11/19/2011 05:39 EST | Updated 01/20/2012 05:12 EST

Is College Now the Ultimate Crapshoot?


I'm generally skeptical of claims that there exist large cultural differences between Canadians and Americans. But there is at least one way in which Canadian and American lives differ radically, at least for the upper middle classes in the two countries: the university experience.

If and when a Canadian decides to go to university, they just... go. Yes, there are some choices to make: Which province do you want to live in, that kind of thing. But for student and parent alike, the process is straightforward, inexpensive and seemingly non-traumatic. Or maybe that's just the grass-is-greener perspective of a parent in the throes of the American college-application maelstrom.

My son Nathaniel and I have spent the past week touring American college campuses, taking trains, planes and automobiles up and down the northeast seaboard. We'll do at least one more such tour before we're done, likely two.

The American journalist Andrew Ferguson has written a very funny new book about the experience, aptly titled "Crazy U." Ferguson details the head-turning dizziness of the experience for those families most obsessed by it: What about Washington University in St. Louis? Or Reed College in Oregon? Perhaps Pepperdine on the California beach? There are standardized tests to write, and letters of recommendation to collect, and clubs to join, and grades to earn -- and an emerging industry of college counselling to guide students and parents through the maze.

One thing you hear often as a parent is that the process has become much more difficult than it was during your day. This claim is both true and deceptive. It's true that colleges turn down a much higher percentage of applications than they used to do: Some of the more selective schools have rejection rates verging on 90 per cent, and many even of the less selective will claim reject rates of over 50 per cent.

But these high reject rates are a statistical artifact, the product of the fact that students file so many more applications than they used to file, back when each application had to be laboriously typed. Ten applications per student is the new normal, and not a few students will file many more.

The mass of applications creates a lot of unnecessary trouble and anxiety. But the closer you get to this process, the more you begin to suspect that the anxiety is -- as they say in Silicon Valley -- a feature, not a bug.

University education can easily add up to the most expensive purchase by an American family: up to $200,000 per student.

College tuition costs have risen much faster than inflation over the past 30 years, and still continue to do so despite the tough economic times in the United States. Yet, as the cost of college has soared, the earnings of college graduates have stagnated. The median pay of an American BA-holder actually declined between 2000 and 2005, adjusting for inflation, according to the 2006 annual Economic Report of the President.

As today's young people contemplate an uncertain job market, many must wonder: Is college worth it? In particular, are the more expensive colleges worth it? There's always a market for a Harvard degree, but America is ornamented by dozens of colleges that charge as much as Harvard, without in fact being Harvard.

For these schools, the anxiety and complexity of the college application process has some of the same function as the absence of clocks in a Las Vegas casino or the fuzziness of prices on a car lot. A disoriented consumer, obsessed over the question, "Will my child get in?" is much less likely to ask the question, "Does this purchase make sense?"

And hey -- it works. My level-headed son is never pushed off his game, but after visiting five schools in three cities in three days, I'm just as crazy as any of the parents in Ferguson's book. I should be asking, "What about hotel-management school?" But instead I'm sweatily fingering the college catalogues in the waiting rooms as my son proceeds from interview to interview.

This system is a bubble, everybody says. It may be headed for a crash -- that seems possible. In the meantime, here we are lofted along for the scary ride.

This originally appeared in the National Post.