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Lights, Camera, Crazy!

Friday, April 20, 2012

We have much to fear from our dysfunctional regime of higher education.

If  today’s university administrators are just a little bit crazy, as The Weekly Standard senior editor Andrew Ferguson surmises in Crazy U, his splendid survey of the college admissions process (and racket), they’re crazy like a fox.

After all, despite college tuition rates that are spiraling even higher than the egos of the professors who draw salaries from them, demand for spots in American universities continues to increase year over year.

“I graduated from a small liberal arts college in 1978,” Ferguson writes in his key chapter on college costs. “My annual tuition bill was $5,100. If my school’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.”

Put differently, according to Richard Vedder, an Ohio University economist and the foremost national expert on college tuition, the fees at his alma mater, Northwestern University, consumed 15 percent of the annual median family income in 1958. By 2003, tuition at Northwestern chewed up a gaudy 53 percent of median family income. Other schools exhibit similar explosions.

By 2003, tuition at Northwestern chewed up a gaudy 53 percent of median family income. Other schools exhibit similar explosions.

Much of this obscene acceleration in prices can be laid at the feet of the federal government, which, in a vicious cycle, subsidizes loans, makes direct grants, and offers loan forgiveness, all of which in turn spur higher education institutions to hike tuition further, which in turn necessitates further government aid.

“It’s the same problem that afflicts health care,” Ferguson posits. “A large portion of the people consuming the services aren’t paying for the services out of their own pocket. The costs are picked up by third parties.” One massive, 10-year study Ferguson quotes found that “each increase in Pell aid is matched nearly one for one by tuition increases” among private schools.

To be fair, Ferguson notes that not every student attends a high-priced, selective school. Counting community college, Ferguson reckons that “more than 50 percent of us spend less than $10,000 a year on college.” Still, among top institutions, the tuition craze has taken on the unmistakable characteristics of a commodity bubble—the author likens it to the “tulip craze” of 1630’s Amsterdam—but one that doesn’t seem inclined to burst anytime soon.

This and other topics receive a fair and complete treatment in Ferguson’s beautifully crafted book, which blends broader cultural, political, and economic insights into higher education trends with a deeply personal, and surprisingly moving, account of Ferguson’s and his son’s own experience visiting, applying to, and ultimately enrolling in college. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the movie rights to Crazy U have reportedly been picked up by New Line Cinema, which is rumored to be featuring Will Ferrell in Ferguson's role.

Ferguson begins his examination with the college counseling process, which at the high end can run $40,000 for affluent families. He interviews one super-counselor, Katherine Cohen, who helps him understand that even the most promising applicants have their faults. “In the seemingly flawless credentials of these SuperKids, [Cohen] picked up one disqualifying imperfection after another, speaking of them as though they wiggled at the tip of a forceps.” Needless to say, Cohen’s analysis didn’t exactly leave Ferguson brimming with confidence over his own son's prospects.

One massive, 10-year study Ferguson quotes found that ‘each increase in Pell aid is matched nearly one for one by tuition increases’ among private schools.

The author also devotes extensive coverage to the issue of rankings, and in particular, to Bob Morse, the majordomo of U.S. News’s irreplaceable scoring of our nation’s colleges, which administrators unapologetically refer to as “the axis of evil.” Ferguson concludes that while colleges have tried—sometimes, with success—to “climb the page” of the U.S. News rankings by gaming the system, the magazine deserves credit for “cracking … the dam that restricted access to large amounts of information” and for empowering “all of us [to] be our own admissions counselors.”

The SAT also comes in for a rigorous scrubbing, with Ferguson debunking the myths of racism and classism perennially hurled at the test, which has been variously described, the author finds, as “a tool of understanding, a cynical hoax, a triumph of social science, [and] a jackboot on the neck of the disadvantaged.”

If anything, the Educational Testing Service, which writes the exam, and the College Board, which administers it, have bent over backwards to avoid ruffling any feathers. The SAT’s name itself has evolved in ridiculous fashion, from “Scholastic Aptitude Test” (too provincial) to “Scholastic Assessment Test” (a tautology) to just plain SAT, not standing for anything.

To get the full flavor of the test, Ferguson took it himself, earning nothing but scorn from his son for efforts at including “juxtaposition” and “complexity” in his essay (a part of the test since 2005). Ferguson’s offspring derides his efforts, saying, “I’m sure that’s okay for a magazine or a book … But this is the SAT. You can’t get away with that stuff on the SAT.”

Additionally, Ferguson spends time scaling the mountain of brochures, “viewbooks,” websites, and other materials looming over applicants and their parents, along the way commiserating with others going through the process in whispered kitchen conversations and in online forums, like the comprehensive “College Confidential” community.

He traverses the desert of the admissions essay, replete with oases of online “essay development” services that all but write the essay for you (some of them actually do).

And he swims in the inscrutable ocean of the admissions office, including the new prevalence of “likely letters,” which are designed to make applicants feel “fairly confident” or “reasonably sure” that they “might,” soon, one day, get an actual letter of acceptance.

The SAT also comes in for a rigorous scrubbing, with Ferguson debunking the myths of racism and classism perennially hurled at the test.

Into his trenchant critique of the higher-education tapestry, Ferguson skillfully weaves his son’s own threads, managing to draw the reader to the edge of his seat as the author slowly, painfully reveals whether his boy gains entry to “Big State University” or has to settle for a “safety school.” The family dynamics are as amusing, tense, and delicate as those on display in any American household, a reality that lends a certain groundedness to an otherwise high-flying analysis.

Ultimately, Ferguson resigns himself to the possibility that his son’s “college years might be as reckless, wasteful, and thrilling as mine.” On the micro level, this may be an apt, and even charming, description of the college experience, one that the author ably chronicles with dry wit and evident emotion, however subdued. But it applies on the macro level too, and as Ferguson persuasively demonstrates, we have much to fear from our dysfunctional regime of higher education.

Michael M. Rosen, a contributor to THE AMERICAN, is an attorney and writer in San Diego.

FURTHER READING: Rosen also writes “Pity the Progressive,” “Labor’s Under-the-Radar Power Grab,” and “Software Patents: Reform, Not Repeal.” Frederick M. Hess contributes “Tax Deductions Have a Purpose,” “Obama's College Confusion,” and “The Future of Pell Grants.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt / Bergman Group

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