Ivory Tower is an eye-opening documentary that highlights a ticking time bomb in America today: the cost of higher education and the looming debt it leaves with graduates. For many, this bomb has already exploded, and these former students are finding it impossible to pay back their costly student loans. Ivory Tower offers a broad cross-section of issues and people related to academia to help explain how the education system got this way. What the film doesn’t do, however, is provide any answers or explore the context surrounding higher education, but what it does present is a good start to this necessary discussion.
As Ivory Tower presents, the bloated cost of a higher education is a systemic problem that will crush a majority of students who attempt to take it on. Compounding the issue is the fact that many graduates have no way of paying off their student loans, because they can’t find work in their post-education life. Ivory Tower explores the situation via a series of interviews with several academics from varied educational institutions across the United States, as well as students and parents. The film also highlights higher education alternatives, such as the “hack house” program created by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. Finally, a strong human element is provided by a portion of the film that follows the students of Cooper Union, which (at the time the documentary was filmed) is a privately funded college that gives every student a full-tuition scholarship, but due to financial hardships, must now consider charging tuition.
As far as documentaries go, Ivory Tower is an easy one to enjoy. The problem at hand is very real to a plurality of the American population, and the investigation into it is handled competently by the film. Viewers will be treated to an illuminating history lesson about the founding of the university model, the views of relevant historical figures on education availability, and how modern colleges have lost sight of their ostensible goals. Furthermore, the interview subjects in the film all present their view on the issue in a cogent manner with sound data to support their findings. Another immensely enjoyable aspect of the film is its presentation of education alternatives, which will surprise many who think that four-year universities are the only option after high school. Lastly, it’s difficult not to sympathize with parents and students, who realize that education is important, but balk at the price tag or, worse, have buyer’s remorse.
Despite tackling a very wide problem, Ivory Tower’s scope proves to be too narrow. To make its case, the film focuses on elite Ivy League universities, which have always been in the highest percentile of tuition costs. To be fair, some state colleges are highlighted as well, but there is no deep examination of cost or cost-saving measures. For instance, in California, the lower cost community colleges are part of a program to essentially graduate students from the junior colleges to four-year universities in the state, saving students a considerable amount of money and receiving the same degree once finished with school.
The film also feels too insular in that it presents the problem as being too much of an institutional issue rather than a societal one. It’s easy to point out how the non-academic additions to college campuses, like multi-million dollar rec centers, climbing walls and tanning booths, have ballooned tuition rates, but it doesn’t examine closely enough how long students are taking to finish college and why? How many of these students failed or dropped out of classes because they don’t take college seriously? How many of these students who can’t graduate in four years simply aren’t prepared for college and must take remedial courses at the beginning of their college career? On the other side of the coin is the inability to pay off college debt due to not being able to find a job after graduating. Is the college system to blame? What did these students major in? What are employers looking for? Should all majors expect the same job prospects? These questions aren’t answered to any satisfying degree unfortunately.
The biggest question that goes unanswered by the film, however, is whether or not a college education is necessary anymore. The easy answer is yes, because employers demand a degree for better paying positions, but how much of the education are employers actually expecting employees to utilize for the job? How many people today actually work in the field they studied for? It’s a missed opportunity that the film didn’t explore what is of greater value: the education or the diploma? Despite these lingering questions, Ivory Tower is still a good watch and a necessary one for any student and parent with a student who is of college age.