Film Review – Ivory Tower

Ivory Tower

Ivory Tower

When I am not writing film reviews or doing whatever it is that I do to fill my days (it’s not really that interesting), I volunteer as a mentor to high school students. (Shout out to Southwest Boys and Girls Club!) One of the most important things I do is help students navigate the college application system and fill out their financial aid forms. Even more importantly, I help them decipher their aid packages and try to figure out how they can go to college without chaining themselves to a lifetime of student loan debt. I struggle all the time knowing higher education is one of the few ways my students can move up the economic ladder, but if they don’t make the right choices they may end up financially imperiled. But what is the alternative? Hanging out after high school in a neighborhood with no police presence after dark. Getting a low-wage job that offers nothing in the way of security or mental stimulation. And more importantly, they’ll missing the self-exploration and growth that a solid liberal-arts education can offer. Not every student is going to take the opportunity to become an informed citizen with enhanced critical thinking skills, but why should the chance to become that person be limited to only those with enough money to pay full tuition? The new film Ivory Tower, directed by Andrew Rossi, takes a look at the business of the college education and asks if it is worth the ever-increasing amount of money it takes to get one.

Ivory Tower Movie Still 1

Rossi begins at Harvard, the first university in the United States and the model for how we think about a liberal education, where the goal is not a jobs training, but rather the creation of a thoughtful citizenry with the ability to take part in a greater society. But is that still Harvard’s goal? Should it be? Is there a difference between what colleges say their aims are and what they are actually doing? Is educating the populace as important as making money? What exactly are students paying for? Ivory Tower takes a look at these questions and attempts to determine if any of this is worth it to go into debt for.

It’s a sad fact, but students are consumers of the education product, and colleges are competing for their dollars – not on price, but with luxury amenities. Fancy sports facilities, luxury dorms, and elite experiences are used as lures to get students to choose a school and pay the ever-increasing tuitions. State schools are catering to out-of-state students – who often pay more – by offering them a party atmosphere and an unstated “easy” track that gets them a diploma without having to put in all the work. Research and scholarship have become more important to a school’s bottom line than teaching, and it is the students who have suffered because education has just become another money-making enterprise. Less than 50% of students are graduating in 4 years, which also contributes to the cost. The film presents a few alternate models such as free colleges, the uncollege movement, and Massive Open Online Courses such as Coursera. But free-tuition colleges are having a tough time staying free, uncolleging seems to work best for the well connected and advantaged, and no one finishes their MOOC classes.

Ivory Tower Movie Still 2

Ivory Tower asks some pretty good questions. Are colleges and universities doing what they are supposed to do, and is it worth going into debt for whatever it is that they are doing? What Rossi doesn’t do is present any solutions, which is okay; sometimes just stating the problem is enough to get people thinking. However, he limits almost all of the colleges and universities covered to prestige institutions: Harvard, Stanford, Cooper Union, Spellman, bigger state schools etc. The unstated real question behind the film is “Are elite schools worth going into debt for.” And the answer is pretty clearly no. One mother freaks out because tuition and board at NYU is going to cost her $60,000 PER YEAR. I would be losing it too. She kept talking about having to readjust her expectations. Yup. Most people in this country are not worrying about if they can afford the tuition at NYU. They are debating if they should send their kid to a small 4-year state school right away, or if they should send them to a cheaper community college for 2 years to get the prerequisites out of the way before they transfer to a more expensive school to finish. Rossi uses these elite schools to represent all schools, but I don’t think that works. I would like to see a lot more information presented about community colleges and smaller schools. Are they a viable option, or are they suffering from completely different problems? Most of what I saw in this film was a failure on the part of parents and students to choose wisely based on their finances – no one should have $170,00 in student loans. There must have been other schools that kid could have gone to. Ivory Tower touches on an important issue, but its limited scope made it a somewhat frustrating experience for me.




Adelaide enjoys watching all kinds of movies, but is never going to see Titanic unless there is a sizable amount of money involved.

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