COLLEGE ADMISSIONS in America is a big sprawling subject, but this is not, youâ€™ll notice, a big sprawling book. Itâ€™s one parentâ€™s view, the process seen from beginning to end through the prism of a fatherâ€™s own flesh and blood. (Watch your stepâ€"there are lots of metaphors running loose around here.) Like many big subjects, college admissions plays itself out on a small scale. The great issues it raises, the clashing interests and massive institutions it involves, come to earth in the lives of ordinary people, clustered more often than not in families. Thatâ€™s how it happened to us.
It began with a trickle, which is why I didnâ€™t notice anything at first. â€œWhoâ€™s going to Elon College?â€ I asked innocently enough, fingering the brochure that arrived in the mail one day. There was no answer, since no one in the house had ever heard of Elon College, much less expressed an interest in it.
â€œOccidental College?â€ I called out the next day, when the mail arrived with another brochureâ€"or viewbook, as I learned to call them in the admissions world. â€œWho in his right mind would go to an overpriced money trap like Occidental College?â€
It was a sardonic question, as Iâ€™ll explain in a moment, and it too was met with silence. On the third day there were two fat envelopes and another viewbook, also from schools I hadnâ€™t heard of, and then four the next day, and the next. Within a month, more than a hundred envelopes and viewbooks had been stuffed in the mailbox, glowing with color photos of cheerful undergraduates lounging on sunlit knolls against backdrops of shade trees and redbrick towers. The viewbooks were printed on paper so thick and voluptuous they might have been mistaken for the leaves of a rubber plantâ€"you didnâ€™t know whether to read them or slurp them like a giraffe. And each was addressed to my sixteen-going-on-seventeen-year-old son, whose name had somehow found its way onto a mailing list of high school juniors.
My boy was being solicited, as surely and shamelessly as a sailor come to port.
This was something new, something unexpected. I came to see over the next many months that what had once been a fairly brief and straightforward process, in which the children of the middle and upper classes found a suitable college, filled out an application, got in, and then went happily away, returning home only now and then to celebrate holidays and borrow money, has evolved into a multiyear rite of passage, often beginning before puberty.
For some of us, anyway. Itâ€™s worth remembering at the outset that most American high schoolers go on to college, roughly 70 percent of them, and 80 percent of those attend schools that donâ€™t involve the difficulties encountered in these pages. Most college kids go to what admissions people call â€œnonselectiveâ€ schools, and many of them begin at two-year institutions; itâ€™s not too much to say that thereâ€™s a seat in American higher education for anyone who wants one. Even the cost wonâ€™t be prohibitive for the majority of students. More than 50 percent of us spend less than $10,000 a year on college, and a good chunk of this can usually be covered by loans and grants. For lots of high school graduates the pressing issue of higher education is finding the time off from work to take advantage of it.
All Americans, by virtue of being Americans, are winners of lifeâ€™s lotto, in my opinion, as citizens of the most prosperous and least class-bound country in history. But the people spoken of in this book, my family included, are luckier than most. I had a happy childhood. My own children are healthy and donâ€™t hate me, or say they donâ€™t, and chief among my wifeâ€™s numberless virtues are tolerance, patience, and good humor. We live in a reasonably safe neighborhood in one of those â€œclose-inâ€ suburbs that have suddenly become desirable. I have a job, as many Americans do not at the moment, and while weâ€™re far from well-to-do, the money we br