The Crazy College Admissions Process

CrazyU“I can tell you the kind of school I’d really like,” my son told the college counselor, with an air of finality. “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.”

So writes Andrew Ferguson in Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College.

I have long thought that the college admissions process is  one big rat race, rife with disingenuous behavior from students, parents and admissions offices.

Upon finishing Crazy U, one of the best-written and most enjoyable books I’ve read in a long while, I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or both at the absurdity of it all.

“That’s the experience from the parent’s point of view, too,” Ferguson says. “There’s way too many tears shed in this, so I wanted to remind people that when they say they don’t know whether to laugh or cry, they ought to do more laughing than crying, because you’re often prodded to do both in the whole process.”

I tell Ferguson that I’m aghast by the lack of transparency in the college admissions process, and that it seems the colleges take some degree of pleasure in the undue suffering they cause parents and students. Each year when admission offers arrive, I don’t understand why some students are rejected and others accepted.

Ferguson is kinder and far less cynical:

At least on the basis of the evidence before me, I wouldn’t quickly impute bad motives to the people in the business. Like everyone else in the process, they’re torn, too. On the one hand, a lot of them have gotten into this for idealistic purposes because they believe in higher education. On the other hand, they are in a business. They’re in a highly competitive industry that (a) refuses to admit it’s an industry, and (b) pretends that’s it’s not competitive. They’re caught in a double-bind. There’s really no way to get around the demands that their jobs make of them without violating idealistic notions of what higher education should be. It’s a very difficult position that everybody finds themselves in in this awful, impossible system we’ve created.

I’m equally unsettled by what Ferguson calls “The Platinum Package,” private college admissions counselorss that charge upward of $40,000.

For families that can afford this service, I understand the allure. The American School Counselor Association recommends a 250-1 ratio of students to school counselors. But data from the 2009-2010 school year shows that the national average is 459, with Utah, Minnesota, California and Arizona above the 700-mark.

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Regardless, I’m unnerved about charging such gargantuan fees to help students succeed. In Crazy U, Ferguson writes about a visit to Dr. Katherine Cohen, founder and CEO of IvyWise, an extremely successful and lucrative college admissions company. I tell Ferguson that I feel that Cohen, and others like her, profit by selling fear and intimidation, and I ask whether I’m justified in feeling this way:

You can look at it two ways, either as an “oh wow!” moment or as a “we ought to throw these guys in jail” moment. There are different attitudes you can take to it. I don’t think Katherine Cohen is in bad motive. She’s in business. She wants to help the people who hire her. She’s not lying, necessarily. She’s not misrepresenting herself, I don’t think.”

Speaking of “misrepresenting,” as a high school teacher, I often overhear parents speaking about where their child applied, how well she scored on the SAT, and how good a chance she has of getting into her top-choice school. I’m understanding of the need to chit-chat and vent, but at times, I feel that some parents just want to put somebody else down to make themselves feel better. Once again, I turn to Ferguson:

This is another one of the ironies of the process. On the one hand, one of the things that’s operating here is something quite wonderful, which is a parent’s love for his or her child and the desire to see the child get ahead in the world and to live a happy and fulfilling life. On the other hand, to do that, you have to enter into an extremely competitive situation that draws out the worst in you. Again, the college process is operating on these two cylinders at different times. It’s drawing on the love that parents have for their children, but it’s also inciting in them a one‑upsmanship that really isn’t terribly appealing or the kind of thing that we want to encourage necessarily in people. You’ve got this dual operation going on. Parents will do anything for their kids. You certainly see it when you’re watching the process unfold.

From my take on Crazy U, it seems that the college admissions process can bring out the worst in people, including college administrators, fighting for better rankings in US News & World Report.

To be fair, Ferguson tells me that before this annual rankings issue, it was extremely difficult to compare a number of factors, including the admission rate, yield rate, and the average SAT score and GPAs of applicants.

“Now this information is readily available to everybody, as it should be because, again, transparency should be a virtue in this process,” Ferguson says. “We have US News to thank for that.”

But as Ferguson points out in Crazy U, US News is at the mercy of higher education institutions submitting accurate statistics. I’m not surprised when I do some research and come across a number of recent scandals, including one involving George Washington University.

“The private Washington, D.C., university recently announced that its admission office had inflated the class rank statisticsof its freshmen for more than a decade,” CBS MoneyWatch’s Lynn O’Shaughnessy reported in November. “GWU had reported that 78 percent of its latest freshmen were in the top 10 percent of their high school classes. The actual figure, however, was 58 percent.”

I ask Ferguson what he thinks about these developments:

It was clear that the various scandals that had come to light by the time my book was published were just the tip of iceberg. There was going to be much more of this. Again, it’s because of the competitive nature of it that people don’t want to acknowledge that this a huge, multi‑billion dollar industry. People’s reputations and careers are at stake. People are competing for a certain kind of commodity, which is what the applicants are.Just as in the world of business, there will be people who will cut corners and who will cheat. In fact, this is the world of business. They don’t like to acknowledge it, but it is business. We shouldn’t be too surprised when people behave like businessmen.

Before we part ways, I ask Ferguson to provide parents about to go through the college admissions process with one piece of advice.

“I always say there is nothing more irritating to a person who is uptight and nervous than to tell them to just calm down,” he says. “That’s infuriating when people do that, but it is the case. People should relax.”

Andrew Ferguson also serves a senor editor of the Weekly Standard.

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As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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