Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

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Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College

Crazy U:  One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College

 Chris Tokuhama

Bibliography

Ferguson, A. (2011). Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Author

Andrew Ferguson, currently a senior editor at Weekly Standard, is a political journalist who has written for publications such as Time, The LA Times, The New Yorker, and The Washington Post. Ferguson was also a speechwriter for George H. W. Bush.

Summary

Written by a reporter from the perspective of a parent, Crazy U manages to combine some of the elements of both approaches into a readable book that follows a year in the college admission process. Although Andrew Ferguson’s book manages to avoid many of the pitfalls of the parent memoir, the work does not seem as thorough as other journalistic enterprises, although it benefits from a mind that is trained to ask contextual questions. Although nods to the larger landscape of Higher Education are mentioned in sections, Ferguson’s retains a focus on selective college admission. Strongest in areas where external information is readily available (e.g., the SAT), Ferguson’s book is also weakest in explaining the workings of the admission process (e.g., application review and discussing meaningful differences in evaluation between private and public institutions).

Notes

Introduction – Ferguson takes pains to note that the situation described in his book is, in some ways, atypical as the vast majority of students are able to be accepted to college and attend for a cost that is not exorbitant. American students, Ferguson notes, already have advantages with regard to education when compared to their peers around the world and that the popular imagination is concerned with “high-class problems” (3). This contextualization of the process for an individual student is helpful to maintain perspective. Ferguson evidences a humor twined with an understanding of a broader picture (e.g., with respect to history or to global higher education) that seems both palatable and educational. Additionally, Ferguson describes his own college experience not only in terms of academic experience but also social and life experiences, which suggests that his approach to the subject of college admission and college attendance might differ from the typical “fear-based” tactics designed to capitalize on anxiety

Perhaps the most significant contribution here is Ferguson’s provocation that, despite the attention and money lavished on it, we don’t really know what we expect out of Higher Education.[1] Ferguson notes that Americans tend to focus on things (9), which seems astute although “tangible outcomes” (i.e., job, graduate school, etc.) might seem like a better term.

Chapter 1In discussing Katherine Cohen, Ferguson touches upon an important point with regard to the industry that has developed around college-going:  to what extent do entities incite anxiety in order to profit from offering a solution?“That’s what Kat[erine] was selling:  the kind of expertise that could only come from a professional who had helped make the process mysterious in the first place” (16). Discussion of this is of course related to a larger set of cultural practices (e.g., television news and advertising in general) that manufacture anxiety in order to peddle “solutions” but we must also consider how college-going can represent a high-stakes one-time transaction and, as such, present a temptation to maximize profit at the expense of relationships.[2]

Although he does not go into depth, Ferguson does take readers through a miniature case study (18-22), which, via Kat, gives readers some insight into the criteria used to evaluate an application in a holistic review process. In response to this, Ferguson notes, “It guaranteed that teenagers would pursue life with a single ulterior motive, while pretending thy weren’t” (23) and his statement is important to keep in mind as we consider the ways in which “authenticity” is perceived, manifested, and valued in the college admission process. The intertwining of a malleable teenage identity, expectations set by college admission, and branding—“So the first great task consuming our children as they step into the wider world is an act of marketing, with themselves as a product” (23)—is an important issue to wrestle with as we think return to the question of what we want Higher Education to do.[3]

Continuing to show that he has some sort of perspective on the process, Ferguson also observes that college admission can become less about students and more about parents’ egos, writing “children quite often served as proxies for status and parental self-worth” (26-27).

Chapter 2 – Ferguson includes a brief history of the development of American Higher Education (33-35), which is important as it allows readers to understand how the democratic promise of education in America became ingrained in our collective psyche:  citing milestones such as 1862’s Morrill Act, which established land-grant colleges, and 1944’s G.I. Bill, which caused a resurgence in college attendance after World War II, Ferguson underscores how social mobility became linked to higher education in the popular imagination. Ferguson goes on to suggest that one consequence of the democratization of higher education was an effort to reestablish social stratification via a hierarchy based on brand name, which in turn created a sense of anxiety about which college a student would attend as opposed to if a student would attend.[4]

