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New documentary ‘Ivory Tower’: Better investment than a pricey college degree?


It’s a truth universally acknowledged that college has gotten way too expensive. A new documentary – “Ivory Tower” – sets out to explain how that happened and then looks at how students and their universities are coping.

As might be expected, “Ivory Tower” does a better job demonstrating the mess we’re in than finding a way out of the mess. No matter, the film is a helpful and thought-provoking primer, especially enlightening for parents of prospective college students.

Director Andrew Rossi begins by proving the obvious: College costs are out of control. Since 1980, the price of everything has gone up, of course. In these last three decades, food has gone up 210 percent and health care a whopping 600 percent. But even that’s nothing compared to the price of tuition, which has skyrocketed 1120 percent. Talk about sticker shock. Student loan debt has recently passed the $1 trillion mark. And now we’re in the midst of a tidal wave of debt faults. Simply put, this rise in tuition is unsustainable.

How did we get to this point? Rossi suggests it began in the 1970’s and 80’s, with a philosophical shift in this country’s attitude toward higher education.

During World War II, President Roosevelt argued that everyone had a right to a good education and thanks to the G.I. bill, two million vets eventually made it to college on the government’s dime.

In the 1960’s, higher education was made even more accessible to more people, thanks to the establishment of Pell Grants and favorable student loans.

But sometime in the mid-1970’s, Rossi says education went from being seen as a public good to strictly a private good. President Ronald Reagan and others saw “subsidizing intellectual curiosity” as a wasteful way to spend the public’s money. A college education benefited the private citizen more than the public, so the private citizen should bear more of the financial burden. Pell Grants shrunk precipitously and the student loan industry took off. As of 2013, student loans rose to $113 billion.

Exacerbated by this decade’s economic collapse, state universities of late have seen their state funding mechanism collapse (down by as much as 40 percent) and their response has been to jack up tuition (by 230 percent.)

It turns out that the most prized applicants for any state university these days are out-of-state students, primarily because they pay out-of-state tuition, which can be double what their in-state counterparts pay. Over the last 20 years, out-of-state student enrollment has doubled.

In order to lure these “valuable” students, colleges across the land often compete, in what Rossi calls, “perk wars.” High-end student housing now resembles top-notch hotels more than they do the spartan dormitories of old: pools, tanning salons, on-site restaurants. Campuses have become major construction sites, with giant new stadiums and architecturally magnificent student centers.

Universities often resemble small cities. And to pay for these expanded footprints, they have had to double the amount of debt they have taken on. As it turns out, colleges are in as shaky a financial state as their students.

“Ivory Tower,” of course, can only scratch the surface of the many problems facing higher eduction in this country. But it stirs up so many provocative issues that it’s well worth investing the time to watch it. (A better investment than a pricey college degree, perhaps?)

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