The provocative documentary “Ivory Tower,” arriving on Blu-Ray today, is a sobering look at the state of higher education. Produced by CNN Films, “Ivory Tower” covers numerous facets of the education system, and how rising tuition rates are forcing changes in the way colleges operate.
As colleges strove to separate themselves from other institutions, building elaborate rec centers and stadiums, costs rose, creating a constant increase in tuition rates. This led to increased administrative staffs at the expense of qualified faculty. A perfect storm of rising costs and waste and growing rates has led to a nation of debtors, many of whom either graduated through an institution with lowered educational standards, or who dropped out without getting the education they were seeking. The film relays the stunning information that 68 percent fail to graduate public universities within 4 years, with just over 40 percent failing to graduate after 6 years, all the while accruing more and more debt.
The film’s bleak outlook continues with a brief look at systems like Rate My Professors, causing faculty members to appease their students in order to get a good rating from them rather than provide them with rigorous academic instruction. The most depressing sequence of the film may be a short history lesson of Post World War II higher education. The irony of seeing people who benefited from a state-run education grow up to cut those programs is not lost.
If there’s a misstep in the film, it’s the segments involving Cooper Union, one of the last free colleges, and the protests which ensue when they decide to charge students for the first time. The crew follows the Cooper Union students’ well-meaning but naive occupation of the President’s office. The students’ plight is understandable, but it seems their anger would have been better directed at MetLife, who charged Cooper Union $10 million a year, plunging the school into debt. The students give passionate speeches about the value of the university, but it’s unclear how optimism can erase the school’s terrible finances. During the school’s graduation, some students stand up and turn their back on the president during his commencement speech in an eye-rolling moment. The students are presented in the film as people who literally don’t understand how money works, and it fails to examine just how the institution fell that far behind.
Which leads to another point the film makes: the leaders in charge come across as intelligent businessmen, either. Ironically, the more schools are run like businesses, they’re actually bad businesses, generating a nation of debtors. Increasingly, colleges are being seen as a bad investment. Alternative forms of education such as online courses and the Uncollege movement are examined, and they both seem to be lacking. Uncollege students are encouraged to “hack” their education and find their own path, avoiding the debt college brings. One of the students jokingly calls it a “cult,” and when the film shows the group’s communal living space in Silicon Valley, the description feels apt.
On the opposite end of the socialization spectrum from Uncollege are online-only courses from companies such as Udacity. “Ivory Tower” looks at how the decline in state funding in California led to online-only Udacity implementation at one college, and the results were disastrous, with only a quarter of enrollees passing basic math courses. As it turns out, some students need teachers, face to face, who will treat them like a human being. Imagine that.
Bleak, expansive and insightful, “Ivory Tower” is a fascinating look at higher education in the 21st century.