Harkening back to the American focus on tangible results, Ferguson notes that the development of the U.S. News & World Report rankings in 1983 reflected a cultural shift in an emphasis on credentials over learning (38). Linking the development of the rankings to an earlier “Most Influential Americans,” Ferguson highlights the role of perception and reputation in a metric that would otherwise purport to be objective (41).[5] The existence of the rankings facilitated—but did not create!—the transformation of education into a commodity serving as a de facto Consumer Reports for higher education. Ferguson suggests, however, that U.S. News & World Report isn’t solely to blame for focusing the public’s attention on particular metrics as institutions could do more to share information about student outcomes as collected through things like the National Survey of Student Engagement. More important, however, is the parallel between the ranking system’s effect on colleges/universities and the college application’s effect on students with regard to the way in which the affected parties pattern their behavior after what is perceived to be of value (49-53).[6] Finally, although one can conceptualize the rankings as an agent of commercialization, one cannot ignore that the rankings also hold value as they represent one of the ways that outsiders can begin to make sense of the college admission process.

Ultimately, the larger issue that the mention of U.S. News & World Report raises is the role of commerce and commercialism in education, which is traditionally seen as a space that is removed from outside influence.[7] American institutions of higher education are of course influenced by corporations and donors in ways that range from athletic teams, named buildings, and endowed chairs but the perception is that higher education continues to exist in some kind of bubble.

Chapter 3 – Throughout this chapter, Ferguson continually touches upon the theme of information management. In discussing the titles of various books related to college admission, Ferguson introduces the important notion of the rhetoric used to promote or sell college admission; parsing out self-help elements and inevitably invoking insider/outsider dichotomies, Ferguson also notes that the guides are directives that aim to remove uncertainty or contradiction (59-60). College guides in particular seem subject to use of the term “insider” (61) and  Ferguson also notes that the popular college books like Fiske Guide rely on faulty methodology[8] based on potentially small sample sizes and prone to investigator influence (60, 63). Of particular importance here is the way that guides package and present information to an audience who might not be equipped to make sense out of the data themselves. Noting that “discrepancies usually arose only on matters of objective importance” (62), Ferguson suggests that the books’ almost universally similar tone resulted from their desire to function as reassurance or validation (63). What these books recognize, and cater to, is the perspective that an individual parent/student has on this process as little effort is made to encourage critical reflection on how an individual institution can be compared against others and if any one particular way of doing so is the “best” way. Reassurance, then, seems like the antithesis to individuals being challenged in a way that may ultimately be beneficial for them, if stressful.[9]

In a similar vein, a discussion of College Confidentialshowcases the way in which a desire for “on-demand” information undercut by a lack of critical thinking skills[10] can produce less-than-helpful results for users. Perhaps unkindly, if not untruthfully, Ferguson describes College Confidential as follows:

What it is, is a Web site where people from all walks of life, from every income level and background, create a communal space without fear of reprisal and in a spirit of perfect openness, so they can spread misinformation, gossip, and lunatic conjecture to people who are as desperate as themselves. (66)

Ferguson cuts to the heart of the matter, suggesting that many of the threads on College Confidential are really inquiring about how a student can get into college and the tragedy is that the vast majority of the responses are informed by nothing more than anecdotal experience (66).

Chapter 4– Although not explicitly stated, Ferguson connects the simplistic/direct thinking of College Confidential with a larger practice in the space of college admission:  the kind of thinking that students must demonstrate in order to succeed on the SAT is not about embracing subtlety or complexity—counter to how things often are in the “real” world—but rather one of conviction and single answers. But perhaps Ferguson’s real contribution is his identification of the SAT as “a flash point where questions of class and culture, wealth and politics, race and gender, the purpose of higher education and even our varying definitions of merit rub against one another” (77). As example, Ferguson includes statements by Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, that point to the SAT’s early history and the ways in which the test was used in order to maintain structural inequality (79-80).[11] Ferguson helpfully goes beyond this and broadens the scope via mention of Christopher Jencks and David Riesman’s The Academic Revolution (1968) in order to suggest that the test may also reflect structural inequality in American life (81-82). One must then question whether the test is revealing inequality, creating inequality, or both. In recounting a brief history of the SAT(82-88), Ferguson notes that the “holistic” method employed by many selective schools today has roots in discriminatory practices that arose in response to unintended consequences of standardized achievement testing in the 1930s (83). Later, this position would be challenged by James B. Conant as he assumed the presidency of Harvard and championed the ideal of meritocracy. In effect Conant shifted the focus from achievement—which reflected existing inequality based on opportunity—to aptitude in the form of the SAT; here Conant wanted to focus on the ability to learn rather than mastery of material itself.

