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Documentary “Ivory Tower” questions whether the cost of higher education is worth it

Colette Greenstein | 7/3/2014, 6 a.m.

In the documentary “Ivory Tower,” director Andrew Rossi explores two issues: The first is how education has been sold as part of the American Dream for a better and brighter future. The second is how tuition rates at Ivy League and state colleges and universities around the country have spiraled out of control since 1978, as they embraced a business model that promoted expansion over quality learning.

Rossi, who graduated from Yale University and Harvard Law School, switched careers to become a filmmaker 13 years ago and says he is “drawn to stories that deal with disruption.” His last film, “Page One: Inside the New York Times,” looked at the crisis in the newspaper industry. In this documentary, out in theaters now, Rossi asks, “Is college worth the cost?”

The 90-minute documentary moves quickly but covers a lot of ground, from the dramatic rise of student debt (which hit the $1 trillion mark in the U.S. as of 2012), to how state-funded colleges and universities have increased their administrative staffs 240 percent since 1975 versus 51 percent for faculty, to how colleges and universities are expanding construction to keep up with elite and Ivy League universities.

Cooper Union in New York, one of the last colleges in America to provide a free education to all of its undergraduates, has recently been dealt a mighty blow. Under the leadership of President Jamshed Bharucha and its board of trustees, the school has been aggressive in its expansion of new buildings and borrowed more money than it could afford, and as a result has mismanaged its endowment. For the first time in its 155-year history, the school will charge an annual tuition rate of $20,000 to students beginning in Fall 2014.

Rossi, who feels “invested in this topic as a parent and as an educator,” also explores the high cost of student debt, and shows how some students are rejecting the notion of attending a traditional college.

The documentary features entrepreneur Peter Thiel and his “20 Under 20” fellowship program. The fellowship encourages potentially college-bound youth to forego college. Rather, they are given a “no-strings-attached” grant of $100,000 to focus on their work, their research, and their self-education. The hope is that such unconventional education will hatch a whole new crop of start-up and hi-tech entrepreneurs, and maybe even billionaires like Mark Zuckerburg.

Rossi also captures the UnCollege movement taking place in San Francisco which advises young people to “unbundle the college experience” and create their own course of learning that is much less expensive than a traditional four-year college.

Despite the numerous issues covered, Rossi’s goal for the documentary is to “look at certain examples of higher education, how it works, and boil down to its most crystallized version of what’s working and what doesn’t work.”

On the flipside of the high cost of education, two students speak about how important their college experience has been for them. David Boone, an African American student who hails from Cleveland, was homeless during his high school years and was awarded a four-year “full-need” scholarship to Harvard. (Harvard is one of the 1.25 percent of colleges in America that provide “full-need” financial aid to students.)

Boone says he believes an education will provide him and his family with more opportunities and a better and brighter future.

Amirah Mitchell, a sophomore who left a mostly white high school to go to Spelman College in Atlanta, states that she was able to find an identity as “more than just the black girl” during her time at the all-girl school. Spelman has given her the tools for personal growth, empowerment, and success, she says.

Clayton Christensen, the Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, regarded as one of the world’s top experts on innovation and growth, states that “Harvard is the source of DNA for almost all of higher education in America” and, intentionally or not, has spurred and fostered competition among colleges and universities to expand their campuses with construction of new buildings and luxurious residences for students in order to attract out-of-state students who will pay a higher tuition rate.

The ultimate goal of the documentary, Rossi says, is “for parents and prospective parents to start a conversation for themselves.”