To say something is seriously wrong with the cost of college – and mountain of debt piling atop the backs of America’s young people – is to state the obvious. Andrew Rossi, the director of Ivory Tower, understands this. Instead of just saying “Guys, we’re in a hell of a pickle here,” his documentary gives us a road map as to how we got to this place and tries to decipher, through the fog of unrest and a forest of blinking technological light bulbs, what our possible options are to move forward. Don’t get me wrong, though: Rossi doesn’t hint at a savior. The reason, after all, this is such a big mess is that no one has the knowledge, or power, to fix it. Still, it’s a given things are bound to change pretty soon. Everyone, it seems, agrees on that.
Ivory Tower begins as a history lesson. The idea of the college migrates from England to New England. Prestige, absolutely well-earned, is built up over time. But then it becomes a race, the film shows. Schools compete in terms of course offerings, athletics, recreational facilities, and luxury apartment housing. At one point, the camera flies over the University of Minnesota, and there’s a voice-over about how colleges have become their own little cities. There’s this sense that so many schools have become too big to fail — too big to fall behind, too big to not raise tuition, too big to give up their place in this race for relevance/students/survival. A sense of doom sets in: the feeling we’ve made a great mistake. Then Rossi starts exploring.
He takes a camera to schools that have models of education that are different, from both the classical Ivy League ideal as well as the party paradise. One school, called Deep Springs, is a two-year, all-boys school in rural California that has its 26 – yes, 26 – students take classes while doing daily, hard-core ranch work. Rossi juxtaposes this tiny, monk-like island with the binge-drinking, party-first, study-later ocean that typifies a “normal” college experience. Then he goes to another extreme: San Francisco. There, in the heart of start-up culture, college appears passé. Groups even give people money to drop out of college and start their own businesses. But Rossi has a special fondness for a school in New York called Cooper Union, which has historically offered its students a free education. Until recently, that is.
Students there, however, took a page from the Occupy movement and took over the office of the school’s president. To see these students – some of whom aren’t even old enough to drink – fight to keep their school free is endearing. The students don’t come off as entitled as much as defenders of a historic concept. Why should the legacy of their institution be sacrificed during their time because the administrators, like so many throughout the country, thought it best to expand with shiny, new buildings? The entire episode gives one a sense of dread, because these students are the exception. For the rest of us, in order to reach the prestige of higher learning, we have to weigh ourselves down with tens of thousands of dollars of debt. As the film’s title suggests, this concept of college, for most of us, is one made of clouds. It’s a dream that can quickly turn into a nightmare. But Rossi offers hope. The film shows that perhaps by some mix of cultural and technological innovation, we can re-imagine the institution of higher learning. Yet the big question remains: How much more will be pay to keep the dream alive?
Ivory Tower is playing at the Uptown Theatre.