Ferguson also raises the question of how accurately the SAT measures anything meaningful, while also hinting that a more careful consideration of the interplay between testing and curriculum must occur (92). Reports from the College Board have indicated that SAT scores are correlated with freshman year grades but also that high school GPA alone is a better predictor than pure SAT scores. Ferguson also suggests that the SAT, like all contemporary measures of merit, reflect income inequalities (94, 99-100). In response to criticism, the focus of testing has again shifted in an attempt to capture “noncognitive skills” (95) and non-traditional intelligences.[12]

Finally, the mention of standardized testing’s role in the college admission process underscores that making sense out of large amounts of data is not a problem unique to applicants and their families—the origins of the standardized test were in a system designed to sort and classify a large number of applicants and the question then becomes how those criteria reflect the values of entities that make the test and use the test. In a parting anecdote Ferguson also demonstrates the power of the test for, despite his criticisms, Ferguson refuses to disclose his score on the Math subsection!

Chapter 5 – A major theme of this chapter is the rhetoric that surrounds college admission, from the way in which parental anxiety manifests in the college admission process to college slogans—currently more concerned, it seems, with a student’s journey and the abstract notion of success than any particular ideals—and viewbooks that tap into a structure of affect as opposed to facts. The invocation of feeling harkens back to Chapter 1’s themes of presentation/reputation and marketing.

Although the public might be resistant to conceptualize Education as a consumer good (at least initially), we can use the discussion of branding to consider how institutions must endeavor to distinguish themselves when their “products” are ostensibly of similar quality. On some level, each school has an identity comprised of things like color, slogans, and mascots but the messaging for selective colleges seems quite similar (117). Furthermore, on the opposite end of the spectrum, one might argue that despite institutions’ expressed desire for diversity the challenges of the application process at selective schools tends to ensure that students share a core set of traits (124).

Chapter 6 – Largely concerned with the difficulties of conveying oneself to admission committees via an intermediary (i.e., the college application), this chapter tries to get at the question of what schools are really looking for and how they go about collecting this information on the application itself. Ferguson notes two things of interest here:  the first is question whether the nature of the application favors extroverts[13] and the second, more important observation, is that the identification and presentation of an “authentic” (as deemed by readers!) self is challenging for young writers.[14] Ferguson argues that this entreatment to “know thyself” gained popularity as Baby Boomers began to occupy positions of influence.[15] Later, Ferguson also suggests that the type of introspection required by college admission essays stands in direct contrast to the way in which white, middle-class culture in America structures the lives of teenagers (139).

Although Ferguson does not consider what admission offices want out of the personal essay, I suggest that the form’s popularity has something to do with the dominant ideology of “fit” and that while readers may not be actively reading an essay in order to determine fit, they are interested in feeling like they got to know the student a little bit better. Rightly or wrongly, this particular stance by readers might result from the way in which admission officers are often tasked with advocating for students in the admission process and memorable applicants can provide the foundation for a case to admit. Ferguson’s inclusion of the Georgetown University prompt (“write about a current world crisis and propose a solution”) begs the question of whether essay prompts can be focused on demonstrating critical thinking and subsequently gaining a sense of passion.

Chapter 7 – Ferguson mentions that college tuition began to rise faster than inflation beginning in the 1970s but does not provide a reason for this other than an observation that health care and education are the two perennial growth sectors in America. Although Ferguson makes a comparison between car salesmen and the tuition discounting practices of institutions, the analogy seems slightly off as it seems more likely that colleges and universities are looking at budgets across the class as opposed to a series of individual transactions. Nevertheless, the more pertinent issue that Ferguson raises is that colleges are not necessarily obligated to, or interested in, reducing student debt. Via a conversation with Richard Vedder, a professor of Economics, Ferguson also suggests that much of the additional money has come to be spent on institutional bloat (177). Finally, in discussing the value of a college degree, Ferguson suggests that a diploma has become used as an unofficial signifier in the hiring process with the abolishment of employment tests (179).

Chapter 8 – Although the justification Ferguson provides for the high turnover rate in college admission is a bit misleading, his mention of the age gap (i.e., “missing middle”) in the profession deserves further examination (182). If Ferguson is in fact correct about the age demographics of the profession—no data is provided—we might speculate that such a structure would have implications for the enactment of admission policy:  what does it mean, for example, to have a process that is overseen by committed individuals but who delegate the day-to-day to recent graduates who might not have a real interest in admission?

