes, quoting his composite tour guide:

More than 500-250-475 student clubs and organizations on campus. At least one of these is eccentric, ironic, or tongue-in-cheek: the Disciples of Bob Barker, an Iggy Stooge Marching and Chowder Society, or the Montgomery Burns Fan Club. We have twelve, seventeen, or thirteen a cappella groups, more than at any other school. But if you can’t find a group that’s right for you, write up a proposal, bring it to Student Services, and you can get it funded within a week.

Which of course raises the question: If these colleges are all essentially the same (at least within the nonacademic realm, which is all the tours really talk about), then why spend an entire year fretting about not getting in to this one or that one?

Much of the pleasure in reading Crazy U lies in watching Ferguson’s son Gillum play the indifferent Sancho Panza to Andy’s ever-more anxiety-ridden Don Quixote. “What’s wrong with lifeguarding?” Gillum asks when Andy proposes his son take up some résumé-buffing volunteer work instead. When Gillum’s high school guidance counselor asks him, at a meeting with his parents, what type of college he’d like to go to, Gillum says, “I want to go to a place where I can go to a football game, take off my shirt, paint my chest and major in beer.” (He’s kidding. Sort of.) When father and son attend a presentation in a hotel ballroom for Gillum’s first-choice school, the University of Virginia, Gillum falls asleep. Andy pokes him a couple of times, and Gillum says “What?” so loudly that the dean hears. Andy suddenly imagines the dean “as one of the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, fingering the last human on the planet with a goggle-eyed look of horror.” But at the book’s end, we learn that despite Gillum’s lassitude (surely exaggerated by Ferguson for comic effect), he managed to get into UVA. Which suggests most of this worrying wasn’t really necessary.

Ferguson is especially good on the most legitimately worrying aspect of sending a child to college. That isn’t whether he’ll get in (there is, in fact, an oversupply of excellent colleges in this country, and it’s almost impossible not to get in somewhere), but how to pay for it when he does. To apply for any kind of aid, public or private, you have to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, universally known as FAFSA. This is a long form filled out mostly by consulting your federal tax return, which wouldn’t be so bad if the FAFSA were due, say, on June 1. But colleges typically want the FAFSA by … Ferguson says March 1, but most of my son’s were due in February. Which means you have to do your taxes, or at least dummy them up, well before you’ve received most of the necessary documents by mail. (In the end, the Ferguson family was found ineligible for most tuition aid, but because they lived in Virginia they were able to pay less than half what they’d have paid to send Gillum to most comparable private colleges—though more, by my guess, than what they’d have paid to send Gillum to Harvard, where he didn’t apply.)

There is, Ferguson is told, $143 billion in financial aid available to help students and their families pay tuition. Maybe this is good news, Ferguson writes. “But isn’t it bad news that we need the $143 billion in the first place?” Ferguson poses this excellent question to Richard Vedder, an economist at Ohio University “who’s studied college tuition so long, so thoroughly, and so honestly that colleges administrators can’t stand him.” Vedder tells him that from 1900 to 1975 average college tuition increased 2 to 3 percent per year, after inflation. Then, “like a dirigible unloosed from its mooring,” the average tuition hike “angled sharply skyward.” Increases are now typically 5 to 6 percent per year after inflation. In 2003 average tuition rose 14 percent. Why is this happening?

“You want my short answer?” Vedder says. “This is my simple, one-sentence answer to why colleges keep raising their tuition: Because they can!” At this Vedder lets out a high-pitched laugh. “I mean, who’s going to stop them? Parents? The government? There’s nothing stopping them—literally nothing.” Vedder’s longer answer is that the schools’ governance systems are so decentralized that the schools’ presidents can manage things only by buying each powerful constituency off—the alumni with a good football team, the faculty with good salaries and a light course load, the students with excellent food and swank facilities. “All this costs huge amounts of money,” Vedder says. “No wonder universities are expensive!”

Over the next 10 days my son will hear from four colleges. He’s already accepted at two; both of them excellent, though there are still financial packages to examine and the more existential question about which school would be best for him. I tell him that this is the least significant major decision he’ll ever make in his life—that it’s nothing compared to choosing a wife, a trade, or a place to raise children. He is a superb student, mature beyond his years, kind to others and happy with who he is. So why can’t I shake the feeling that his fate hangs in the balance?

Maybe because higher education isn’t really what fuels college-application anxiety in the first place. Mostly it’s a proxy for worrying about letting go. In Ferguson’s final chapter, he describes his “sadness, grief almost,” at dropping Gillum off at UVA. Stopping at a gas station on the way out of town, he thinks about the part of his life that has just ended. “We did it,” his wife reassures him. “We raised him to be a strong, kind, happy, self-confident young man, and we succeeded. It’s what we were supposed to do.” She is, of course, right, and he knows it. Ferguson gets in the car, starts up the engine, and pulls away. Then he hears the sound of ripped sheet metal, because he’s left the nozzle in the tank. That final detail alone is worth a crate of self-help books.