Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Movie Review: IVORY TOWER

     College was the best time of my life. Without question, the four years I spent at Eastern Michigan University (1992-1996) were something every young person should get to experience. Independence; but with help and guidance of older students, faculty, and staff. Learning; not just in class, but through student interactions, student organizations, and the non-classroom programming offered throughout the University. Meeting new people; people from so many different places, with so many different interests, but with the bond of sharing college years together. Making mistakes; lots of them, but in an environment that expects you to, and has ways to help correct them. All while encouraging new experiences, questioning what you're told, and stepping outside comfort zones. 
     EMU, compared to other schools, is probably nothing special, your run-of-the-mill state school. But to me and so many other graduates, it is something to be proud of. The institution and my experiences there played a bigger role in who I have become than arguably any other influence. 
     Sadly, young people today are less likely to have that experience. Rising education costs and poor job outlooks are preventing many from attending college, let alone going away from home.

     Ivory Tower is a film that discusses all this and more. Directed by Andrew Rossi, it tells the story of higher education in America. But the American model, starting with Harvard and perhaps culminating with the University of California system, is changing. Education seems not to be a priority anymore. In the film, experts referred to an "arms race" between institutions. The best food, best reputation, best recreation centers, nicest dorms. But not the best education, student experience, post-college job outlooks, or value. 
     According to Ivory Tower, the cost of college education has increased 1120% since 1978, more than double the increase in health care costs. These increases are the result of several things, including higher administrative costs (money spent on new administrative employees versus faculty is astonishingly disproportionate), state funding cuts, and the previously mentioned "arms race". Meanwhile, the student loan debt in the United States is $1.1 TRILLION, more than the credit card debt of the entire country. 

    When I graduated from EMU in 1996, tuition, including fees, was just about $100 per credit hour. Today, it is $308.90 per credit hour for in-state residents. When I was a new student in 1992, my financial aid was based on an $8,500 budget, which included tuition, room and board, text books, and transportation costs to and from school. Today, on their website, estimated tuition and room and board for the 2014-2015 year is $17,120, with no mention of books (probably another $1000) or transportation.  
     I don't mean to pick on my Alma mater, it's just what I'm most familiar with. But the story is the same all over the country at public and private schools. 
Cooper Union Tuition Protests
     Another extreme is Cooper Union, founded by Industrialist Peter Cooper in 1859. He was committed to providing free education for all, particularly the working class. He was successful in his mission, until 2013. Despite an endowment left by Mr. Cooper, including the land the Chrysler Building sits on, despite a protest by Cooper Union students that occupied the President's office for two months, the school decided to charge tuition starting in 2013. It seems a combination of bad hedge fund investments and borrowing over $100 million dollars to build a state of the art building weren't such good ideas after all. 
     Since it was the first time for tuition, one might think it would be modest? Not so much. Tuition for the 2013-2014 academic year was $39,600, not including $1,800 in student fees and $11,000 for housing, and unknown expenses for books and supplies. The total for 2013-2014 academic year: $52,400 + books and supplies. It should be mentioned that all enrolled Cooper Union students in 2013-2014 will get a scholarship that matches the cost of tuition, but students entering in the fall of 2014 will only get about half of that amount, about $20,000/year, making their total estimated expenses, excluding books and materials, a hefty $32,000/year. A far cry from Mr. Cooper's dream of free education for all. 

Director Andrew Rossi
     Ivory Tower explored online education. It seems to have caught on over the last decade, with online degrees available from myriad public, private, and for profit colleges and universities. But are they effective? Can student learn the same way online as they can in a classroom, face to face with educators and peers? The film highlighted one experiment that indicated an online experience could not, with a pass rate in remedial math classes of well under 60%. 
     Other alternatives highlighted include Uncollge, founded by Dale Stephens that suggests that college is not the only route to success. Similarly, The Thiel Foundation,which funded Mr. Stephens, started by Peter Thiel of PayPal and Facebook fame, paid a number of students $100,000 to drop out of college and take an alternative route. The results are not in. 
     Intentionally left out of the film were the many for-profit educational institutions that have sprouted over the last decade and what impact they have and will have in higher education.

     The message is clear: American higher education is changing. What is the prognosis? The film touched on that, too, but without clear answers. Perhaps a hybrid model, where lectures are viewed online and students meet in smaller groups for classroom and lab work. Perhaps a change in values where education is concerned, with bigger commitment from everyone to adequately fund institutions of higher learning, to return to making them affordable for all. Or perhaps more and more schools will close their doors, leaving higher education available only to those who can afford it, furthering the growing American plutocracy.  

     Something has to change, and I think that is what Mr. Rossi hoped to convey in Ivory Tower. While college educates, the college experience is about more than classes. It should focus on critical thinking skills, a liberal arts education, to help young people mold themselves into whom they want to be, to become responsible members of society. Without it, America will be worse off.

Ivory Tower
Directed by Andrew Rossi
Produced by Andrew Rossi, Bryan Sarkinen, Andrew Coffman
Editing by Chad Beck, Christopher Branca, Andrew Coffman

Viewed Ivory Tower at the Cleveland International Film Festival. The film was followed by a panel interview, which included Mr. Rossi. 

 Creative Commons License

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