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Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College Hardcover – March 1, 2011
"Neverworld Wake" by Marisha Pessl
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From Publishers Weekly
Ferguson (Land of Lincoln), an editor at the Weekly Standard, chronicles his son's journey to getting accepted into college in this humorous memoir. Ferguson, an overwhelmed and underprepared parent, shows off his wit and research skills as he tries to make sense of a serpentine system that has him debating if he needs to hire his own ,000-a-year college admission counselor. From there, Ferguson discusses everything from what lengths schools will go to rate highly in the U.S. News & World Report college rankings guide to an outline of the "history of American higher education." In all this digging, Ferguson finds the many "claims for and against" the SATs, how the skyrocketing cost of college is creating its own education bubble, and that "two out of every three" freshman openings are filled before a "general" applicant even gets considered. Still, despite the funny moment like his disastrous retake of the SATs, it isn't till the book's final chapters, when the author starts to connect with his son, that it becomes apparent what they truly learned together on their quest for higher education. (Mar.)
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"A hilarious narrative and an incisive guide to the college admissions process...Ferguson's storytelling is irresistible."
--Steven Levingston, The Washington Post
"Hilarious....[Ferguson] shines a (very funny) light on the issues, and offers an important reminder that not every young American needs a $200,000 degree to live a good life." --Amy Scribner, Bookpage.com
A calm, amusing, low-key meditation on a subject that is anything but calm, amusing or low key. [P]arents will grip it ... as if it were a cold compress they might apply to their fevered foreheads. --Dwight Garner, The New York Times
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Mr. Ferguson has organized his book chronologically from the beginning realization that his family needed to start thinking about college admissions through his son's orientation into his own BSU. In addition, each chapter contains a detailed and relatively scholarly consideration of the underlying issues and structures of the associated component of the admissions process, so the book is really structured as an annotated discussion of college admissions as opposed to a simple story of, "and then we mailed the applications."
Chapter 1 focuses on Mr. Ferguson's efforts to come to grasp that getting into college, especially an elite institution, is more than just sending off a few applications. It is instead a detailed process of accumulating the right sorts of accolades in the right amount to present your student as "the right candidate." His discussion includes an entertaining account of his interactions with professionals who help draft the right application for a fee. He marvels at the existence and scope of this business, and arrives at the (correct) conclusion that the college application process for both the student and the university is fundamentally a market driven exercise focused on marketing. Only the right students get into certain school, and, for a fee, you can have a specialist help you (either directly or indirectly through a book) make your child "the right candidate." Of course, what makes on the right candidate seems to shift from expert to expert...
Chapter 2 discusses Mr. Ferguson's son's effort to select his list of potential colleges. It includes a consideration of how an applicant's experiences feed into their potential colleges, including the downside of being a lifeguard as a summer job. It also has a WONDERFUL discussion of U.S. News and World Report's influence on colleges through their rankings, and how this competition has fundamentally changed the college framework. Frankly, Mr. Ferguson's discussion is spot-on from my experience. Few colleges will admit it, but the trends and ramifications he discusses are exactly right.
Chapter 3 continues the story of the author's family seeking to evaluate the colleges in which his son was interested. In addition, it focuses on the structure of marketing in higher education, and the contradiction of colleges claiming they aren't big businesses attempting marketing campaigns when they clearly are. He also discusses the plethora of sources for advice available through books and the internet, all of which is contradictory on any given point. He humorously calls this the Principle of Constant Contradiction, which means that any bit of advice is certain to be contradicted, either within the same text or by other sources of advice.
Chapter 4 is my favorite chapter. It presents Mr. Ferguson's worry about, and study of, the SAT. He discusses its importance to his son's application and their hope that his son does well. It also discusses his own evaluation of a sample test he took from one of the study aids his son used. The author's prose is great, and the absurdity of the situation is compelling. The author also presents a wonderful discussion of the history, significance, and controversy surrounding the SAT's role in college admissions. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book!
Chapter 5 is a more detailed consideration of the way colleges market themselves and the process through which Mr. Ferguson's son evaluated the various "brands" he encountered. It recounts their visits to various colleges and information nights his family attended. Again, the humor and social commentary are excellent.
