The State Of Higher Education Looks Bleak In ‘Ivory Tower’


Ivory Tower, a new documentary about higher education and the student debt crisis, grapples with a lot of the popular collegiate questions of the day: What purpose does college serve? Is college worth it?

I spoke to the director of the documentary, Andrew Rossi, about why he chose to make the film. “[Student debt] has ushered in a wave of conversation about how unsustainable college and the rise in tuition has become,” he said. “And I felt that it would be valuable to go onto campuses and see what students are learning, how teachers are interacting with students, and try to return to the question of “’What is higher education really about?’”

It’s a legitimate question; watching Ivory Tower, viewers see that college policies across America can be dishearteningly backwards. Professors often care more about their personal research than teaching. University officials consider national rank, not academic value, the greatest measure of an institution’s success. Participating in an unsustainable race to attract students, schools funnel money into climbing walls, pools with tanning ledges, and sports teams to up their appeal — relying on tuition hikes to do so. Student loan debt currently exceeds $1 trillion.

Ivory Tower argues that our vision of higher education has transformed drastically since the days when lectures “played on the idea that people could be transformed to lead lives of purpose,” an idea heavily rooted in church sermons. Whereas learning was once the foundation for building a better society, it’s become a privatized tool for individual gain.

“Unfortunately, there is a utilitarian view of education that is exclusively focused on as a pathway to getting a job,” he said. “It’s an instrumentalist approach,” Rossi said. “College in this country has been viewed as a public good, basically up until the late Sixties and Seventies, when conservative governors like Ronald Reagan argued that the state should not be subsidizing intellectual curiosity… Tuition start[ed] to skyrocket as state funding plummet[ed].”

“I would like to see more people embrace the idea that higher ed is a good that contributes educated citizens to our democracy.”

But overhauling higher education is easier said than done. One option the documentary presents is for ambitious teenagers to move to Silicon Valley to create a start-up, though that’s a choice that very few can afford to make. Online courses were another suggestion, but academic performance is low when students take those free classes, because human interaction between professor and peer is removed. Online classes do work when they are taken in conjunction with lessons in person, but that option still limits access to college education among people who cannot pay for instruction. And protests against unjust policies aren’t always successful, as illustrated by the sit-in staged at Cooper Union, a free school that operates off of a large endowment in New York City. Students won a brief victory when the president of the university, Jamshed Bharucha, reversed course and refrained from charging tuition, but now tuition payments are back on the table.

Anne Johnson, executive director of Generation Progress, a group committed to social issues that impact young Americans, provided answers as to how we can tackle some of the systemic crises. For instance, we can focus on attention on existing borrowers, and implement policies to alleviate their financial burden. The average student owes $30,000, 50 percent of them rely on their parents for money, and 1 in 8 students have defaulted on their loans. To provide some relief, lawmakers can implement an income-based repayment plan that allows students to pay back loans in proportion to their earned income. And we’re actually closer to reaching that goal, as Obama issued an executive order earlier this month, which caps student loan payments at 10 percent of an individual’s monthly income.

Johnson also pointed to refinancing student loans as a way to remove some of the burden from borrowers. A bill introduced by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) last March proposed a minimum tax on people whose income is $1 million or more. Revenue from the tax would, in turn, be channeled into debt refinancing and reduce the amount students have to pay back. Although the bill didn’t make it through Congress, it showed that some lawmakers are concerned with the student debt crisis, and want to create solutions to help borrowers.

Government intervention, it seems, is key — and Andrew Rossi agrees.

“We see in the film this great, proud tradition in American history of government intervening, with the Morrill Act, to create the land grant universities in the 19th Century, the GI Bill. The difficulty I think is that the political climate right now would not likely support that kind of legislation,” he said.

So while Ivory Tower does a good job identifying the issues in higher education, we have a long way to go before we see the change we need. The unsustainable race continues.