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.
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” 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]