Monday, June 23, 2014

"Ivory Tower": Is college still a good "investment" at the start of adulthood?

Ivory Tower” (directed by Andrew Rossi) documents the crisis of unsustainability of American higher education. It’s pretty obvious that the student loan debt problem is getting out of control, and a four year degree is much less of a ticket to earning more than it was for my generation.

The film starts with the freshman class at Harvard, and yet it even shows Kirkland Hall and mentions Mark Zuckerberg, as well as Peter Thiel, who offers grants to people who will drop out of college and start tech businesses on their own.
It shows us a few other major campuses (Stanford, Minnesota, Missouri, Auburn) and mentions the value of out-of-state paying students at many public universities, before it gets into the topic of free tuition.  That’s still around.  It presents life at a school in the high Mojave Desert, Deep Springs College, where male students live in what amounts to an intentional community, running a farm as well as going to school.  It then moves attention to Cooper Union Institute in New York City, about two blocks from where I lived in the 1970s (the Cast Iron Building), where tuition was free for ages.  But the school invested in a new building, and then in hedge funds, and nearly went down after the financial crisis of 2008.  The students staged a sit-in (with red lights visible throughout the East Village) and eventually reached a settlement.
The film mentions the idea that students (as “customers”) rate teachers and professors online, which tends to lead to grade inflation.  That’s an opposite of the atmosphere when I was an assistant instructor in mathematics at the University of Kansas in the late 1960s.   In my day, being a college student was a way to avoid being drafted and become cannon fodder in Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam.
The film also looks at online education, and the various ways schools have tried to use online models to make it more affordable.  (The film doesn’t get into the “for profit” online university industry.)  At one point, former NYC mayor Bloomberg says that education can’t be free, because nothing in life is free.  Again, I though of Reid Ewing’s short films (“It’s free”), and I hope that Igigistudios gets these back up soon.  They seem so timely now. 
My own personal experience inverts all of this.  I was thrown out of William and Mary for “admitting” that I was gay in 1961, but my parents paid for the education at George Washington University while I “lived at home”.  So I did not have the residential experience of others, but not the debt either.  If I had been lucky enough to be born forty years later, go to Harvard, and live in the same dorm as Mark Zuckerberg, I’d have made great friends and probably be very rich now on my own terms (Facebook would have been part of it, to be sure).  We are all dealt different hands in life.
I saw this on Monday night before a small audience at Landmark E Street, but if fits right into the AFIDocs spirit.  The film did not quite use the full normal 1.85:1 aspect ratio in projection.  
I'm reminded of the WB (or CWTV) series "Jack and Bobby" where the boys' mom, a professor, describes college as the beginning of adulthood. 

The film comes from Participant Media (site) along with Samuel Goldwyn Films for theatrical distribution and later airing by CNN Films.

Picture: Auburn University campus,(Alabama)  my visit, May 2014.  

Update: Nov. 19, 2014

CNN will air the film Nov. 20, 2014.  Don Lemon interviewed a young man who went to Harvard, on a little report "From Homeless to Harvard",  As a young man, his parents' home in Cleveland was destroyed when he refused to join a gang.

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