Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College by Andrew Ferguson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A good friend went off to college last fall and signed up for a major in Great Books with a minor in history. She started reading Plato and Euripides and studying early US history. Hmm, I thought, maybe the alarms about grade inflation, binge drinking on campus, extremely high college tuitions, lack of rigor in the curriculum, and other reports of how higher education is in trouble are being overstated.
So I poked around and found some books that purported to take the pulse of tertiary education in the US. There were none assuring us that our colleges and universities are in good health, that our students are becoming versed in the liberal arts, coming to appreciate the treasures that are Western Civilization and the American form of government, gaining insights into the cultures of Asia and Africa, while preparing themselves to take their places in the world of work. I did find a couple that lament the threat to our universities from the right – a threat to impose on students out-of-date ideas of what college students should learn, usually a core curriculum from about 1960 emphasizing works by men. (More on this below.)
But most of the books range from dusty research to apocalyptic alarms, all showing that SAT scores have been in precipitous fall since 1960, that students are routinely taking five years to graduate, that tuition has increased since 1970 at three (or six or nine) times the rate of inflation, and that out of control drug and alcohol use and sexual promiscuity are routine even on our nations more elite campuses. Not a pretty picture.
Crazy U is by far the best of these books. In the process of helping his son maneuver the maze that college admissions has become, the author has interviewed people at schools ranging from small state colleges who let in people with a total SAT score in three digits to the exclusive schools where a perfect 2400 is the baseline and the student must prove himself worthy with advanced high school classes, excellent grades (valedictorian if possible), and many extra-curricular activities showing skill and talent in the arts and a sensitivity and dedication to the needs of the community.
The competition is stiff. Thirty percent of the typical Harvard class is composed of legacies (parents and grandparents went to Harvard) and people whose parents are so rich it’s worth a shot admitting the kid in hopes of donations in the future. Also getting a free ride are athletic stars, famous people (Jodi Foster, Brooke Shields – easy in), and the children of politicians. The admissions office has to “sculpt” the class to make sure there are enough (but not too many) foreign students, out-of-state students, working class kids, and minorities. Then there’s the problem of women and Asian students. Can’t have too many of either of these categories and both are notorious for getting above average SAT scores and grades. Some schools are reduced to a sort of affirmative action for white males. When all the other categories are taken care of the “normal” student is left competing for about 30% of the incoming class slots.
The Five-Year Party addresses the appalling fact that even with skyrocketing tuition costs (our local state university tuition is going up 16% this year) more and more students are staying in college for a fifth year. And while they are at Podunk State Teacher’s College they are much more likely to be taking classes (it’s up to them) in Film Noir or Queer Theory than economics and physics. Most students now major in “soft” subjects like English literature, sociology, and education. (Back in the 60s I did a double major at a state teacher’s college, English and education, and believe me it was far from soft then.) Very little work is expected outside of class and class itself is required to be entertaining. Even the smartest and most motivated of students expect to be amused. And since students now rate the faculty the wise teacher toes the mark lest he be denied tenure. Needless to say no one flunks out any more.
And then there’s the partying. Drunken revels take place every weekend at most schools. The underage drinking and associated minor assault and property damage are taken care of on campus. No need to worry about a police record because after all these are just kids having a little fun. Of course any behavior that can be interpreted by even a shrinking violet as “sexual harassment” is prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But if your roommate brings a boy back to your room to stay the night, hey, relax, what do you expect when so many young people are on a campus together. I suspect the author of The Five-Year Party exaggerated a bit, but the basics are correct. If a student wants to goof off for four or five years and if his parents don’t force him or her to tell all and toe the line, this scenario is entirely possible. The school will tell the parents (who are forking out the $80,000 or more to pay for all this) nothing. Students are entitled to their privacy.
Some students, like my friend, are serious, work hard, search out the demanding professors, and comport themselves like the adults they are fast becoming. But the students are surrounded by an ambience of fun-fun-fun rather than scholarship and love of learning. Colleges and universities are all about marketing these days, climbing the page on the US News and World Report college rankings, offering more hot tubs, taller climbing walls, more plush accommodation in the dorms, more specialized foods at every hour of the day and night, and whatever else entices young people to choose one school over another.
The cost? How can tuition have gone up nearly 1,000% at some schools in the last 50 years? Well, somebody has to pay for all those amenities, and the number of administrators has increased by a factor of 10. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough money to raise faculty salaries significantly. In fact, most schools now use graduate students to do much of the undergraduate teaching, along with adjunct faculty who are paid starvation wages. And as long as we all believe everybody has to have a college degree (though not necessarily a college education) the colleges can keep raising their prices and the parents have to pay. Any school that tried to compete by cutting costs – less fancy dormitories and amenities, fewer classrooms, larger classes, less spectacular libraries, and on-line classes – well, good luck getting accredited. It’s the faculty and administration from those expensive schools who create the standards for accreditation and do the on-campus inspections and they aren’t going to let that camel’s nose under their cloth-of-gold tent.
There are some folks who, looking at all this and watching it get increasingly out of hand, predict that this bubble is going to burst. If enough parents refuse to go along with this game – and it has become a game – and begin sending their children to community colleges and for-profit schools, or find apprenticeships for them, or skip college altogether, if colleges can no longer entice students to come to their campus and parents to pay outrageous amounts of money for who knows what – measures of outcome of a college education are not released by the schools if they even attempt to discover them – then schools will be unable to find enough students and will begin going out of business. (Don’t hold your breath.)
As for that threat from the right that is menacing our nation’s institutions of higher learning. One of the things those authors are talking about is the campaign by David Horowitz for what he calls an academic bill of rights, or academic freedom for students. He points out that many schools have a statement of academic freedom for faculty – nobody can tell them what to teach or how to interpret what they choose to present to their students. But students have no such guarantees.
Horowitz was one of the radicals back in the 60s. As time went by he changed his mind about that rebellious time and became increasingly conservative. He now looks around him and sees the flower children, the people who took over the “People’s Park,” former Black Panthers, people like Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn teaching at colleges and universities and preaching the same things they were preaching then, sometimes to the exclusion of other points of view. Horowitz thinks students should be protected from proselytizing by professors on the far left and from being ridiculed or shamed for asking questions and interpreting events from the point of view of the right. Polls have repeatedly shown college faculties vote Democratic by margins of 8 or 9 to 1. Some of those people are ideologues and Horowitz has dug up enough cases of discrimination against conservative students or classes in which no mention is made of any opposing viewpoints that he has come to believe that students need a written and enforceable bill of rights assuring them a balanced education. His campaign as described in Reforming Our Universities is not getting anywhere except to alarm some of the more excitable faculty on the left. His is not a particularly interesting or entertaining book.
2011 Nos 82, 83, and 84
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