Ivory Tower: Sundance Review

A stimulating and upsetting look at how high tuition and huge student loans have created a perfect storm over American colleges.

Andrew Rossi's sobering film zeroes in on multiple causes of drastically rising college tuition.

Virtually nothing has shot up in cost more drastically over the past half-century than college tuition, spurring a crisis in higher education that is forthrightly addressed in Ivory Tower. Produced by CNN Films for broadcast in the fall, Andrew Rossi's sobering film zeroes in on multiple causes of the problem, studies specific situations at various schools and looks at some of the alternatives, such as online study, that are being tried. The subject is so big that it would take a film of three hours or more to comprehensively address it but, in putting so many ideas and questions on the table, the documentary usefully opens up a discussion that must be joined by citizens in and outside of academia. More festival showings and pre-broadcast theatrical exposure lie ahead.

In a film bulging with unsettling statistics, Ivory Tower presents two big ones that set lights flashing and alarm bells ringing: The cost of college, in absolute terms, has risen at a rate of more than 1000 percent since 1978, and the amount of student loan debt has surpassed $1 trillion, greater than all American credit card debt. Beyond creating distressing financial burdens on those it directly effects, this perfect storm makes many young people think twice about extending their educations at all in a country that, uniquely in the world, dedicated itself 150 yeas ago to laying the groundwork for advanced learning institutions accessible to everyone. 

Using articulate experts such as Andrew Delbanco, Anya Kamenetz and Clayton Christensen to frame the issue, Rossi, whose last film, Page One: Inside the New York Times, examined rough straits in the newspaper business, plausibly begins his investigation at the start of the 2012 academic year at Harvard, “the source of DNA for almost all of higher education in America,” in Christensen's words. Spurred by the legend of Harvard's most celebrated drop-out, Mark Zuckerberg (Bill Gates is another), most freshmen sign up for the computer science class CS50, including one formerly homeless black student who deeply appreciates that the school can pay his way but worries about whether he can hack it.

In stark contrast to such Ivy League seriousness is the country's number one party school, Arizona State, which spends most of its money not on teachers but on swimming pools, luxury dorms and other posh infrastructure in order to lure out-of-state students, who pay full freight. The diminishment of academic seriousness here and at other state schools (where tuition was once very low or even non-existent) leads to yet another statistical shocker: 68 percent of students at public universities don't graduate within four years.

This depressing information is set in relief by a historical pause to look back at the little-remembered Morrill Act of 1862, in which the government decreed that a portion of land in every state in the union be set aside for an institution of higher learning, a move that also made possible the establishment of black colleges in the South. The film also usefully recalls the G.I. Bill, under which two million soldiers returning from World War II were able to attend college without worrying about the cost.

As far as education was concerned, those wartime eras were the good old days. So was the heyday of the state university and college systems in California, once a model for the nation, but which of late has become severely compromised due to a lack of sufficient funding. Rossi takes at quick look at some smaller institutions to which committed students give good report cards, such as the free, all-male, work-and-study Deep Springs College in Death Valley and Spelman College for black women, but spends a great deal of time covering the crisis at Manhattan's Cooper Union, where students occupied the office of the president for 65 days in protest of the implementation of tuition at the historically free school.

Looking to the West, the film checks out the pros and cons of the UnCollege movement in San Francisco, in which students try to plot out curricula on their own, as well as the more ambitious Massive Open Online Courses program that was hatched at Stanford, produced low learning rates but has furthered the idea of flexible hybrid programs in which mass lectures could be experienced online, opening up more time for smaller classes and meaningful professor-student interchange. Clearly, the formula for combining online and in-person learning will keep evolving over time.

The film is packed with pertinent and startling ideas on its vast subject but, due to the conventional running time, it can only touch on some issues and ignores others. One of the most stupefying statistics relates to how much more money schools now spend on administrative costs rather than on faculty, a disparity that must be addressed in any analysis of why tuition has so dramatically increased and a point that should be raised anytime states (particularly California) ask for more tax money for their schools. Among the other topics for which there was no time: the enormous endowments of some schools, beginning with Harvard; the content and usefulness of what's actually taught; the significant and well-funded influx of foreign students, particularly from China and India, at top American universities, and whether there are things the U.S. system could learn from the way things are done at institutions abroad.

Endlessly stimulating and provoking, Ivory Tower presents a solid overview of an urgent problem that some claim is about to implode and others believe can be worked through with the intelligent application of fresh ideas. Inevitably, all the smart talk here will trigger much more discussion.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. documentary competition)
Production: CNN Films
Director: Andrew Rossi
Producers: Josh Braun, Andrew Rossi
Executive producers: Vinnie Malhorta, Amy Entelis
Directors of photography: Andrew Rossi, Bryan Sarkinen, Andrew Coffman
Editors: Chad Beck, Christopher Branca, Andrew Coffman
97 minutes

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