Chapter 6 focuses on the actual application process, especially writing the application essays. The author perfectly identifies the contradiction within the exercise. Applicants are asked to write about themselves, but in a way that makes them sound simultaneously victorious and victimized. The most compelling essays are those that focus on failures, embarrassments, social ostracization, and other moments of weakness that the typical family seeks to avoid. Applicants write about experiences (real or imagined), but twist them to portray themselves in whatever light they think the college admission office wants. What comes out is consequently not a true reflection of either the student or the experience. This is especially true when applicants can hire a service to write the essay for them.
Chapter 7 discusses the tribulations of applying for financial aid and why college is so doggone expensive. As Mr. Ferguson notes, tuition and other costs have risen much faster since 1970 than both the rate of inflation and the previous increases. I think there are a few additional factors that a complete, scholarly treatment should include, but I really, really liked Mr. Ferguson's discussion. I think that as a general discussion, it is right. I also agree that there is an "education" bubble that cannot last. Simply put, we are charging more for an increasingly inferior product that is increasingly less valuable. Fortunately my institution has not followed some of the foolish trends as many other institutions have...
Chapter 8 turns more towards the personal narrative, although it does continue the larger consideration of the college admissions system. The most interesting point is that the author begins to hope that affirmative action focused on white males might benefit his son, given that admissions administrators are actively seeking to keep the number of males and females somewhat balanced. Mr. Ferguson notes the irony that while he hopes it helps his son, he is concerned it will hurt his daughter...
Chapter 9 explores the joy and agony of the father taking his son to college orientation, where the boy leaves home both metaphorically and literally. It is humorous and poignant how Mr. Ferguson and his son seek to navigate their new relationship. On a broader context, Mr. Ferguson discusses the disconnect between the simultaneous treatment of his son as a man and a child by the University, as well as the trouble of getting meaningful classes in a curriculum that is no longer anchored to a rigorous framework that seeks to impart a core body of knowledge.
Ultimately, Mr. Ferguson's social commentary reflects the reality I experience everyday, a reality where some students want the certification (the college degree) as opposed to the knowledge that is the true product of a good university. In Chapter 2 he likens this attitude to wanting to go to a restaurant to get the menu to prove you were there, as opposed to going for the meal. He is right. Still, this misguided perspective is reflected on every college campus I have attended/taught at. Fortunately, I also have outstanding students who make it all worthwhile. I think that anyone who has been to college and wants to understand how it has changed, is planning on sending kids to college, or works in the college system will get a kick out of this book. It is well worth the time to read!
His obsession with making sure his son had every bit of available information led him to buy stacks of books about colleges, more books about the application process, and to then talk with experts or anyone else with a shred of useful information.
Of course, due to his obsession, he failed to see that his son was far less interested in this process than dad.
Ferguson 's son simply wanted to attend a nearby public university, and he proceeded to do so.
Ferguson shines a light on how obsessed parents can be exploited: the countless books of advice, the SAT review courses, the professional "College Essay" coaches. He describes how some colleges exploit the frenzy by mailing "Please apply... you are the sort of student we want" letters to thousands of high school students. Their goal is to increase the number of students they reject so they will appear more selective which raises their rank on the annual "Best Colleges" list.
Mr. Ferguson's son had the correct approach. Just focus on having a productive junior and senior year, apply to colleges that appeal to you that are within the family budget, and then relax.
There are about 200 colleges in America that turn away well qualified students. The other 3,000 colleges have plenty of room for anyone qualified to attend college and many fill half of their entering class with students whose primary qualification is their check did not bounce.
At the same time, Crazy U is an analytic survey of key aspects of contemporary university `life', business and economics. Ferguson has done his homework. In his discussions of several elements of the now-run-as-a-business university (the history of the SAT's, their uses and abuses; the USNews rankings, the academic admissions counseling industry; financial aid and the pomps and works of the FAFSA; ever-rising tuition and the helicopter parents hovering over the process) the analysis is spot-on. Ferguson is, in part, a humorist, but he is also a professional reporter and his discussions of key aspects of the ways of modern higher education in America are both acute and, in general, precise and on the mark. The statistical data is deployed with a light touch, but it is there and it is accurate.
So read the book as a personal account of a crazy process and, along the way, learn about modern (or sometimes postmodern) higher education in detail. This is a quick read but it is packed with information along with the smiles and tears.