Ivory Tower Looks at America's Struggling Colleges

A convincing, depressing documentary about the crisis in higher education
Illustration by Sam Island

Somebody gets a hand caught in a door during the takeover of a college president’s office in the documentary Ivory Tower, out in select cities on June 14. Shouting ensues. The administration of New York City’s 155-year-old Cooper Union has presided over chronic deficits, and the students are taking the line that they should continue paying nothing at the traditionally free school. It’s hard to say who comes across looking worse.

Ivory Tower, directed by Andrew Rossi, is a powerful film that limns the troubled world of higher education by depicting its extremes: best, worst, biggest, smallest, drunkest. It’s no surprise that the cost of college has soared, student loan debt exceeds $1 trillion, and more than a third of full-time students admit they study fewer than five hours a week. Rossi brings these familiar themes to life through vignettes of real people, such as Stefanie Gray, who has a graduate degree from Hunter College, $140,000 in student loans, and no clear prospects. “I couldn’t get a job cleaning toilets,” she tells the camera. “I feel bad talking about any of my dreams I have these days.”

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the price index for college tuition rose almost 1,200 percent from April 1978 through April 2014. Consumer prices overall rose less than 300 percent. This is, as one of Rossi’s talking heads says, “unsustainable.”

I knew before the FBI warning rolled on my screener that there would be at least one over-the-top student center in Ivory Tower, and there are some beauties at Auburn University and Portland State. But there are also earnest young men tossing bales of hay at tiny Deep Springs College in Big Pine, Calif., where the 26 students govern themselves while operating a cattle ranch and alfalfa farm. And a bus full of women singing joyously at historically black Spelman College in Atlanta. On the less uplifting end of the spectrum, there’s a drunken fist fight in the swimming pool at a luxury student housing complex a block from Arizona State University in Tempe. These scenes punctuate interviews with voices of hope and doom—mostly doom—including Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco, author of College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be; Peter Thiel, who pays young academic stars $100,000 to skip college; and Anya Kamenetz, author of Generation Debt.

Harvard University, the first stop on Rossi’s tour, is portrayed as a kind of paradise. Elsewhere, choices must be made. College presidents don’t dare opt out of the amenities arms race, but the cost of it is breaking them. State university systems have the additional burden of a sharp drop in government support. The default option is to hike tuition. But that leaves students with unpayable debt, a problem that’s worsened by their seeming inability to graduate on schedule. Forty-four percent of people entering four-year colleges fail to get degrees even after six years.

If Ivory Tower had come out two years earlier, it might have made more of MOOCs, the massive open online courses that once promised to educate the next generation at a bargain price by connecting students via the Web to the world’s best professors. Rossi reports on a pilot program last year between San Jose State University and Sebastian Thrun’s for-profit Udacity in which only half of the MOOC students passed elementary statistics and just a quarter passed algebra. The German-born Thrun, a computer scientist who helped create Google’s driverless car, comes across on camera as ethereal, almost alien, especially when he declines with a fixed smile to comment on how much Udacity is getting paid.

Rossi, who was a practicing lawyer before turning to film, has a way of discovering genuine drama in potentially dry topics. His last documentary, Page One: Inside the New York Times, was about turmoil in newspapers. In Ivory Tower he raises serious questions without feeling the need to answer all of them. As Columbia’s Delbanco tells Rossi, Americans can’t fix higher education without first deciding what kind of society they want to have.