The College Derby
Andrew Ferguson's delightful plea for sanity about college admissions.
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.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.