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Review: Documentary 'Ivory Tower' Is a Sobering Look At The Cost Of Higher Education

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by Kimber Myers
June 13, 2014 3:55 PM
3 Comments
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Ivory Tower

When one of the talking heads in “Ivory Tower” uses the word “apocalyptic” to describe the higher education system, it at first seems like an exaggeration. But throughout its 90-minute runtime, Andrew Rossi’s documentary offers a number of frightening statistics that make the adjective seem earned. Learning that the cost of college has grown more than any other good or service since 1978 caused our jaws to drop like we were seeing a destroyed metropolis on film. Watching the multi-million-dollar student centers with pools, tanning beds and climbing walls was akin to glimpsing a zombie horde. Seeing the seven-figure salaries of university administrators made us feel like we were watching looters.

“Ivory Tower” is compelling viewing, particularly if you feel close to the crisis. Authors, current and former students, faculty and business people share their thoughts on the state of the system, with some sobering statistics that punctuate the more personal moments. The film traces the evolution of higher education: from being something for the elite to a basic human right, and back again as costs continue to rise. One of the issues Rossi focuses on is the move away from spending money on education at colleges and universities, with the film concentrating on schools’ needs to compete for students–and dollars. Thus the pools and student housing that look like luxury condos, while students are spending less and less time actually learning. “Ivory Tower” asks if it’s worth it, particularly when students face unemployment or underemployment when (if) they graduate.

Ivory Tower

The film bounces between a number of schools and stories, giving some short screen time, while others get more attention. Schools like Arizona State University get a few minutes of fame in “Ivory Tower” for its party culture, despite protestations from the administration. As a contrast, Rossi invites Harvard University student David Boone to share his experience, going from being homeless in Cleveland to struggling at the Ivy League school. He briefly touches on the importance of Spelman College and other historically black schools, as well as spending a few minutes with Deep Springs College. The Death Valley school is free and men only, and its culture encourages students to do hard labor as well as rigorous intellectual study. These threads were interesting, but they left us wondering if Deep Springs or Spelman offer better post-college opportunities for their students than the more mainstream schools.

However, it’s the upheaval at Cooper Union in New York City that gets the most focus in the film. Founded by Peter Cooper, the school was intended to be free from its inception, but debt (largely from an impressive new building and its rent) caused the school to switch to a tuition-based model. Protests and arguments before the decision was made are peppered throughout the film, with a student sit-in providing the film’s climax. A more focused narrative—or one that spent more equally divided time with each story—might have created a more cohesive film. We left persuaded of the system’s myriad problems, but we weren’t really sure what the next steps are.

Ivory Tower

“Ivory Tower” does offer some solutions to the problems, whether it’s PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel’s work with his namesake fellowship or several Silicon Valley startups attempts to disrupt the industry by offering online courses. We would have loved to have seen a more successful solution, if only because we felt like we were having a panic attack for most of the film.

Rossi’s documentary is receiving a timely limited release in theaters. In the days before its opening, the Senate voted to block Elizabeth Warren’s proposal for refinancing student loans that should help get the film—and more importantly the issue—some deserved extra attention. [B]

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3 Comments

  • Jennifer | June 16, 2014 6:47 PMReply

    How exactly is Spelman not a "mainstream" school? How does Spelman prepare its students any less than say Barnard or Bryn Mawr? The curriculum of Spelman is similar to any small liberal arts college, and their alumni do quite well. Check your prejudice.

  • Anthony Eller | June 15, 2014 11:42 AMReply

    This movie I hope will be the final piece that is needed to wake up the American people and truly understand what is happening to our children!

    The student loan system is outdated and has been corrupted to the core. Education is not about huge profits which it seems..... is what our president and Congress think. There is not one plan either has proposed that the lenders, schools, and our very own government will not make huge profits first.Our children the future of our Great Country deserve an affordable education and given advice and direction of which path is best individually......The student loan debt has increased from $850 Billion 4 years ago to now $1.2 Trillion That's with a "T" and the scary part is the student loan debt is growing faster today than ever before!

    The President and Congress spent $7 Billion to get elected in 2012 and now with the new Supreme Court rulings this amount could easily double in 2016! When Congress approval ratings is at 16%????? you tell me who they are working.... for it's not our children!

    You can find me at Project Tuition Reimbursement

    "A child comes into this world with only hope..the only gold we will leave this earth with is our word" Anthony Eller

  • Jackie | June 13, 2014 4:52 PMReply

    "It's just a business."

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