Not So Pure: Andrew Rossi Investigates Cracks in The IVORY TOWER

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Andrew Rossi’s newest documentary, Ivory Tower, looks at the state of higher education in America and sees a system in disrepair. Rossi says the subject at the heart of his work is “disruption. It’s what all my films are about. Whether it’s how technology has changed the New York Times (Page One) or how a family manages their restaurant during a changing economy (Table for One). I was looking for another institution on the precipice of great change; higher education presented itself as one at a crossroads. With Cooper Union a billion in debt and Peter Thiel offering people $100k to drop out of school, it seemed there was something out of whack on the country’s campuses and I saw that as an opportunity.”

Rossi swears he didn’t have an axe to grind. The son of first generation immigrants, Rossi’s parents put him through college twenty odd years ago by running a restaurant in New York City—another enterprise the media teaches us is harder now than ever. Rossi explains, “My experience wasn’t influenced by a burden to pay the school off, which contributed to the time I had there. I had a great experience in college and I wanted to investigate this question because it didn’t square with my personal experience.”

The statistics are upsetting. Between skyrocketing tuition rates (now 1120% more than in 1978) and national student loans outpacing credit card debts, it’s hard to see how anyone can afford college—or indeed, what college could be offering that’s worth the money. Perceived value is part of the issue: students paying an upwards of $50K a year for school are likely to feel like customers and in the marketplace the customer is always right. That’s pretty far from the traditional ideal that privileges higher education as an opportunity for personal development. “I think we see many students go to college thinking they will start their lives when they graduate and viewing their 4+ years as a way station to adulthood. That’s just not a wise outlook when you’re incurring debts.”

Rossi says, “There’s more to the equation than how much money you’re going to make when you graduate. As we see in the film, 68% of students who go to public universities don’t graduate in 4 years, and in 6 years more than half don’t graduate. Yes, going to college is an investment in your future but many other factors emerge that complicate an exclusively numerical evaluation of your degree.” Rossi’s big takeaway is that, “Parents and prospective students need to assess different factors in choosing a school, and include the question if they should be going at all.”

You may be wondering why tuitions have skyrocketed since 1978. In Ivory Tower, Rossi uses the recent history of Cooper Union New York (CUNY) as a model/cautionary tale to illustrate how competition has contributed to higher education's downward spiral. CUNY was founded as a tuition-free university, yet in the late 80s CUNY took out a $2million loan to erect an applicant-luring new building. “Now they’re stuck with a deficit so large they need to charge tuition, destroying the mission their founder Peter Cooper established 200 years ago.” Most colleges today are saddled with similar debts due to pressures to build and Ivory Tower shows many staggeringly posh school facilities featuring amenities that seem altogether absurd. Precisely how does a large pool rec-area assist students in learning?

The situation with CUNY has an interesting metaphorical parallel to the experience of prospective college students. “When you graduate you’ll have to start paying off student loans immediately and over 50% of students under 25 are unemployed and underemployed.” As such, college resembles a high risk debt we’re expected to pay off immediately, but unlike schools, graduates can’t raise tuition to save themselves. “We like to embrace the idea students can discover themselves and learn and not be driven by career path, but they still need to take seriously the financial burden they’ll have when they graduate.”

Under 2% of schools still offer scholarships to cover the expenses of education, but one, which Rossi found in articles in the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, merges education with manual labor. Deep Springs College in California features small classes of young men (not co-ed), who work at the ranch location and use sweat equity to finance their classes. These students are not customers. In under two minutes Rossi makes the place seem like the "return to roots" answer to the growing educational conundrum. "Deep Spring students are self-governed and choose their own classes and teachers and finance their work with labor on the ranch. It gives us an opportunity to see how passionately students can be engaged when they’re not treated as customers.” But his point in presenting this one, sole example of education in the ideal is show how very lonely this example is.

“What’s the mission?” Rossi asks. “What are these schools, these non-profits, supposed to be doing? Being bigger businesses or educating students? On a broad level there’s an alarming amount of problems and not enough educating going on. That’s the unfortunate conclusion.” Part of Rossi’s research has revealed this disintegrating situation in higher education is resulting in plummeting educational standards. “The Academically Adrift study says on average students are reading and writing at a low level and not much either—the amount of reading is small—so they’re not developing sufficient skills and this is part of the dynamic that is driven because a student thinks they’re paying so much money they’re entitled to a host of amenities and a kind of treatment.” From the sounds of it, parents are sending their kids to colleges in the interest of helping them be more successful, earn more over the course of their lives (a statistic Rossi confirms is true) and help them evolve into more mature people. But, as college English will teach you, there are always less travelled roads.

“There are new trends in places like San Francisco to challenge if college is right for everyone. Then there are also reforms in nascent stages in different states. In Oregon there’s a pay-it-forward plan to pay off education after graduation according to earnings, as opposed to timed payments. And there are people doing great with community college—the first few years can be just as effective and much cheaper than being at a state university. There are many different avenues. Hopefully Ivory Tower presents as close to comprehensive a look at several factors to consider.”

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