‘Ivory Tower’ Documentary Explores Profit Side of Colleges

The Ivory Tower is CNN Films and writer-director Andrew Rossi’s new documentary, which discusses the state of higher education in the United States.

“I saw a headline that student debt exceeded $1 trillion, and that number really bowled me over,” Rossi says. “For me, college was a fantastic time, but once we started doing the research for this film, it became clear that higher education really is in a state of crisis.”

Rossi’s film comments on the growth of the private college, and how the American culture has stepped away from government influence in education.  College has become a way to make money, as opposed to teaching youth to better their futures.

The documentary opens by exploring the current college situation in the US, which Rossi shows to be focusing less and less on educating, and leaning more toward amenities offered – filling dorm rooms with plasma TVs and tanning beds in an effort to attract more students, and thereby more dollars.

There has been an 1120% increase in the cost of college tuition since 1978.   Where is all that money going?  Rossi shows that college administrators are making a surprising amount of money these days.  The president of the University of Chicago is making $3.3 million, writes Ty Burr of The Boston Globe.  The costs associated with construction of elaborate student amenities are also to blame.

One of the most powerful moments can be seen when discussing the Cooper Union financial crisis, when a college in Manhattan which had previously offered education for free began to charge tuition fees.

The students held a protest in the president’s office.  In the end, the college held fast and still charges a tuition.  Rossi uses the instance to show that students can make a change, or at least slow the rising costs, according to Meg Elison of The Daily Californian.

The film explores the idea of massive open online courses (MOOCs), usually offered for free online, as a solution to the student debt crisis. Rossi notes:

“Some of the initial enthusiasm for MOOCs has died down, which I think is healthy. For a while, there was this sense that physical teachers – you know, human beings – would become obsolete, and that is not a future I think we want to have.”

His camera follows two types of students in an effort to show the difference in the college experience.  David Boone is a homeless Chicago kid with a full scholarship to Harvard, who appreciates the opportunity and is studying to improve his life.  On the other hand, there are the privileged who live in luxury apartments and spend their days partying, writes Hugh Hart for The San Francisco Gate.

“This summer, two movies, ‘Neighbors’ and ’22 Jump Street,’ depict college as a beer-bong, keg-stand kind of experience,” Rossi says. “It’s important for parents and prospective students to understand the danger of going into four years of college as one big party and emerging with a ton of debt and an inability to get a job.”

In an interview with Jeremy Kinser for The Sundance Film Festival, Rossi states he is most concerned for students that will go into debt, causing them to miss out on major events in life after graduation.

Events such as buying a home, getting the job they really want, or even starting a family.  All missed out on because they went to college and came out on the other side with a huge debt to pay.