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The UnCollege Blog

Ivory Tower: The Truth About the Student Debt Crisis


Learning for the sake of learning.

We all believe, support and value that statement. We should learn not for a job, not for a grade, but to better ourselves as people and hence, our world.

This is the mindset that has spurred and fueled world-changing research and accomplishments. It’s the beautiful result of human curiosity. It’s the unofficial motto of higher education – or at least it used to be. Lately, financial woes have muddied the system’s vision, causing an uproar on campuses nationwide.

Suddenly, students, professors and administrators aren’t focused on bettering themselves, their classes and their schools. Instead, they are all too busy worrying about making financially viable decisions.

For many, the challenge has become an unexpected virus that has plagued the beautiful ideals found within the collegiate bubble.

No one has highlighted the financial dilemma in higher education better than Andrew Rossi in his documentary, Ivory Tower. He’s compiled an exhaustive amount of interviews, statistics and sources that showcase an unbiased explanation of how higher education has been evolving into a system serving more and more students while delivering uneven results.20140428190004!Ivory_Tower_poster

Market forces have always shaped academia, and Rossi focuses a significant amount of his 90-minute documentary on the financial decision-making of both institutions and the students they exist to serve. Recently, university “prestige spending” has encouraged institutions to deck out dorms with plasma TVs, tanning beds and anything needed to lure students. Colleges have also added to their overhead by way of staffing decisions, with the number of administration positions on campus doubling over since 1987. Such moves have increased tuition, which has increased nearly 1,100 percent in the past 30 years.

Meanwhile, college presidents have been rewarded as if they were CEOs of successful businesses. For example, Rossi shows Robert Zimmer of the University of Chicago whose annual salary was $3.4 million. At the same time, the filmmaker introduces us to Stefanie Gray, a recent grad from Hamilton College who earned a master’s degree and was left with $140,000 in student loan debt and few job prospects.

The problem appears graver at the institutions that educate a large percentage of Americans – state schools. Government funding to state institutions has plummeted 40% since 1978, spurring universities to find their own solutions, one of which is to raise tuition for out-of-state students. But in order to appeal to these higher-paying out-of-state students, state universities have chosen to increase their spending on non-academic amenities. Amidst all of these perks, some students are losing sight of why they decided to attend college in the first place: to study. Rossi drives this point home not through professor opinions, but through cold hard facts. 68% of public university students do not graduate in four years, and 44% do not make it out in six.

If there is one bright picture Rossi paints in Ivory Tower it’s that although there isn’t a quick and easy fix for universities, there is hope to right the ship. There are more options now for learning new skills than ever before. There are more tools or technology that universities can employ to enhance learning. There are institutions that acknowledge the faults of the system and want to make changes. But the question is when will we start to see change. When will tuition rates become reasonable?

In Ivory Tower, Rossi raises red flags on everything from the validity of online courses to the techniques used since the traditional classroom was born. But no flag rises above the unsustainable cost of conventional education, keeping a nation from learning for learning's sake. And if there is a solution on the horizon, it’s going to rock the conventional boat to get there.

Find out more about the film here.

This film is a must see for: Parents, potential college students.