Also frustrating is Ferguson’s assertion that a form of reverse affirmative action is taking place (184-185) without providing data to support this claim. Although anyone following Higher Education can likely affirm the concerns over the shortage of males (generally, although there are exceptions in fields like Engineering) the charge that the white men receive an advantage remains unsubstantiated. Ferguson also relies on anecdotal data from an unnamed “ex-counselor” to describe enrollment targets (185) and this same ex-counselor mentions the importance of a hook, which should be related back to the purpose of the admission essay in Chapter 6.[16] It seems, for example, that one might produce a productive discussion by reading the concept of “fit” against the perception of having a “hook” and the crafting of a class.

Toward the end of the chapter, Ferguson seems to engage in a bit of the speculation that he decried in Chapter 3’s discussion of College Confidential as he retells the fate of a friend’s daughter (194). Also problematic is the way in which Ferguson equates a “safety school” with “undesirable” in a way that reinforces the prestige hierarchy (195). Ultimately, although Ferguson raises some interesting questions, it seems evident that his knowledge of the actual college admission process is the weakest element of the book.

Finally, Ferguson also includes a brief section on the ambiguity of “likely letters” and the additional stress that they can cause. For those in the industry, the language of the letter makes it exceedingly clear what it is (and what it implies) but Ferguson’s anecdote should be taken seriously as a warning about how official materials can be interpreted by their intended audience.

Chapter 9 – Recalling the discussion of the value of a college degree in Chapter 7, Ferguson asks readers to wrestle with the tension created by increasingly customizable majors—driven by student/customer demand!—and the ability to track what that major actually represents (210).

[1] This is actually a very pertinent question that has been discussed in publications like Times Higher Education, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and in multiple articles in The New York Times, including a series titled “What Is College For?

[2] Ferguson later expands upon this duality, noting in Chapter 2 how university/college administrators will often engage in practices that they claim to be harmful (e.g., rankings, reliance on standardized testing, pricing out the competition, etc.) as a result of being locked in a sort of arms race for students and the tuition that they represent (38).

[3] The potential far-reaching effects of this are suggested later in Chapter 2 as Ferguson writes “And childhood now was a matter of setting life goals and arranging your activities in pursuit of them” (30).

[4] I think we must complicate this picture a bit by thinking about how the established American universities also served as the basis for the development of social networks that would intersect with social mobility and class. The aspiration, then, to attend a top tier school might have existed prior but the motivation for such an endeavor may have changed as a result of the democratization that Ferguson describes.

[5] The rankings have been criticized as a sort of “popularity contest” as 22.5% of the ranking comes from a school’s reputation among its peers. See also the Institute for Higher Education Policy’s “College and University Ranking Systems” for additional information. For its part, U.S. News & World Report argues that reputation has value (46).

[6] See also page 44.

[7] The exception to this, as Ferguson notes in Chapter 7, is in matters of financial aid.

[8] Thinking about this in conjunction with the controversy surrounding U.S. News & World Report, one might ask a deeper question about the “correct” way to go about quantifying the college experience. Given the current discussions in Higher Education, it seems as though the American public has yet to come to a consensus.

[9] The question then becomes how one goes about working to infuse “good information” into the public’s consciousness and, more importantly, how to encourage a culture in which college admission becomes talked about in a rational manner.

[10] For example, in message boards like College Confidential readers must invest an extra amount of work to try to think critically about who these posters are in a process that can include researching a poster’s history, looking at the frequency distribution of posts in order to detect possible paid posters, and the sometimes next-to-impossible step of determining a poster’s credibility on a particular topic. For similar discussion with respect to Amazon reviews, see an episode of Slate’s Culture Gabfest.

[11] For example, we can consider how the Educational Testing Service (under contract from the College Board) validates its test questions:  it assumes that high-scoring students should get a particular item correct, which means that the values and perspectives of these particular students become ingrained in the test in a tautological process. See also recent evidence that racial bias in SAT questions persists. See also page 89 for more information on developing questions.

[12] See Robert Sternberg’s “Rainbow Project” and Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences.

[13] Later Ferguson also mentions “narcissism” and “exhibitionism” (142).

[14] See also, “Some kinds of passion wouldn’t appeal to the admissions committees” (141).

[15] Although this claim is unsubstantiated in the text, one might be able to make a case that an increased focus on the inner life has certainly manifested in culture with the introspection of the hippies to New Age thinking in the 80s to a focus on feelings in the present.

[16] Although it is entirely possible that the percentages quoted by the anonymous source on page 185 are correct, there is no way to know whether this numbers are generalizable across institutions.

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