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Book Review: Crazy U

Crazy U is Andrew Ferguson's year-long record of the trials and tribulations of getting his sometimes-intransigent son into college.  Though claiming itself as a memoir, the book really serves as an introduction to the wild world of higher education and specifically the admissions thereto.  As one could surmise from the titular adjective, Ferguson hardly composes a paean to this experience, instead choosing to cynically reflect on the madness of a system that has grown to unimaginable proportions.  In an almost-demonizing sidenote, Ferguson notes that higher education, along with only the healthcare industry, has sustained growth during this and other economically troubled times.  Ferguson spreads the criticism across a broad swatch of absurdly depicted groups: there are interviews with blaring critics of the SAT and "legacy admissions" (accepting children of alumni), but there are also ridicules of the multitudinous books purporting to help those afflicted through the admissions process.  The book tells the tale chronologically, following Mr. Ferguson-the-younger's senior year, and picking up topics as he encounters them.  Statistical studies, interviews, and the personal experiences of both Fergusons serve to introduce points or drive them home.

The most frequently quoted statistic in the book illustrates the veritable leviathan that admissions has become: three million students will apply to colleges this year, hundreds of thousands of whom will be going through the mind-and soul-grinding experience of applying to selective schools.  It is getting into those schools that preoccupies Ferguson, a self-appointed proxy for his son's anxiety, and this preoccupation leads to the expected cynicism when he discovers that those admissions are hardly a fairly judged process.  In one interview, a sardonic ex-admissions counselor scoffs at the suggestion that "fifteen minutes" are spent reading an applicant's materials: "fifteen seconds, he suggests, might be closer to the truth."  Admissions statistics lie, says another of Ferguson's endless supply of bled-dry insiders: while a selective school may take ten percent of applicants, probably seven out of those ten spots are going to athletes, legacy students, under-represented minorities, or high SAT scorers to balance out those other low-scoring groups.  In reality, Ferguson points out, a student like his son – not an athlete, minority, or legacy student – has a three percent chance of getting into such a school.

The school that the younger Ferguson indeed hopes for (by the book's end, after giving up on dreams for Georgetown, his reach school) is the unidentified Big State University (BSU, in the author's parlance).  It is unclear why Ferguson attempts to conceal the actual university, especially when even a cursory level of examination makes it obvious what university his son hopes for – and, to give away the ending, finally attends.

Ferguson's most acerbic comments are reserved for the lucrative industries that have sprung up to feed off the anxieties of both sides in the admissions process.  He cannot seem to decide which is worse: the carousel of branding experts, graphic designers, and marketing specialists that endlessly try to reinvent the uniqueness of over 2,000 institutions or the "independent admissions counselors," ranging from shady internet services that will compose personal statements for all comers willing to fill out a questionnaire and pay a hundred and fifty dollars to a swanky Manhattan firm that charges $40,000 (yes, you're reading that right) for the "platinum package" which all but guarantees your acceptance to the school of your choice.

Ultimately, though very entertaining and informing (did you know that the SAT was developed from a test that the U.S. Army administered after it drafted 2 million men to serve in World War I?), the book seems to lose itself or its own message.  If it is meant to comfort parents like Ferguson, it seems only to stoke their apprehensions further: college tuition per year is currently above fifty percent of a median family income, and if the rates continue as they have, by 2048 tuition even at second-tier universities will be double the median family income.  Parents will have to work two years for each year their child is in college. Three children currently in first grade and below, says one admissions expert, will cost their parents nearly a million dollars in higher education bills by the time they reach college, sobering stuff for a light-hearted book.  Oppositely, if the book is meant to educate readers about higher education admissions, the statistics and perspectives are (and Ferguson acknowledges this on several occasions) shockingly one-sided.  Worst of all, there never does seem to be a conclusion as to the relevance of the (in)famed U.S. News and World Report rankings: is there value to a seriously flawed system if everyone acknowledges the flaws and yet persists in using the rankings?  Maybe I'm reading too much into the book here, but it seems Ferguson is (and this might be sacrilege in America) asking the same question of value of higher education as a whole.

CRAZY U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College (By Andrew Ferguson, Simon & Schuster, March 2011. $25).