“Ivory Tower” is one of those call-to-arms documentaries that get you fired up about a social problem and then proceeds to bum you out as it slowly reveals there is no clear solution to fix it.
The spotlight “Ivory Tower” shines is on the skyrocketing cost of higher education and the toll crushing student-loan debt is taking on an entire generation of Americans.
The movie, directed by Andrew Rossi (who was also responsible for the excellent “Page One: Inside the New York Times), does a fine job of diagnosing all the ailments that led to this looming crisis.
There are budgetary issues caused by the combination of less state funding for higher education and disproportionate administrative costs. The budget crunch is compounded by universities going into debt to build all sorts of attractive amenities, as the culture of student-as-customer results in sweet rock-climbing walls and high drop-out rates.
With little creativity when it comes to how to pay for all of this, tuition becomes the primary revenue generator, and not surprisingly those costs have risen exponentially over the past 30 years.
The only thing that seems to be prolonging the evitable cost/benefit tipping point is the fact those with a bachelor’s degree continue to earn significantly more than those with just a high school diploma.
After thoroughly freaking out all the parents in the audience who are suddenly calculating how many mortgages they will have to take out to send Junior to college, “Ivory Tower” bounces around to different campuses all over the country to try and figure out what works, what doesn’t and if college is even necessary for the digital age.
I suppose it is asking a lot of a documentary to untangle such a massive societal Gordian Knot, but it does leave you feeling a little helpless after the movie thoroughly and expertly presents a big fat mess and then just shrugs its shoulders when then inevitable “What’s next?” question gets asked.
Perhaps the biggest irony of all is the best answer might be at Harvard, which the movie pretty much blames for starting this whole mess as other institutions desperately attempted to grab a little of its Ivy League prestige.
With small class sizes, high emphasis on academic success, and affordable tuition, Harvard seems to be doing right what everyone else is doing wrong. The problem is a place like Harvard is only accessible to the intellectually exceptional and the wealthy. Educating the elite is what the United States’ higher education system does amazingly well.
The problem becomes what to do with all the rest of us yahoos who are merely average and whose upward mobility is dependent on a college degree that is increasingly becoming harder and harder to afford.
“Ivory Tower” lets us know we are in for an educational reckoning of epic proportions unless some changes are made to the system sooner rather than later. It would be nice if it had more answers than questions, but at the very least, the fallout is going to make for one heck of a documentary someday.
“Ivory Tower” is rated PG-13 for some suggestive and partying images.