Ivory Tower, the new documentary by Andrew Rossi (Page One: Inside the New York Times), posits itself as the long-overdue expose on the as-broken-as-our-healthcare higher education system. Sadly, this far too diffuse and roving film takes on too much, in the end, not really succeeding in offering a cogent, tidy argument. It would have benefited from a strong dose of good ol’ critical thinking and thesis-honing.
The film opens on the premise that there are problems in all sectors of higher education, problems so large that they are undermining the very idea of higher education and its life value. We are introduced to an African-American freshman with a rather compelling story–“from homeless to Harvard.” Ivory Tower follows his experience through the hallowed halls of Harvard, which actually appears to be well-deserving of its rarefied status and remains one of the last remaining bastions of meritocracy in higher ed. It also is a part of a rather small group of only 1.25% of U.S. colleges that grant full-need financial aid packages and have fully transparent, need-blind admissions.
Ivory Tower then launches into a meandering argument that fails to explain the feedback loop of sky-rocketing higher ed costs. It argues that since colleges are competing against each other and seeking to expand their markets (yes, get used to the idea that American college education is a business), they are driven to create more programs and build more (and fancier) facilities at a faster rate than their competitors. Enter Arizona State University, which has “luxury suites,” with pools and DJs for the privileged few who have come to college for the “student experience,” a thinly-veiled euphemism for beer and circuses ala Spring Breakers (what happened to the simpler days where that meant the more grown-up version of Dead Poets’ Society!?).
The film cannot possibly expect the viewers to think that college tuition is rising so exponentially (1120% increase since 1980; more than any other good in the economy) because colleges built more modern buildings, paid their presidents six digit salaries, and hired a few more administrators, do they? Ivory Tower‘s focus on these construction booms and colleges being turned into mini cities, while a valid point, really does not cover the scope of a system whose issues are so endemic that the explanatory variables are many and they are very, very enmeshed.
The thorny beyond measure issue of student is explored rather shallowly here. All we find out is that it has now reached the hair-raising 1 trillion mark. There is one really salient point, however–unlike with the mortgage crisis, there is no “safety valve.” There is no foreclosure or bankruptcy; the interest keeps accruing inexorably, saddling students and generations after with a debt that is onerous beyond measure.
Past that point, Ivory Tower starts to digress even more, launching into a shallow exploration of whether college has any value and focusing on the “hackademic” movement in San Francisco and the Thiel Fellowship, created by the founder of PayPal. Again, while incredibly interesting as a piece of information in itself, it is not particularly relevant. It also explores the rather ill-fated experiment that San Jose State University conducted in having Udacity teach most of their entry level math classes. The case study of the students at Cooper Union’s struggle to maintain the tuition-free status of the university is explored fat too in-depth.
Ivory Tower would have been a much more compelling film had it not chosen to focus on so many subjects. As it stands now, we are still left unsure why is tuition rising so astronomically (and not just at private schools but also at fund-strapped state schools) and where *are* tuition dollars going if most of the classes are taught by near-minimum-wage earning adjuncts in cavernous classrooms of hundreds of students. We are also left with a cursory, at best, glance at the implications of a trillion dollar student debt. Instead, the tangents of “do we really need a college education,” and “is the college education now just another excuse for partying,” and “can technology save us all,” are delved into in a rather questionable stroke of directorial decision-making.