Ivory Tower, a documentary focused on grading the value of a university education when tuition has reached unbelievable heights, is about as comprehensive and complete a 90-minute film can be about a sprawling subject, without feeling rushed or overstuffed. Director Andrew Rossi, who made 2011’s superb doc Page One: Inside the New York Times, connects the dots of many factors that led to the exorbitant prices of middling, mediocre education, and like an excellent lecture, the film provides insightful discussion, even if it does not have many easy answers.
Rossi asks most of the big questions here. Is college over-rated since students glean much of the same information from books and Wikipedia? Is schooling too expensive? After all, many middle-class students are left with mountains of loans to repay while wealthier kids can coast through without a worry. At an orientation, a parent looks directly at an advisor and asks if his daughter will have to move home upon finishing her four years. The orientation leader pauses before skating around the answer, giving a spirited shrug.
“Colleges have been sold and oversold as the key to a better future,” says one of the talking heads professors and scholars that Rossi picked to add spice and weight to his film, like a well-sourced footnote on a Masters’ thesis. It is more likely that students will not graduate, they explain, while those that do could be riddled with debt for much of their adult lives. College still secures the step to big jobs and paycheques, but at what cost?
Rossi’s film is full of crisp images of the ideal college campus: libraries stacked with books and translucent lamps, statues adorning the fields, artwork on the walls, vast parks with greenery. The study halls look more like cathedrals, the gym area more like a plush luxury hotel. The students walk around campuses, often shown in sunny, bright light like if they were outtakes from a promotional video, but there is an unmistakable cloud hanging above their heads. “I feel bad talking about any dreams I have these days,” says a student who worked hard, only to be saddled with tons of debt.
So, why has the price of education ballooned? Why are graduates waiting tables and washing toilets? Rossi points to a circle of converging factors, linking them in neat segues. For one, some colleges that are not quite Ivy League pursue prestige. They add more programs and facilities – from unnecessary departments to massive swimming pools and tanning beds on residence – to get pedigree and compete with the more exclusive names. Meanwhile, these amenities make the school more about the social life than the studying. Schools are thinking more like a business than an academic institution, more focused on attracting big numbers of students than good professors.
Ivory Tower has some crucial points from parents and teachers, but the most effective moments come from students either dealing with mountains of student loan debt or fighting for the right to pay for free education. (As one of the film’s various graphs show, the cost of university has increased tenfold since 1978.) The idea of university was that anyone could attain the American dream with a higher education. Today though, education for many seems to be a privilege rather than a right. Rossi outlines the debate between whether or not a high level of learning is essential, taking voices from many sides – the teachers who rave of the stimulating lectures their school offers and the students who say a pursuit of knowledge needs no bank account.
Rossi also focuses on some other options for high-school graduates as well, like alternative schools and community colleges. He visits Deep Springs, a small school on a California ranch that teaches young men as they labor on the ranch and work on self-improvement. Another college, Spelman, is for young African-American women, amplifying the “community” that arrives adjacent to the word ‘college.’
Still, the most riveting scenes in Ivory Tower happen at Cooper Union, an influential New York school named after a philanthropist who believed that, like water and air, schooling should be free for all. At the school that bears his name, a recent budget shortfall meant that for the first time ever, its lower middle and middle-class student body had to pay to attend. “We are students, not customers,” one of them argues as a coup occupied the office of the college president to protest the fee hike. The Cooper Union’s charge for tuition became a bellwether of the ballooning price of education.
Like Rossi’s Page One, which focused on the hallowed halls of the world’s most elite newspaper as it also went through some stringent growing pains, Ivory Tower finds its subject at a time of transition. The filmmaker looks at a growing movement of ditching college – what one author terms “hacking” an education – to find an alternative, working on school-related start-ups. The problem, though, is that few of these have much potential, and are still stuck in the fringes.
By not giving answers, Rossi is like a terrific professor, hoping his rapt listeners will go into rooms after the screening and debate the various points and merits of his 90-minute lecture. He also tells a vast, sophisticated subject with stunning clarity and density, making for a galvanizing, important film, one that should be essential for any parent already saving up a jar of money for the college fund.
A thought-provoking documentary told with the clarity and power of a great professor, Ivory Tower is essential viewing for any parent pondering the value of college for their child.