Samuel Goldwyn Films

An inconvenient truth about higher ed

New documentary takes an honest look at the crisis in American universities

June 20, 2014 2:15AM ET

If you’re interested in the crisis of American higher education and want a clichéd documentary with a good guy, a bad guy and a proposed solution, don’t buy a ticket to “Ivory Tower.” If, on the other hand, you want to understand the depth of the problem, Andrew Rossi’s new film is a good bet. Since premiering at Sundance in January, “Ivory Tower” has been creating buzz among activists to relieve student debt for its detailed and unsparing look at how universities really operate. Though initially skeptical, I was convinced by the end that the film can spark a long-overdue realistic discussion about the costs of college.

Most mainstream commentary on student debt and higher education gets distracted by red herrings such as faculty compensation and the differences between public and private schools. “Ivory Tower” offers a potent antidote. The film takes a tour of the country’s nonprofit college industry, finding problems everywhere. Rossi gives us a balanced take, but he can’t help but tell the story of a system that’s out of balance.

By now much of the public is aware that something is definitely off kilter with the cost of higher education. Various interested parties — from professors and administrators to trustees and politicians — have incentives to distract the public from its causes and channel reforms in ways that will benefit them. Thankfully, Rossi isn’t beholden to any particular group within higher education, and “Ivory Tower” appears to be motivated by genuine curiosity. The film confines itself to nonprofit schools, but it examines many different kinds to try to find a functional alternative to the mainstream model that has sunk family budgets. Unfortunately, there’s no obvious solution on offer.

The film offers damning concrete detail. We see a pool party at Arizona State University — home to a new tuition-support initiative by Starbucks — where kids seem to major in getting wasted and fondling each other. The film explains that public schools have fallen into a competitive arms race to provide prospective students with resort-style amenities such as Jacuzzis and climbing walls. Universities go into debt building such recruitment infrastructure, and to pay their creditors they have to admit more out-of-state students who can pay higher tuition, which means they have to offer better amenities. It’s a vicious cycle, abetted by high-paid executives mimicking their corporate counterparts.

A recent report from the Center for Culture, Organizations, and Politics at the University of California, Berkeley, supports the film’s conclusions, finding that the costs of college attendance have accelerated much faster than instructional costs, in large part owing to the cost of servicing debt on noneducational capital projects: “At four-year public colleges and universities, more than half of all interest spending is for capital investments in ‘student services’ and ‘auxiliary services’ — the two Department of Education categories for reporting amenities spending on facilities like dormitories, cafeterias, stadiums, and recreation centers.” The problem isn’t the cost of “education” — it’s an industry culture where, as on Wall Street, perverse incentives don’t just encourage poor management but mandate it.

Wesleyan President Michael Roth can’t avoid coming off like a huckster of humanities when pitching the $60,000-plus annual price tag to the parents of potential students.

Speaking for the elite private liberal arts school is Wesleyan President Michael Roth, who argues for small classes, a balanced education and a lot of contact with professors. “Ivory Tower” gives Roth a fair hearing, but he can’t avoid coming off like a huckster of humanities when pitching the $60,000-plus annual price tag to the parents of potential students. (Hell, for 60 grand you could rent an apartment in Brooklyn and your own post-grad fellow.) The cost of this kind of education makes it both a model of learning for learning’s sake — yes, a high cost but a priceless reward — and totally inaccessible to most young people.

Among the alternative models “Ivory Tower” visits is Deep Springs College — a tiny two-year tuition-free men-only institution where boys become men on a diet of farm labor and Hegel. Rossi also travels to Spelman College in Atlanta, a historically black college for women, and Cooper Union, a free and open school in New York that students are struggling to keep that way. These institutions — dedicated as they are to principles beyond building bigger and flashier — are up against the wall, pushed out by the amenities arms race. Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), with their commitment to low-income students, struggle and go into debt trying to keep up, and federal Pell Grants that have sustained them until now haven’t grown as fast as the tuition and fees the grants are meant to pay. Just last June, Saint Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, Virginia — specifically dedicated to supporting black single parents — closed its doors after 125 years. Antioch College — a storied tuition-free liberal arts school and hotbed of heterodox thought in Yellow Springs, Ohio — has been in and out of closure over the past decade, and is now fighting for accreditation. Higher education doesn’t have much room for different agendas, unless they’re trying to lower instruction costs.

The tech idealists who think reducing teaching costs are the answer get to say their piece in “Ivory Tower,” touting education by Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs), in which highly polished lecturers — such as Wesleyan’s Roth — distribute their classes online at a reduced cost. Rossi does a good job dispelling the MOOC myth, revealing lousy results and widespread user dissatisfaction. He also presents the views of another set of commentators who think technology makes a brick-and-mortar campus antiquated. These education hackers use online resources to acquire the skills they need to make it — mostly in the tech world. Venture capitalist Peter Thiel has gone so far as to pay a few kids to forgo college and start companies instead. This program, as Thiel readily admits in an interview, isn’t scalable and won’t replace the massive debt-fueled nonprofit sector.

As an answer to higher ed’s crisis, the best “Ivory Tower” has to offer are community colleges, where the name on the credential doesn’t mean much, but students at all stages in their lives can acquire skills using online and classroom resources. This might be the best pure deal on the higher education market, but community colleges are unlikely to unseat four-year institutions in prestige or cultural dominance. Like HBCUs and tuition-free hippie schools, some community colleges are fighting for survival. City College of San Francisco, for example, is clinging to accreditation, disputing charges that it lacks a sufficient number of administrators and a secure financial base. Solutions like education hacking and community colleges also ignore the fact that brand-name diplomas and connections are what schools are selling, at least as much as knowledge. If you had to choose between a college credential and a college education, in this job market you’d be a fool to take the latter.

When it comes to reforming four-year nonprofits, there’s no reason to believe pumping in more state money won’t just exacerbate the current problems, rooted in skyrocketing cost. And since state money is earmarked for particular expenses, schools will still need more no-strings-attached tuition money to service institutional debt. If federal regulators were to require schools to cut costs, we know just how these corporate managers would do it: contracting out whatever good jobs are left and doubling the marketing budget so no one notices.

I hope everyone in America sees this movie — it’s an invaluable addition to the public debate around higher education — but when it comes to what viewers can do when the film ends, “Ivory Tower” makes “An Inconvenient Truth” look modest in its demands. Under the current system, there’s no reform worth calling your representative about, and no right choice for individual families and students. As long as credentials count more than skills and knowledge, there’s no safe way down from the tower.

Malcolm Harris is an editor at The New Inquiry and a writer based in Brooklyn.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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