The documentary Ivory Tower, the latest film by writer/director Andrew Rossi, takes on the costs to students and society caused by the continual rise in college tuition and the resultant $1 trillion dollars of student loan debt nationwide. Opening in mid June at selected cities across the country, Ivory Tower describes higher education as a business model that has resulted in costs to students that have risen continuously since 1978. As a result, this model has created a generation in so much debt that they are in financial bondage for years after graduation.
Director Rossi asks the question of why higher education must be such a cost intensive environment. His film shows that some schools feel they must compete for and cater to students' desires and dollars, and have become more like spas than classrooms. Others, like Deep Springs College in California are free, but are tiny, only for men, and only for two years. The venerable Cooper Union, in New York City, has always been free to students, but recent major building projects have necessitated that the school begin charging tuition.
The film explores various alternatives to the traditional four-year college path. The pros and cons of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) are discussed, as well as the $100,000 Thiel Fellowship offered by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, which encourages students to skip college entirely and focus on developing their own projects or businesses. The film also discusses the role of the federal government in helping students repay their debt. In fact, the film's release coincides with recent changes to President Obama's Pay as You Earn plan.
Although Ivory Tower depicts many of higher education's woes and excesses, reviewers agree that no real solution is presented. Perhaps this is why programs like UnCollege,which encourages young people to find mentors and participate in internships are gaining traction. At least Ivory Tower will get people talking, and hopefully thinking more about alternatives to the increasingly prohibitive costs of higher education. The film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at both the Sundance and the Miami Film Festivals.