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Victims. Apocalyptic. Protests. Bankruptcy. Those are some of the gloom-and-doom words that are dropped throughout Ivory Tower, Andrew Rossi’s infuriating documentary about the fiendish rise of the cost of a higher education. Student debt in the U.S. has reached the $1 trillion mark, zooming past our country’s collective amount of credit card debt. Some of the experts—academics, entrepreneurs, economists—who weigh in here compare the situation to the subprime mortgage crisis. But students offer their own blunt insight: “The value of my education is priceless,” a Hunter College graduate named Stefanie says. “But the value of my education is also not $100,000 in debt.”
Rossi, who also directed 2011’s Page One: Inside the New York Times, begins his film rather oddly, with Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco commenting Dazed and Confused-like on the figuratively static ages of students in comparison to their aging teachers. “[Academia] is an effort to cheat death,” he says. (What?) But viewers later learn that Delbanco wrote a book titled College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, and he does have opinions relevant to the doc that aren’t weird.
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The question behind the numbers is whether a degree is still worth the financial sacrifice. For the most part, the film’s answer is no. One student shows her loan statement, with $106,000 in interest added to the original $78,000 debt—a debt that anyone who files for bankruptcy is highly unlikely to get dismissed. The theory on budget-crushing tuition is that the competition of institutions for prestige and rankings gives the most elite ones a green light to charge more. Students are viewed as consumers who largely aren’t getting much bang for their (or their parents’) buck. As a voiceover from an unidentified news report claims, “Nearly half of all students are showing no significant gains in learning.”
Ivory Tower offers some hope as it profiles alternative colleges like Deep Springs, a two-year school in the California desert that regards labor as being as important as study, and Cooper Union, a traditionally free college in New York. A significant chunk of the documentary’s second half focuses on the latter’s recent decision to establish tuition. The student response is proactive and electrifying (spoiler: they’re against it), and one undergrad gives such an eloquent and insightful speech to the beleaguered CU president that you may have to tell your fellow viewers you’ve got something in your eye.
There’s also an overview of the UnCollege movement, which started in San Francisco and supports “hackerdemia”—basically, teaching yourself while living in a communal atmosphere. MOOCs, edX, and similar programs that offer regular college courses (some from top schools like Harvard and Berkeley) for free, online, offer another hopeful path. Not everyone agrees with these low- or no-cost alternatives to a traditional four-year robbery, though. Wesleyan president Michael Roth calls hackerdemia “an assault on democracy and an attempt to keep people in their places and reinforce social inequality.”
Unless you’ve come into Ivory Tower with a firm opinion that aligns with Roth’s, his statement is not only illogical, but laughable. Isn’t pricing kids out of college the actual way of keeping those with lesser means in their place? Also ludicrous are the amenities competitive schools are adding, perks that are usually associated with luxury hotels and have little to do with learning. As Anthony Carnevale, the director of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, says, “We’re getting to the point where we’re going to have a swimming pool in every room.” Just because that has yet to happen doesn’t mean the worthiness of higher education isn’t already going down the drain.