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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Crazy U, Andrew Ferguson

In Crazy U, Andrew Ferguson uses his personal story of guiding his son into college to examine the current situation for those heading to college in America. Mr. Ferguson is a very humorous writer, causing me to nearly laugh out loud at several points in the book. The photo of him on the inside back-flap of the dust jacket calls to mind Mark Twain (perhaps simply because of the hair and mustache).

Here Mr. Ferguson discusses the essay: "As we've seen, admissions people tend to be chipper folk, serotonin-soaked and caffeinated from birth, and they assume that every high school senior should be too. In the trade, essay questions are called 'prompts.' It is a revealing term of art. It suggests that the purpose of the question isn't really to draw out information, it's to offer a nudge--to perch the kids at the top of a verbal toboggan run and then give a little push, so they take off yapping and don't stop till they reach the five-hundredth word. Prompts work better for some kids than others; some kids, I mean, are promptable by nature, while some could be tied to the mast and lashed with prompts till the welts rise and yet not give up a syllable."

Here he summarizes Professor Richard Vedder's explanation of why college costs have risen dramatically: "Why are there no incentives to cut costs?...a large portion of the people consuming the services aren't paying for the services out of their own pocket. The costs are picked up by third parties...In the case of higher ed it's the government again, plus subsidized loans and scholarships that pass though the schools themselves. The self-regulating system of supply and demand breaks down...Normally, an increase in price reduces demand, which in turn moderates prices. In higher ed, that doesn't happen. When the prices rise, subsidies increase. With more Pell grants available for low-income students, more scholarships and cheap loans given to the better-off families, the school are free to raise tuition again."

In fact, the explanation sounds alarmingly like the explanation of the sub-prime mortgage bubble. One has to wonder (Mr. Ferguson wonders in the book) whether the financing of higher education is headed for a similar burst. This point reminds me also of a book I read a little over a year ago, DIY U. Higher education is priced unrealistically high; something has to break in the system at some point, but what and when?

In the course of the book Mr. Ferguson examines such issues as the SAT, what it measures, what its importance is, how it has been changed over the years to answer its critics; the application process; the FAFSA; what is college for; growing up enough to let go of one's kids; even how the sexual culture of the college campus has changed since his own student days.

I enjoyed reading the book. I enjoy contemplating the topic of education. I enjoyed the humor of the book. However, I do not think the book will be of much interest to those who are not either in the midst of launching their own children into college, about to begin the process of launching their children into college, or generally interested in the subject of education.


  1. Hmm. Since I am in all three of the categories of people who might be interested, I may be looking for this book.

  2. If you do look for this book, I hope you enjoy it and don't regret letting my thoughts influence you. :-)

  3. I've already planned that when my girls attend college (Lord willing) that they'll live at home and attend community college for 2 years and then attend UW. We'll pay as long as they do well. I've seen all these people (students and/or parents) bury themselves needlessly in debt for a college education. Further, an 18 year old does not fully understand what being tens of thousands of dollars in debt means until they graduate and get a job making not enough and have high monthly payments on their college debt stretching out in front of them for years to come.