Is college worth the cost? The answer to this relatively simple question used to be a resounding yes, but in today’s economy, more and more young people and their families are pondering whether or not this remains the case. Like many things in our daily lives, the way one answers this question likely depends on his or her education level, financial standing and employment status, but you can’t deny that given the obstacles getting in a young person’s path to prosperity, the question that opens this paragraph doesn’t deserve at least a little face time.
“Ivory Tower” from Paramount Pictures works to answer this question and several others. It does so by talking to those deeply embedded in the higher education machine, from faculty to students to administrators to immediate family members. The film doesn’t necessarily choose a side, but does ask critical questions in a way that most of us hope we would be courageous enough to do, yet often fail to achieve. Its conclusions are somewhat open ended, but we do come away with a better understanding of just how pathetic a direction our approach to serving young people has turned toward in the last several decades. Whether or not we simultaneously develop a desire to change direction is probably another story.
Director Andrew Rossi (“Page One: Inside The New York Times”) is the man behind the camera here. His film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize as an official selection in 2014. Rossi asks critical questions about the value of higher education, revealing how colleges have come to embrace a business model that often promotes expansion over quality learning. As sad as the stories we encounter sound, they’re all true, and it is this reality that helps propel “Ivory Tower” forward with an edge as sharp as other notable films in this genre, such as “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Food, Inc.”
My day job consists of serving prospective students and families as they inquire about one of the nation’s top public research universities. I work in an Admissions Office that exists solely to help encourage interest, turn that interest to applications, admit those applicants to our school and, ultimately, convince those admitted students that they should enroll. Each fall, colleagues and I travel thousands of miles by plane and car, visiting hundreds of high schools worldwide, standing for hours behind our 6 foot tables in gymnasiums during college fairs and fielding the same boring questions about scholarships, residency and deadlines over and over and over again. Every so often, a parent with a chip on his or her shoulder calls our bluff and asks us, usually in front of dozens of other people, whether or not his or her son or daughter will be employed after he or she walks the stage during commencement. The sad reality is, we cannot provide any guarantee, especially these days. Sure, we have statistics that help give piece of mind and hope, but a guarantee? Guarantees come with appliances, not with college degrees.
I eagerly watched “Ivory Tower” weave its foundation by interviewing professional academics who illustrate the history behind the American higher education system. They detail the initial goals and objectives behind this thinking, the value of a traditional liberal arts education and, last but not least, the efforts some college campuses have made to push back on the momentum most other institutions have seized and lunged forward with.
We learn that college tuition in the United States has escalated more in the last five decades than any other American commodity, including gas, bread, milk, you name it. We look at images of young drunk students at large schools like Arizona State, Colorado, Minnesota and more, the bulk of whom seem to have chosen a degree in partying with a minor in over the top public displays of affection. We encounter administrators who tell us all they are doing to make their campuses ebb and flow during a truly messy financial time, yet question their intentions when we learn about the facility arms races happening across the nation, many in an effort to recruit higher paying non-residents.
We look at places like Deep Springs College in Death Valley, CA, an all male learn by doing campus with a total enrollment of 26 students who spend half their time in class and half their time working to make their extremely rural lifestyle sustain itself a day at a time. The leadership behind places like Harvard, Stanford and San Jose State are interviewed and defend the choices they have made to survive, while the students at places like Cooper Union, a historically small, free (that’s right), undergraduate serving institution in Manhattan, storm the president’s office in protest to defend what they believe to be an essential element of their educational experience. We see protests, football games, libraries, recreation centers, office hours, coffee shops, community colleges and online MOOCS, all of which combine to illustrate Rossi’s belief that education today is far more complicated than ever before.
Does “Ivory Tower” make you think? Absolutely. Does if offer any solutions? Not really. It mentions things like online learning as methods tried by some college and university systems, as well as students who go to college essentially off the grid, but it doesn’t go so far as to endorse one outlet over any other. It does, in its simplest form, demand that individual students and families think a little bit harder about the choices they are making, something I advocate for every single day during my professional day job. But, as we all know, sometimes we need to learn by doing rather than by hearing.
More than worth a look, “Ivory Tower” stands and delivers its provocative efforts with passion and insight. The film provides a critical look at the higher education landscape at a time when it is desperately necessary.
Overall, we’re given a clean, bright and grain free video transfer that is well contrasted with the themes and insights offered. The 1.85:1 1080p High Definition imagery is very consistent throughout, and the coloration is extremely balanced from top to bottom. Video footage embedded from prior recordings is well-placed and enhances the film’s flow.
No issues with the English 5.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio soundtrack. We aren’t taking in a big time blockbuster with explosions or anything of that nature, but we do get genuine emotion from students and experts as they spill their guts. The sound moderates the film, and it does so in a way that educations as it tells its story. Other options for audio include Spanish and Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1s, as well as English, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles.
A few things here, including Q&A during opening weekend, a conversation between professionals about disruption in higher education, as well as a lecture on college access and social inequality.
A Final Word:
As entertaining as “Ivory Tower” is, its inability to offer solutions rather than just detailing a few that have been tried over the years is unfortunate. It is a good documentary, but unlikely to take home any major hardware during award season. At 90 minutes, it is too short to really dig in, but long enough to make you scratch your head and wonder about whether or not you really do get what you pay for in this day and age.