Say, is that an Hermès sheepskin?

It’s admissions notification season at colleges and universities nationwide, so let’s congratulate the big winners.

Families who face payments of $50,000 a year over the next four years, for a bachelor’s degree from a prestigious private university.

Families who face payments that will be at least 30% higher than last year, for a bachelor’s degree from a UC campus whose prestige is hanging by a budgetary thread.

Investing in the future, indeed. Parents get the chance to spend the price of a vacation home on an undergraduate degree, and seniors embrace senioritis with a vengeance, convinced that they have leapt modern life’s only significant hurdle. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that so many schools send out their admissions notifications on April Fool’s Day. And these are the good-luck scenarios; I can’t bring myself to shine a light on families who are paying top dollar for what they always considered a last-resort school.

A quick disclaimer: I speak as a fellow traveler. Three years later, I still have a visceral memory of the moment the large envelope arrived from a favored school -- and of the far different chill when I computed what a single, one-semester required science class was going to cost.


It’s an apparently recession-proof system. Despite pundits who forecast that the expensive and competitive logjam is about to break, schools seem to raise their rates annually and then await the stampede of eager customers.

We scrimp on cars, groceries, clothes. We convince ourselves that “less is more” is an aspiration and not a survival tactic. And then we go crazy, for a minimum of a year -- scheming, waiting, dreading -- all for the chance to spend buckets of cash on college.

What, exactly, do we think we’re buying?

If you tell me it’s a splendid psychology curriculum for your budding Freud, I bet you’re lying. Admissions has become a contact sport. The real thrill is having your kid get into that school, especially if somebody else’s kid didn’t.

If you say it’s ironclad security in a dwindling job market, here’s a wake-up call: By the time your child is a junior, like mine, all you’ll hear is, “In this economy, a bachelor’s is meaningless. They’ve got to go to graduate school.”

If you’re a cynic or a “Mad Men” fan, you might admit you’re building the family brand; the four-bedroom house, the six-burner stove, the 8-cylinder roadster and the Top 10 school.

The truth is, we’re sitting ducks, stalled at the intersection of two fundamental American beliefs: You get what you pay for, and if everybody else wants it, it must be worth having. Getting our kids into college feels precariously like buying an Hermès Birkin bag, the $5,000-and-up handbag that requires even famous people to sit on a wait-list for years.

Is there a purse anywhere in captivity that could possibly be worth all that money and effort? Of course, because look at how many people want the Birkin, and they can’t all be crazy. And if they have that kind of money to spend, can’t they find something just as wonderful that’s actually available? Of course not, because a principal part of its allure is its unattainability.

You could replace “Birkin” with “Harvard,” “Yale” or “UC Berkeley” and see the feeding frenzy for what it is. And we haven’t even gotten around to discussing the emotional cost, the poor dented kids who feel like failures because they’re only in the top 5% of all the graduating seniors in the country.

One sadder but wiser undergraduate I know sees the smart move, in retrospect: Find a good school (you can safely dip below the Top 10 in the U.S. News & World Report rankings) where your odds are better than good, apply early, and take yourself out of the high-stakes roulette game.

This scenario seems only to lower the stress quotient, not the out-of-pocket expense, but pay attention: Often that good school has to try harder, and trying harder can mean the seductive allure of a merit scholarship. Tip the balance of desire -- find a school that wants to distract you from the pie-in-the-sky schools -- and the price might fall from astronomical to merely high. Or you might end up at a Cal State or an out-of-California land-grant university that turns out to be a better fit for your child.

Backing off the status track is a start, but it’s no guarantee of either fiscal or psychic savings; that kind of reform requires collaboration with the institutional players. As I’m not running for political office, I can afford to make the following unpopular but appropriate suggestion:

Let’s raise California’s property tax, just a little bit. Seriously. We’ve been coasting on Jarvisonomics since 1978 -- very nice in the personal short view, not so hot in the educational long view. We need to reinvest in the state’s Master Plan to keep high-quality education as affordable as possible, whether we have children in school or not.

But the state can’t just cash the checks, whatever size they are, nor can the private schools. It’s time for some accountability. Paying fees of $50,000 a year, or a one-third increase, ought to buy us transparency. Let’s have a lively debate about where both public and private institutions might trim the fat, so that the cost/benefit ratio no longer mimics that of a luxury handbag.

There must be a more global solution out there -- a universal remedy for a process that defies both fiscal and psychological gravity -- but I’ll have to leave that to the big thinkers whose kids are either too old or too young to be in college. As for me, I have to get back to work as long as those tuition bills keep coming.

Karen Stabiner’s comic novel about college admissions, “Getting In,” has just been published.