The Current and Future Crises of America’s College System

Director: ANDREW ROSSI/2014

In many financial circles, the talk is that the next economic bubble is going to be the student loan industry.  With student loan debt topping $1.1 Trillion dollars, it isn’t a question of “if” as much as “when” will it collapse?

Ivory Tower is a documentary from filmmaker Andrew Rossi (Page One: Inside the New York Times) that seeks to bring awareness to the problem of the cost of college, the crippling debt it is creating, as well as alternative ways colleges are trying to deal with the issue.

Since 1978, the film explains, the cost of college tuition has outpaced inflation rising an astonishing 1,120%.  In that time, nothing else comes close.  Not even health care costs, the cost of food, or energy.  This is a crises.

While more and more young people are heading to college each year than in year’s past, the fact is that this isn’t producing the kind of employment necessary to sustain the system.  To compete for these students colleges are going into crippling debt to offer more and more amenities.  With most of our colleges land-grant colleges, and subsidized from federal or state funds, this means that such amenities are being provided by the taxpayer who are already being squeezed.

Colleges collect more profit from out-of-state students with the means to afford the tuition.  In order to entice these types of students, colleges are basically subsidizing the kind of things that attract such students such as Greek life, the party reputation, and more.  They are also catering more to websites like “rate my professor” where students leave comments about various classes being offered on campus.  Statistics are showing that the easier a class is thought to be, the more students will sign up for it.  Thus, the accusation has been levied that colleges are catering to the least common denominator when it comes to academic rigor in order to compete for the dollars that come with more students enrolled.

Ivory Tower clearly has an agenda, but it is an effective one.  The film starts off at Harvard, and continues to look at other campuses such as Arizona State, and San Jose State.  And while using these as examples of what is going wrong as well as what hope they can offer, we get a look at some unique alternatives.  One alternative is Cooper Union, a longstanding “free” college that has been able to historically produce a consistently strong graduating class each year without charging tuition.  With the ever changing landscape, however, even Cooper Union is finding itself reversing course after 100+ years and beginning with the class of 2016, they are now charging tuition.  Students there launched a massive sit-in to “occupy” the President of the college’s office, but to no avail.

Another alternative is in the desert, called Deep Springs.  Here, students decide collectively what they are going to study and are all required to work in order to sustain the college as well as their place in it.  These can be everything from milking cows, baling hay, or working on electric needs, and more.  In Silicon Valley, one group is actually offering grants for students to not go to school but to come live in a collective where everyone is engaging in entrepreneurial projects to bypass the education offered in higher learning institutions and instead apply their skills to becoming the next big idea that will result in jobs, technological breakthroughs, and personal sustainability.

Ivory Tower also looks at how traditional colleges and universities are trying to adapt the college business model to create new models where strong education still happens at a fraction of the cost.  For a college such as the historically black college, Spelman, the unique atmosphere it maintains still exists for the purpose of creating life-changing experiences for those who attend.  Such life-affirming experiences have so far been able to overcome the cost involved in running the college, but it is an historic commitment that is still producing results.  For Stanford, there has been a lot of experimentation with online classes, as well as utilizing 3rd party vendors to help them reach out to students who are in need of remedial learning before they can be successful at the college level.  This has come with virtually little success.

For all who are concerned about this issue, who might have a high school student that is preparing to graduate and look for an institute of higher learning, this is a wake-up call to the difficulties that await them.  In 2011, over 50% of college graduates under the age of 25 had either no job or were underemployed.  In the time since, those numbers have not vastly improved.  This documentary asks the very hard question, “Is college worth it?” and provides the viewer with many different angles to answering this question. What you’ll come away with the realization that this is going to affect our whole society and not just the college-bound.

Ivory Tower is showing in various cities on certain days.  To learn more, please visit their website at: