TOPICS > Education

‘Ivory Tower’ explores why American higher education is so pricey

June 23, 2014 at 6:50 PM EDT
The rise in U.S. college tuition is unsustainable. That’s the argument of a new television documentary, “Ivory Tower,” which tackles growing worries and critique over college costs and student debt. Jeffrey Brown talks to filmmaker Andrew Rossi about the origins of rising costs and financial competition among institutions, plus ideas about how to turn around the trend.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: A new television documentary tackles the growing worries and criticism over college costs and student debt.

Jeffrey Brown taped this conversation last week.

JEFFREY BROWN: The American higher education system has long been regarded as a crowning achievement. But these days, the focus has been more on its problems, rising tuition bills that stoke ballooning debt, too many students who never graduate, misplaced and overly lavish expenditures on facilities and housing and much more.

A new documentary, “Ivory Tower,” looks at a range of such issues. It opens in many U.S. cities this month.

Here’s a short clip that features one of its main themes.

MAN: Higher education in America has been very successful for centuries, but now things are changing, because the scale and the cost is enormous. We have a product that is so expensive that a lot of people can’t pay for it and they have to go into debt. And it just isn’t viable.

MAN: The rise in student tuition is unsustainable. We cannot continue to charge significantly more year after year after year without running into some kind of a brick wall.

And filmmaker Andrew Rossi joins me now.

Welcome to you.

ANDREW ROSSI, Director, “Ivory Tower”: Thanks so much for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN: The starting point seems to be, something is lost, or being lost, already lost? What did you want to explore?

ANDREW ROSSI: I think what we’re looking at in “Ivory Tower” is whether college is worth it, but in a way that is hopefully more nuanced and complex than simply either looking at the wage premium that one finds, which, of course, is a very striking statistic, the fact that people make a million dollars more over the course of their lifetime with a B.A.

JEFFREY BROWN: That it is still worth it.

ANDREW ROSSI: It is still worth it.

JEFFREY BROWN: In spite of the cost, you still end up making more money.

ANDREW ROSSI: Precisely. On those terms, it’s worth it.

And then those who, for example, like Peter Thiel, who are arguing that one should drop out of college. There’s a sort of a middle ground that we wanted to explore. What really is happening in classrooms as diverse as Harvard to San Jose State, from Spelman College to Wesleyan.

JEFFREY BROWN: Much of it though does revolve around money, right, whether it is tuitions or debts or what people — administrative costs, right?

ANDREW ROSSI: Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: Pinpoint — give us an example of something that you really wanted to get at here.

ANDREW ROSSI: Well, certainly, the rise in tuition, as we just saw in the clip, is completely unsustainable; 1100 percent tuition has risen since 1978. And that is also the result of a decrease in state funding, 40 percent in that same period less in state funds for public colleges.

But what we’re really looking at is a business model in higher education that encourages a growth to become bigger and better, which allows universities to attract student loan dollars and is creating perverse incentives in the classroom, in addition to this terrible student debt crisis.

JEFFREY BROWN: And one of your experts in there refers to a — the competitive nature of this, which has actually been around pretty much forever. Right?

ANDREW ROSSI: Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: But what happened to make it take off?

ANDREW ROSSI: Well, I think that the propagation of even more ranking, the sense that schools can be judged based on their facilities. In addition to the older sort of branding that the Ivy League might have provided or the flagship state school, there are now so many different ways that schools can compete to attract a 17- or 18-year-old.

And much of the time, it doesn’t really involve the rigor in the classroom, but rather things like which school has the more popular football team. Of course, I don’t mean to say that all schools are sort of falling down on the job, as it were. But what we see is that the financial model itself has major problems.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, actually, that’s what I was wondering. How far do you want to push the argument? You’re not quite saying that our great institutions are abdicating their responsibility.

ANDREW ROSSI: Of course not.

JEFFREY BROWN: Although you are — although you are sort of suggesting that, around the edges, in some ways, some of their actions are almost doing that.

ANDREW ROSSI: Well, it is important to really consider what the impact of student loan debt is.

And I think that, particularly in the nonprofit university world, there is a sense that student loan debt is good debt. But we see in the film that that is not true. The most recent data shows that, on average, students are graduating with actually $33,000 in student debt, even more than the $25,000 number that we cite in the film, which is based on a previous study.

JEFFREY BROWN: I should say, a lot of experts sort of then say a lot of this that comes from the for-profit sector, which is something you don’t address in this film.

ANDREW ROSSI: Precisely. And that is intentional, because we wanted to really look at the mission of educating students in the nonprofit setting, where there is not this distraction to provide shareholder value to those who a board would have a fiduciary duty to in a for-profit enterprise.

Rather, here, we see, what is taking place on campuses where the mission is exclusively to educate the students? And, unfortunately, the corporate model has actually bled into that world as well. Richard Arum, who wrote the study “Academically Adrift,” speaks in the film about perverse incentives that are taking place in the classroom, an atmosphere in which the student feels like a consumer.

And that is something that there are many alternatives to pursue to try to counteract. So, for example, we look at Deep Springs, which is a free college in the desert of Death Valley, where students are governing themselves. They are the antithesis of the consumer.


And you look at Arizona State, the largest — one of the largest, if not the largest. I mean, I was struck by that because you show the diversity of American higher education. And while you’re looking at many of the problems, one could also look at it and say, well, that’s kind of glorious. People have a lot of choice there, whether it’s public, private, large, small, something in the desert or a huge state university.

ANDREW ROSSI: It absolutely is glorious.

And I believe that the film really celebrates that proud tradition in American history of government expanding the franchise of higher education. We see the land grant universities that were created by the Morrill Act of the 1860s, the G.I. Bill, the Higher Education Act of 1965, which again increased access.

But we also see a shift in the ’70s, when conservative governors like Ronald Reagan suggested that the state shouldn’t be subsidizing intellectual curiosity. And that is really the world we live in now.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, and now we also live in a world where people are suggesting maybe there’s alternatives to this model. Right?


JEFFREY BROWN: And you do look at some of that. Is there anything, just in our last minute here, that jumped out at you that is, you think, I don’t know, exciting for the future, worth pursuing in American education?

ANDREW ROSSI: Well, certainly a lot of the enthusiasm around massive open online courses has declined.


ANDREW ROSSI: The MOOCs — after the pilot with Udacity and San Jose State, which we feature extensively.

However, the flip classroom model is actually very exciting, and we see that taking place at Bunker Hill Community College, a computer science class delivered by edX, which students are able to pursue by watching a video at home and then going into the classroom and having some form of human interaction.

I think that’s a model that allows for a decrease in cost, but still that human element that we still need. I think if there is one thing the film definitely proves is the enduring power of the professor and the instructor to have a relationship with the student that is helping them to learn.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you finally, what do you tell — having looked at this as an outsider, right, what do you tell perspective parents and students about the options they should be looking for, whether they should consider, you know, not going?

ANDREW ROSSI: Absolutely.

Well, we really emphasize that metrics such as completion rates at schools, average amounts of student debt and employability at a particular institution once someone graduates should be the priority in choosing a school, and not, again, which university has the more popular football team or the more lush student center.

I think, if we can reorient to those metrics, many people might be able to avoid going into an amount of debt that is crushing.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the new film is “Ivory Tower.”

Andrew Rossi, thank you so much.

ANDREW ROSSI: Thank you for having me.