Ivory Tower: The Increasing Costs and Decreasing Benefits of Higher Education

Andrew Rossi's new documentary, Ivory Tower, looks at higher education today, especially the vertiginously escalating tuition costs and the consequences of those costs, from crushing debt burdens on young graduates to the compromises schools make to attract students who are able to pay full price.

The film shows schools spending money on fancy buildings and extravagant amenities and then ratcheting tuition up even higher to cover the costs. In an interview, Rossi said, "Frequently there are outlays of cash toward the creation of laboratories and bringing all of the professor's staff to the campus but it benefits very few people. Oftentimes it has no impact on the mass of students on campus. Is that cost really worth the corresponding increase in tuition?"

Tuition is hiked up even at the schools created specifically for the purpose of making education broadly available. State support for public universities plummets due to unrelated budget problems. One segment of the documentary focuses on the decision by the trustees of Cooper Union to reverse the free-tuition policy that was in place since the school's founding.

Rossi advises students to apply to schools that have a strength in the area they might want to focus on after graduation, and then find the one with the best aid, the best completion rates, and the lowest amount of student debt. "And don't worry about which one has the most popular football team or the lushest student center. Don't worry about whether there's a rock climbing wall or tanning beds."

Some of the most successful student experiences in the film are at schools with a distinctive approach and a strong sense of purpose like Deep Springs and Spelman. And the Uncollege alternative provided by Peter Thiel has "driven a lot of the conversation challenging the moral authority of colleges. That has been healthy in terms of spurring debate. But he himself admits that foregoing or dropping out of college as he proposes does not work for disadvantaged students. He acknowledges that the high school graduates he selects are 'extraordinary.' And his fellowship is another form of credentialing." A college degree may not be as important in finding a job as "ideas you could create, a simulacrum of credentials, through apps and social media. To demonstrate skill and achievement, the imprimatur of an institution is not as meaningful. If you can show you hacked some solutions or solved problems in someone else's code, that's what's meaningful and that's what people want to hire."

The statistics in the film about the number of students who do not get a degree after four years are troubling. "Many students are juggling jobs and families," Rossi said. "The schools are not immune from culpability because in some cases those who are working so hard to maintain a job are doing so because tuition is so high. And some students drop out because they are assuming so much debt they are afraid they won't be able to convert the degree into a job that will permit them to pay it back."

A highlight of the film is the "Office Hours" resource at Harvard, where students can get one-on-one help with their coursework. "It's stunning, the amount of attention the students get in Office Hours, and it's all about studying, understanding problems, improving skills, in a liberal arts way, even in a computer class. It is so starkly different from a MOOC [Massive Open Online Course] that is being delivered online with a virtual instructor."

Rossi believes that "Elizabeth Warren's proposal is a good form of relief for student debtors. Though it hasn't passed the Senate, some progress is being made at the state level in Wisconsin, for example. The real structural overhaul necessary to rectify the financial structure of non-profit schools, which is clearly broken, would require legislation with the scope of the Morrill Act or the GI Bill."