The brochures started arriving last spring. At first, it was so hard to tell them apart from the usual ads for time-sharing beach condos, I hardly even noticed. Who reads postcards from the University of South Florida? So I just tossed them out with the rest of the junk mail. Until one day I happened to catch the name of the addressee on a full-color catalog from Cornell: Mr. Brendan A. Thomas.
That's when it suddenly hit me. My 17-year-old son, who last cleaned up his room in the late 1980s and recently started bathing in after-shave, had entered one of America's most fiercely competitive marketing niches. It was an event of great significance for both of us.
For Brendan, it would mean a battery of tests and college visits, and carefully weighing his educational options. For me, it would mean coming up with a small fortune to pay all the bills.
In the quarter-century since I graduated, colleges have changed from havens of unrest and revolution into ivy-covered profit centers. But the six-figure tuitions aren't the only difference.
Where are the zonked-out freaks I remember going to going to classes with? Today's college students, at least the ones shown in the reading material coming to my house, are so clean-cut they look computer-generated. I like that, but is it worth the overall cost of three or four BMWs?
Soon, there was a deluge of mail from schools offering everything from multicultural dorms to junior year in Norway. These people don't miss anything.
Concerned that your kid might neglect his tan? Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., has a campus that looks like the set from "Baywatch." The University of Nevada-Las Vegas can put students in touch with Wayne Newton. And Vassar offers them the opportunity to tutor guys in prison.
With so much to choose from, Brendan, naturally, wanted to shop around. It's a ritual in itself, in which parents and their college-bound offspring crisscross the country in search of the perfect place to deposit $25,000 a year.
Our first stop was the University of Virginia. Founded by Thomas Jefferson, and attended by the likes of Edgar Allan Poe and Teddy Kennedy, UVA is where the Age of Reason meets the Age of Virtual Reality. Everywhere we went, people talked about Jefferson as if he not only still lived there, but personally reviewed each and every admission application.
Taking the campus tour, it was hard not to be impressed by all the colonial architecture, which was clearly having the desired effect on the parents in my group. They seemed convinced that going to a school that looks like an 18th-century country club was bound to make their kids smarter.
But that wasn't the message that came across in a political science lecture we attended, in which the professor was trying to explain how Washington lobby organizations work.
"You know," he told the class at one point, "college students constitute the only special interest group that wants less: less supervision, less requirements . . . less work. Think about that."
Believe me, I did, all the way to Chicago, and our next scheduled stop: Northwestern University.
Actually, I'm from Chicago, and going there with my son would involve more than just your average campus tour. It would be a chance to bond with one another as we took in a Cubs game and sampled the man-sized meals that put Chicago restaurants on the map.
The first surprise was learning that in the 30 years since my family moved to Maryland, the language spoken in my old neighborhood had changed from English to Spanish. By the time we discovered my grade school had become a job-training center and the movie theater down the street from my apartment was an Iglesia de Dios, we were already breathing fire from two massive bowls of Chicago-style chili.
There were no surprises at Northwestern. All college tours begin with a videotape presentation, and Northwestern's was a soft-sell masterpiece, stressing the three standard themes of academic excellence, racial harmony and campus safety.
Northwestern is in Evanston, the headquarters of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Once, that meant students had to travel to Chicago to have fun, a trip made unnecessary lately by the loosening of local prohibition laws. Still, being right next door to the Windy City is a big attraction.
Chicago, in fact, is very much like Baltimore, only with taller buildings, more traffic and two worse baseball teams.
"If I went to Northwestern," reasoned Brendan, "I could take the subway right to Wrigley Field -- I mean, after I finished my homework."
The last school on our list was Vanderbilt, a university whose name even sounds like money, which was becoming an increasing concern as I started calculating my net income spread out two-fifths of the next century.
So what were we doing there?
As far as I could tell, we were part of a pilgrimage of kids and their parents, moving through the southern states at the time. "Weren't you at Northwestern the other day?" one father asked me. "Tomorrow, we're heading for Davidson. How about you?"
Clearly, these trips have little to do with the educational process. Well, they do help clarify the distinction between scholarships and low-interest loans. But not to take your son or daughter to different colleges every fall -- and come home with the T-shirts to prove it -- would be like telling them they can't go to a Guns N' Roses concert.
Vanderbilt is an oasis of Southern gentility right in the middle of Nashville, the country-music capital of the world. There's the Grand Old Opry, Dollywood and Barbara Mandrell Land. So while Brendan saw Vanderbilt's campus, I decided to take in the Country Music Hall of Fame. There right before my eyes were Elvis Presley's car, a suit worn by Johnny Cash and a roomful of guitars.
Later, sitting in a country music cafe, listening to country music, Brendan confessed that he was more confused than ever. Where should he go to school? What should he major in? And where would he meet girls?
All of this traveling had convinced him that his future would somehow involve international affairs, introduce him to different cultures, and maybe even offer a better understanding of supermodels and civilization.
Yes, I had to agree, that sounded like a good plan, even though there were a few details still to be worked out, like how to pay the start-up costs.
"Oh," he said, taking a thoughtful bite of his Merle Haggard burger. "I thought that was your job."