Sunday, November 23, 2014

Ivory Tower: A Review (Review #675)


Education is expensive.  That is a given.  Ivory Tower, a new documentary, asks two pertinent questions.  1.) WHY is it so expensive to where graduates face decades of debt to pay off their education when there's no guarantee that they will have good jobs post-graduation, and 2.) is it worth the cost?  In its brief running time Ivory Tower covers a lot of territory, and while the results might be a bit rushed the film itself is a fascinating investigation on how a university education may not be worth the price of admission.

Ivory Tower explores various aspects of higher education.  There's how universities have begun to compete with each other to provide the most amenities to prospective students, creating a mad rush to build bigger facilities that in turn drive up costs for attending.  Things are not helped that in these universities, the idea of education goes out the window due to the whirl of social activities.  The idea of evaluations, the film argues, goes further into thinking of universities as businesses rather than centers of learning.

As is the case in these things, Ronald Reagan is responsible for a lot of the problems.  Public funding of education has undergone a radical decrease since the Reagan Revolution, leading to an increase of both federal student loans and private loan companies charging extremely high rates for the money, leading to graduates unable to pay back the debt even if they wanted to because they simply cannot find jobs after graduation.

All sorts of plans and ideas float about, from the Thiel Fellowship and the Uncollege Movement (where people are paid to drop in exchange for starting a start-up) to MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses), which are free to all.  Ultimately, whatever solutions are out there, they pale next to the gargantuan figure of student debt, which will crush everyone and is making negative changes at Cooper Union, which until last year was the only higher education center that did not charge tuition and had guaranteed free education.

I look on Ivory Tower as more of a primer on the complex and difficult issue of student debt.  It covers a great deal of ground, which perhaps in its 90+ minute running time may not be enough time to hit everything.  Still, the information and student stories that we do get are fascinating.  There is the story of Deep Springs College in Death Valley, an all-male college that is a mixture of commune, farm, and college.  Here, the students are a small number, they work around the farm, and engage in learning, antithetical to the party schools like Arizona State University.

Ivory Tower does not raise objection to the idea of an all-male college, no surprise given that it also covers historically black colleges such as Spelman College (which was created for African-American women), it is interesting to see that the film does present alternatives to the traditional state university.  The film also looks at the issue of not just the cost of education but also on whether the cost students are left with is worth it given how bleak the future for many graduates is. 

If Ivory Tower's solution is to put MORE money into higher education, then I think the film loses a great opportunity to show that lack of money isn't the problem.   Near the end we see that at San Jose State, a private company was brought in to help with remedial math students at SJS.  The film never questions why college-level students require remedial math.

However, Ivory Tower does touch on interesting elements about the state of higher education.  The mad race to outdo other universities to attract students with fancy buildings is worth exploring.  The rise of administration at the cost of actual professors is also something that could be delved further into.  The high cost of education with the diminishing results from four (or more) years of spending is something that I think requires much study.

Ivory Tower doesn't so much offer solutions (though like a lot of these 'advocacy' films, we are directed to a website to learn more), and the problems are bigger than blaming one group (what did Milton Friedman ever do to them?).  Still, I thought Ivory Tower was a strong investigation about how a bad mixture of high cost and low results may be more than anyone can afford in more ways than one.       



  1. Looks to be an interesting documentary.


    1. For anyone in college, contemplating college, or parents w/children in or about to go, Ivory Tower gives a lot to think about.


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