“Ivory Tower” (2014)
Tuition at most universities and colleges soared in the past 30 years, making the cost of higher education out of reach for some as the student loan debt passes the 1 trillion mark for Americans. The student loan debt in this country is more than the total credit card debt. This fascinating and sometimes scary documentary explores if the traditional college experience is worth the heavy debt, and are there alternatives to the traditional university system.
The film starts out with the 2016 class at Harvard University moving into their dorms. We meet a young African-American student, David Boone, who is taking the most popular class on campus, an introduction to Computer Science. For David, going to Harvard was a goal that looked impossible to reach. David was homeless during his high school years and lived in one of the roughest neighborhoods in Cleveland. But David has made it to his dream school, now he must survive Harvard’s tough academic standards, and excel in his major field.
One of the premises of the film is that institutions of higher learning are in competition with each other not just for the student body but also in who can build the biggest buildings. While faculty staffing has dropped, staffing for the administration and services portion of the system has exploded. At the same time building on campus has grown, the monetary help from the state and federal governments has gone down, making schools depend more and more on tuition to meet their needs.
A number of schools are highlighted in the film, some in quite a negative light, such as Arizona State University, which has been called one of the nation’s best party schools. Other schools are shown in a much more positive light, like the historically black, all women’s Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. Several students are interviewed about their positive experience going to a small school, which emphasizes the community experience for their students.
Filmmaker Andrew Rossi, who brought us the highly informative 2011 film “Page One: Inside the New York Times,” presents us with a sobering film about the state of higher education in America. One of the saddest tales is the story of New York City’s Cooper Union founded in the 19th Century by philanthropist Peter Cooper. Cooper felt that a free education was the key to developing productive members of society. Because of bad management and building an elaborate student activities center, the college is about to charge tuition for the first time in its history. A student protest takes over the president of the college’s office, and they occupy it for over sixty days, but to no avail, tuition will be charged to incoming students in the next year.
While the film is filled with information, it never drags or slows down. I think one of the strong points of this movie is that it looks at so many topics to explore the problem and the possible solutions. Is online education the wave of the future or does this way of learning work effectively? Are schools that try and break the traditional mode, like the Deep Springs College (a college located on a working ranch), the way to go? Can schools retool their need for continued expansion or are some universities destined to die under mountains of debt? Not all these questions are fully answered, but it does leave the audience with a number of topics to talk about and explore after seeing the film.
Colleges and universities are going to have to make some tough choices in the very near future. Are they going to continue to compete with each other to build the biggest and grandest campus or are they going to go back and focus on the student, which is why they were founded in the first place. “Ivory Tower” is a film that every parent with college bound children must see. As one father asks a president of a university “Is my daughter going to get a job and not come back home after [college]?” It’s a film that asks a question that 30 years ago would never have come up; is the cost of a college education worth it? My Rating: Full Price
My movie rating system from Best to Worst: 1). I Would Pay to See it Again 2). Full Price 3). Bargain Matinee 4). Cable 5). You Would Have to Pay Me to See it Again
The film is playing exclusively at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema