It’s April and we all remember it could be the cruelest month if you reached into the mailbox and got a thin envelope from the college of your choice. But the situation is much more competitive today than it was when I was hunting bison in high school. It is also more expensive for parents.

Andrew Ferguson, one of my favorite writers, has a new book, Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College, on the subject, and Christina Hoff Sommers, one of my favorite philosophers, reviews it today on National Review Online. Before we get to the meat of the review, I just have to quote CHS’s description of Andy at Occidental:

When Andrew Ferguson attended Occidental College in the 1970s, colleges were already moving away from fussy old requirements like American history, English composition, and foreign languages, and towards the anything-goes curriculum of today. If he was not playing in his rock band, visiting a Zen center, or engaging in “a dozen other forms of fun that had nothing to do with traditional education,” Ferguson pursued classes like “Women in Film” and “Our Bodies Our Selves for Men.” But it was still the pre-self-esteem era, so when he went to his college counselor for career advice, she spoke bluntly: “You have no marketable skills whatsoever.” So, says Ferguson, “I became a journalist.”

And a durned good thing he did! Otherwise we would never know how college admissions have changed from the less touchy feely days of my own struggle with getting into college:

His son had a monumental struggle with the college essay. Typical college-essay questions are: “What do you think people who know you would be surprised to learn about you?” or “Tell us about a moment in your life when you refused to be embarrassed.” According to a Haverford dean, the essay should be cathartic–“You must share some part of yourself.” Cohen had warned Ferguson that students often are relegated to the waiting list because they did not “dig deep enough” in their essays: “Tell your son . . . to talk about his innermost thoughts.” But as Ferguson says, “Seventeen-year-old boys do not have innermost thoughts, and if they did, neither you nor I would want to know what they are.”

This psychological focus in admissions essays is part of a broader change in the process. In the late Seventies, when many colleges feared extinction because Baby Boomers were having far fewer children than their parents did, a battle for survival ensued, led by high-powered marketers. Suddenly prospective students were a “customer base”–and, as Ferguson says, “a large, lucrative, and parasitic industry puckered up and suctioned itself onto the tumescent host of college admissions.” Demographers, psychologists, color-palette experts, and graphic designers went to work branding and rebranding colleges and universities to suit the presumed desires and aspirations of high-school juniors. Vast fortunes were invested in landscaping, food courts, sports facilities, and “atmospherics.” Here Ferguson quotes economics professor Richard Vedder’s sardonic take on the winning strategy for today’s successful college president: You buy off the alums by having a good football team. . . . You buy off the faculty by giving them good salaries. You let them teach whatever they want, keep their course loads low. You buy off the students by not making them work too hard. . . . You make sure the food is good and the facilities are nice. And you buy off the legislators and trustees in various ways: tickets to the big football games, admit their kids if they apply, get a good ranking from U.S. News. College officials disparage the U.S. News guide as “superficial” and “destructive,” but “the same administrators read it, feed it, and fidget all summer until the new edition arrives, and then wave it around like a bride’s garter belt if their school gets a favorable review.” But here is the paradox, and one of Ferguson’s most important points: A school’s high ranking has nothing to do with how well it educates its students. Lots of factors determine where a school falls on the list, such as a school’s wealth or student SAT scores. But here, says Ferguson, is one piece of information that is left out of the equation: “Is any learning going on around here?”

Many private colleges now cost more than $50,000 per year for tuition, fees, and room and board. Higher education, like health care, grows more and more expensive. But at least we can say that there have been momentous improvements in health care. Can we say the same about college education?