A crash course on how to get your kid into college

Writer Andrew Ferguson.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Tess Vigeland: So we move now from the whole paying-for-college conundrum to the oh-no-where-will-I-go conundrum. And what a minefield that can be. Just ask Andrew Ferguson. He's a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and author of the new book called "Crazy U." That's the letter U. And as for the crazy, well he's here to tell us all about that.

Andrew, welcome to the show.

ANDREW FERGUSON Thank you.

VIGELAND: Well, you begin your journey into the world of college admissions innocently enough -- a few college brochures started finding their way into the mailbox. But they quickly multiplied to more than a hundred?

FERGUSON: Oh easily, yeah. I think we were averaging about a hundred for a couple of months.

VIGELAND: Good Lord. As you point out throughout the book, this is an entire industry now. And a big part of that is the folks who that they're experts in getting kids into college, these private counselors. You met with one of the supposed top dogs. Describe for us what that was like.

FERGUSON: I heard about her, actually, from a friend of mine, who said, "You have to come see this woman, if you're starting to worry about your kid getting into the right kind of college. But there's one catch: It'll cost you $40,000." I, of course, don't have $40,000, but I pretended I was going to write an article about her, which I ended up doing.

When I went with Kat Cohen, the college counselor that we're talking about, to a group of what they call "high net worth individuals," which is sort of a new word for rich people. She went in and told them what they were going to have to do to get their kids into Brown or Dartmouth -- be still my heart -- Harvard or Stanford. These people, she had them scared to death by the end of it. In fact, I think it sort of started to feel to them that it was almost tan impossible goal. Of course, this is the big myth about college admissions now, which is somehow the exact school you want to go to is going to determine your future and your future happiness, when it's actually quite clear in their studies about this, that where you went to college doesn't have any influence on your happiness or even your job earnings for that matter.

VIGELAND: So having been through that process both as a reporter and as a dad, do you think it's worth it at all to hire a college counselor?

FERGUSON: Well, it started to dawn on me as a I did more research, there were two things we know are true about colleges: Kids go there and they don't learn that much, and as I say, it doesn't have a lot to do with their future happiness. So, why doesn't the industry collapse, if people understand this sort of common sensical thing. And what it is, and I looked in the mirror, and it was me, parents like me, who even though our head tells us this isn't the really the way things out to be, our heart keeps leading us towards it. Because the thing feeds off the very normal desires of parents to see their kids have a happy life. And that's the fuel that really keeps this whole thing going.

VIGELAND: So these days, parents have websites to research, they have brochures coming from the colleges, they have rankings to figure out. I wonder having been through the process, do you think that wealth of information hinders rather than helps?

FERGUSON: Well, I became quite convinced about half way through the acronym TMI for too much information, there's also such a thing as TMA for too much advice. As a parent, you are just surrounded by these guides and the websites. You can go on College Confidential, which is the largest of these things.

And one of my bits of advice that I do give parents is stay away from College Confidential, because it's the place that I realize the iron law of college admissions. For every piece of plausible advice you get, you will find within a week, equally plausible, directly opposite advice. Everything cancels each other out, and you don't know which one to pick. You know, if you're on College Confidential or any of the other websites and somebody tells you, "You really should get your college counselor a bouquet when he writes your recommendation." The advice comes from somebody called "puppywuppy." How are you supposed to gauge how serious this guy is, you know? And then, of course, somebody says, "Never buy a boutonniere for your college counselor," and this is sort of "lovesavage79." So who do I think is smarter, puppywuppy or lovesavage79?

VIGELAND: Well, we won't give away the end completely, but there is a happy ending.

FERGUSON: Yes there is. So far.

VIGELAND: So what was it like getting the prized acceptance letter?

FERGUSON: Well, that was the high point. My son had kind of settled on the big state university, which I call BSU, for reasons that become obvious. Actually, there's a mortifying passage, right quite at the beginning of our journey, which involved going to his college counselor at his high school. And the counselor said, "You know, we have to figure out what kind of school you want to go to -- big, small." And finally my son said, "Look, what I want to do is go to a school where I can take my shirt off, paint my chest in the school colors and major in beer."

Vigeland laughs

FERGUSON: And sure enough, that's what he got.

VIGELAND: So, what are you left with as a parent? If you could've done something different, something better, what would you have done?

FERGUSON: You know, it's so easy to say this: If I had a dime for every time somebody told me to relax, I could actually afford tuition at a college. But that is the best advice. The stakes aren't as high, your kid will probably get into school, he or she will probably have a fulfilling experience. You know, if everybody would just calm down and let the kids be kids, I think we'd all be better off.

VIGELAND: Andrew Ferguson is the author of "Crazy U" -- that's the letter U -- "One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College." Thanks a lot, it's been awfully fun.

FERGUSON: Thanks so much for having me.

Vigeland: Andrew's book hits the shelves or, you know, Kindles, this coming week. You can read an excerpt at Marketplace.

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