Hillary Atkin

CNN Documentary Asks Whether College Is Worth the Price

Nov 20, 2014

What used to be taken as generally accepted wisdom — that the path to success in our society includes a college degree — is called into question in a thought-provoking documentary, “Ivory Tower,” which asks the burning question of whether college is worth the cost.

College tuition has spiraled out of control in the past four decades — in absolute terms, it’s escalated at a rate of more than 1000% since 1978, far outpacing the cost of healthcare or any other goods and services. In another surprising statistic, student loan debt has surpassed the $1 trillion mark — more than the U.S. credit card debt.

Public universities face particularly dire straits as their funding has been drastically reduced and rising intuition only makes up a portion of the losses.

In just the latest example of the seemingly endless cost increases, the University of California Board of Regents is scheduled to vote today on whether to raise tuition by 28% over the next five years for students in the 10-campus UC system.

“Ivory Tower,” which will make its television premiere on CNN after its world premiere at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, was directed and produced by Emmy-nominated filmmakers Andrew Rossi and Kate Novak.

From the hallowed halls of Harvard University to community colleges struggling for funding, the documentary examines new models for accessing higher education fueled by technological advances that portend a transformational breaking point.

It looks at how colleges struggle to balance their mission for higher learning with the need to compete with other institutions for the best and brightest faculty and students – and the pressure to pivot university funding towards capital enhancements like state-of-the-art sports facilities, luxurious dining halls and research labs that may gain prestige but do not always lead to better learning experiences.

“We were surprised at how rapidly outside forces are changing education,” said Rossi, in an interview describing his experience making the film. “Institutional change has been at the core of almost every movie I’ve made, from the upheaval in the newspaper business depicted in ‘Page One: Inside the New York Times’ (2011) to the death of grand, formal dining experienced by the Italian family in ‘Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven’ (2008) to the advent of legal same sex marriage in Massachusetts, as documented in ‘The Sky Did Not Fall’ (2004).”

Rossi says when production started on “Ivory Tower” in the spring of 2012, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs – the free, digital versions of some of world’s best college classes) were just beginning to capture the imagination of technologists and the media. Now, some colleges and state university systems are examining whether MOOCs can help broaden access to a college education while reducing costs.

“Here was a revolutionary force that could upend the ossified traditions of lecture-driven education, allowing for cost savings that might rescue future students from crippling student loan debt,” he said.

As for the solution to the student loan debt crisis, he says it must come from its constituents — informed parents and students who should demand that the current system change by being open to a broad range of choices for professional preparation, not all of which will include going to a traditional four-year college.

In the film, the complex issues of the costs of higher education are brought to life in interviews with professors including Columbia University’s Andrew Debanco, author of “College: What It Was, Is, And Should Be” and students like David Boone, who won a full scholarship to Harvard after a hardscrabble life in a Cleveland ghetto.

Yet the benefits that Boone enjoys are becoming increasingly difficult for other American university students to attain, even as Harvard continues to be the role model for almost every institution of higher learning in the United States, setting a precedent for constant expansion and improvement.

The documentary also looks at education in what are known as “party schools,” and how that that can mean that some students are shortchanged academically and do not get learning value for their tuition money.

But the news is not all bad. Rossi and Novak find that other unique programs hold the potential for life-changing college experiences.

Rossi says that overall, the landscape is shifting.

“Online courses will get better and add more to the competitive landscape that impacts tuition, and the credit bubble for student loans has to change. The job market is not stable enough for most people to count on uninterrupted employment for an entire career. But, we’re just at the beginning of this market disruption – we don’t know how or what the college experience will look like at the end of this transition.”

Still there are burning questions that need to be answered now for students looking ahead to the future, and after making the documentary, Rossi has some advice for them.

“Get to know what you’re getting into before you sign the acceptance letter,” he said. “Students need to think of college with a long view – what will it prepare me to do with my life? Are there experiences I need from a particular college that are worth the debt it will cost me? Will the school I’m considering help me get into graduate school if that’s part of my professional development plan?”

Sounds like questions that could also engender insightful answers to college admission application essay questions.

(“Ivory Tower” airs on CNN November 20 at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET/PT.)

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