kitchen table math, the sequel: Crazy U

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Crazy U

Heard from Susan S yesterday, who wanted to know if I'd read Crazy U by Andrew Ferguson.

Answer: yes, and I've been meaning to post excerpts forever. The book is fantastic. If you're sending a child to college any time soon, you must read it (along with Barry Seaman's Binge and Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons, neither of which I have had the nerve to crack as yet...)

Susan says I have to get to Crazy U now, so here goes:
The cost of college is the consuming preoccupation for parents, of course, and a major source of the craziness. It's not hard to see why. I graduated from a small liberal arts college in 1978. My annual tuition bill was $5,100. If my school's tuition had tracked inflation, the bill today would be $16,500. Instead it's nearly $40,000--an exponential rise repeated at nearly every school in the country.

But unlike other questions related to college admissions--how do I make my kid write the essay, do we really have to do a tour, who designs these stupid applications, when will it all be over?--how to pay for school is a peculiarly sensitive matter. With the Kitchen People I could start a good thirty- or forty-minute chain rant y asking about the college counselors at their kids' high schools. But when I'd ask about college costs I'd provoke a quick Vesuvius-like first, followed by a slow glide into silence, a lot of foot-shuffling and ceiling glancing, until people drained their cups and wandered off for a refill. Nobody likes to talk about money, especially when you're being reminded you don't have enough of it.


But when it came to finance I restricted myself for the most part to College Board and the Department of Education Web sites. I took their directives to be authoritative. (If you can't trust an agency of the federal government, who can you trust?) By the time I was through collecting material about college costs, I had enough documents to make several impressive new stacks in the dining room. There were booklets, worksheets, request forms, disclaimers, power points, suggested guidelines, official guidelines, disclosures, charts, backgrounders, tables, monthly planners, and FAQs beyond number. Usually the sheets showed ranked masses of bullet points with impenetrable headings: "ICR Consent to Disclosure of Tax Information," "Repayment Plan Selection," "DCL GEN-04-04 General Guidance for FRAC Participants," "Fafsa4caster," "Income Based Repayment Selector," and "FFEL Convertible-rate Interest Rates Calculation Sheet." I could concentrate on them for no longer than forty-five seconds at a time. Then I'd look up and hear Patton: "Very difficult, very complicated."

Among those reams of paper many pages were pure salesman-ship--and what the CB and the Education Department were selling was, once again, college itself, the raw idea of it, quite apart from any considerations that might draw a kid to one particular school or another, or heaven forbid toward a future of work and family without higher ed. The message was nmistakable: When it comes to college, you should just go. Don't worry so much about the money. Go. The money--we'll help with the money. Just go. Go, for crying out loud.

One of the first sheets I acquired from the CB, under the section College Costs, set the tone. It offered a little USA Today-like charticle--half chart, half article--headlined "Keep Rising Prices in Perspective."

"Media reports," the sheet said, "can be intimidating. Don't let the sticker prices scare you." Damn lyin' media.

"There's no escaping the fact that college costs are rising," the sheet acknowledged, though I knew that if there were a way of escaping the fact, the College Board would have found it.

"But there is good news," it continued. "There is more than $143 billion in financial aid available." (That number--$143 billion, the pot of gold--was repeated frequently, endlessly, in the documents. The chart that followed showed two columns. On the left was the bad news. On the right was the good news, offered as refutation of the bad, in a box labeled "But did you know that..."

So in the left-hand column we saw that last year tuition rose by 5.9 percent at private schools and 6.4 percent at public schools. "But did you know that..." 56 percent of students enrolled at four-year colleges attend institutions that charge tuition and fees of less than $9,000 per year." Good for them. And the other 44 percent?

On the left, the bad news: "The average surcharge for out-of-state students at public institutions is $10,867."

Then the good: "But did you know that...About two-thirds of all full-time undergraduates students receive grant aid."

On the left: "Students will pay on average from $381 to $408 more than last year on room and board."

"But did you know that...More than $143 billion in financial aid is available to students and their families.

Actually, we did know that, since it had already been printed right there at the top of the page. The rebuttals weren't very effective, if you thought things through. It was small comfort to know that this problem of rising costs was solvable, but only so long as the family agreed to go deeper in debt or accept repeated handouts. Maybe it's good news that $143 billion was available for aid. But isn't it bad news we need the $143 billion in the first place?

"Consider college an investment," the information sheet concluded, its manner calm and reassuring. Then this College Board charticle quoted a study from the College Board that said people who earned a degree from a college, schools such as those that make up the College Board, earn 60 percent more than workers with only a high school degree--adding up to $800,000 over a lifetime.

"Whatever sacrifices you and your child make for his or her college education in the short term are more than repaid in the long term."

I'd noticed something interesting about these communications from the higher-ed establishment. The only time they spoke of higher education in business terms, weighing costs and benefits, was in the middle of a come-on to parents and students, most of whom were presumably comfortable with seeing life in terms of commercial transactions. Otherwise the literature treated higher ed as a spiritual realm, filled with mystery and magic, immune from the worldly pressures of costs and benefits."

The cultlike disingenuousness of it was galling. Much of the stuff I'd accumulated from the College Board was thinly disguised propaganda of this kind--prettied up in numbers, but just as self-serving as anything you'd expect from a business lobby.

"Don't let the sticker price scare you," the next sheet said, ramming the message home. "Financial aid often makes up the difference between what you can afford to pay and what college costs." And just so you don't forget: "Education loans are also an appropriate way for families to pay for college."
more t/k


Catherine Johnson said...

Crazy U is a tour de force ----- amazing. Pretty much everyone I know who's dealing with college has asked me if I read the book - right before I got around to asking them if they'd read the book.

Hilarious & moving, too.

Also infuriating.

Anonymous said...

For some reason, the book actually made me feel better. I wasn't the only person seeing the ridiculousness of the whole process.

Ferguson's son sounds a lot like mine, too.