My colleague Kate and I took a trip into Manhattan to see the limited release documentary the Ivory Tower. This film addresses the skyrocketing cost of a college education in America. As student debt tips the trillion-dollar mark, filmmaker Andrew Rossi asks the question, “Is the high cost of college tuition worth it?”
The film begins by introducing us to Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco, who shares his philosophical view on the value of a liberal arts degree and the importance of critical thinking, writing and intellectual inquiry. Fundamentally, many agree that a college education is important in preparing students for the workforce and advancement. However, the cost of a college degree today is out of reach for many without incurring large debt. The media is flooded with articles addressing the question, “Is a college degree still a good value?” Many wonder if a college degree will soon be only a dim dream for middle class Americans.
Since 1978, the cost of college tuition in the US has risen at a much higher rate than inflation and at a significantly higher rate than the price of food and healthcare. Why? Who is to blame? The Ivory Tower addresses the economic challenges facing colleges and universities today. Private colleges and universities as well as state universities are in debt. Why? One reason is that many institutions are trying to keep up with their peers in the college rankings game. In an attempt to out rank their competitors, colleges and universities are pouring millions of dollars into fancy gyms, state-of-the-art science centers and performing arts facilities. Many of these universities and colleges are now facing tremendous debt. Adding to the crisis, state universities are no longer receiving generous funding from their home states. To offset debt and the deficit in state funding, colleges raise tuition.
Today few affordable or free college options are available, and Americans are pushing back. Cooper Union’s recent controversial decision to charge tuition and deviate from its mission statement of offering a free education to all has been met with highly publicized opposition. Student advocates fought back to no avail.
The film introduces Mass Open Online Classes (MOOC) as a solid conceptual idea to reduce tuition costs. However, thus far MOOCs prove to have widespread shortcomings when not partnered with a live teacher. The filmmaker does believe that technology will have a significant part in lowering the cost of college in the future. He thinks that a cost-effective teaching model will be discovered if technological think tanks work together with educators.
Rossi poses no magic bullet to solve the complex issues of staggering college tuition costs and steep student debt. Instead, I believe that the filmmaker’s intention is to facilitate a dialogue, as other recent films such as Race to Nowhere and Bully have done. The film asks the question, “How can we make a college education affordable?” You can learn more by visiting www.takepart.com/ivorytower.
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