Sundance Film Festival: “Ivory Tower” gives explaining higher ed woes the old college try

Ivory Tower , Sundance Film Festival 2014

If a university built the so-called “ivory tower” today, it would have a climbing wall, plasma TVs on every floor, and penthouse apartments for all the rich out-of-state kids.

That’s the takeaway from documentary filmmaker Andrew Rossi’s strong “Ivory Tower,” which looks at the many complicated and interconnected woes bringing higher education to a crisis point — rising tuition costs, mounting student debt, mounting university debt, and a seeming emphasis on being the most prestigious school in your conference, with the biggest stadium and most lavish student center.

If you’re expecting a bash job like “Waiting For Superman” did for public education, which smuggled in an infomercial for dicey “education reforms” like vouchers and charter schools, think again. Rossi does look at more radical alternatives, like an entirely online university or the “Hack Your Education” movement to have students basically skip school and go try to be the next Mark Zuckerberg.

But he does so with a skeptical journalist’s eye, exposing the shortcomings of these flashy “magic bullets” that keep coming along. In the end, surprisingly for a film that is so critical of today’s higher education, “Ivory Tower” reaffirms the importance of our nation’s universities. They still deliver the most effective education to its students, Rossi argues. They just do so inefficiently.

The prestige race seems to be the primary culprit in the spike in higher education costs, where tuition has doubled the rate of inflation for the last 30 years. The race to build new showpiece facilities has come at a time when state support for schools has plummeted, shifting the burden more and more on students. (Better go use that climbing wall at Union South, kids. You paid for it.) It also means that university start chasing affluent out-of-state students, who pay more the double the tuition of in-state students on average, and then feel pressure to offer amenities like luxury dorms to attract them

And those rising costs have come at a time when college loans couldn’t be easier to get. But the debt on those loans (an average of $25,000 per student) can hobble new graduates, especially in a glum jobs market. Last month the national student loan debt topped $1 trillion, outpacing the nation’s credit card debt.

The film looks at some alternate schools that seem to have had success, including Spelman College in Georgia, an African-American college where spiritual growth is as key as educational growth, or Deep Springs College in Nevada, a free but intensive two-year college for males that mixes extensive classroom discussion with physical labor. There’s also a lot of screen time given to the struggles at Cooper Union, a New York school which has provided free education for 150 years, but whose administration has pushed to start charging tuition, resulting in a 65-day student occupation of the president’s office last summer. (The school’s board voted last week to approve tuition starting in 2018, a fact that just makes it under the wire into the finished film.)

And it looks at how universities are trying to innovate — San Jose State University’s attempt to partner with for-profit company Udacity for all-online courses resulted in disastrous pass-fail rates, but a hybrid “flipped” course, in which students watch lectures at home and interact with students in class, holds some promise.

I remember watching Rossi’s previous film “Page One” and thought it got pretty simplistic on the challenges facing newspapers, and I’m sure education experts will find “Ivory Tower” similarly facile. But I thought it was a strong conversation-starter on the topic, and I appreciate that it didn’t rush to some easy answer, but “sifts and winnows” — to quote from the Wisconsin Idea — as it looks for answers. I can’t wait for people in Madison to see it and talk about it.

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