Posted in: Review

Ivory Tower

Any parent who’s socking away money for a child’s education understands the anguish that comes along with that investment. Hundreds of thousands of dollars (per child), probably, and for what? So they can discuss Tolstoy with an unpaid grad student? So they can experience a chemistry lecture in a hall with 500 other kids?

Tuition is rocketing upward. Education quality doesn’t seem to be improving. Instead, as Ivory Tower soberly shows us, money is spent on rampant construction, lavish pools and other student amenities, and — most fiercely damned by the film — administrator salaries.

Documentarian Andrew Rossi guides us through 90 minutes of mostly talking heads, largely experts and in-the-trenches types who are trying to go against the current establishment. There’s a profile of a men’s only “college” in the middle of the California desert; it comes across more like a dude ranch than a place of higher learning. There’s Peter Thiel’s San Francisco “uncollege,” where kids are given a stipend to work on a startup instead of going to school. And there’s Cooper’s Union, a New York institution where tuition is free, and which gets a massive amount of screen time. (An attempt by the school to begin collecting fees makes for some of the movie’s most intriguing, yet frustrating, scenes.)

Rossi attempts to open our eyes to the alternatives we have, but an hour and a half isn’t much time to dig too deeply into any of these issues, and I left the movie as frustrated as I was before it started as to whether college really has any value in today’s marketplace. The only real alternative for educational advancement available to the masses is the nascent concept of online learning. Sounds promising, but pilot rollouts clearly show the dark side of these programs: With no human instructor to whom questions can be asked and discussions can be initiated, students just don’t get the material. As seen in the film, basic math classes where the students took their lessons online instead of with a live professor often have sub-50 percent passing rates, and are damned in student evaluations as worthless and confusing.

So what’s the alternative? Shell out megabucks for a school so kids can spend four years partying? Push them into the workforce via the school of hard knocks? Something else? I’m just as perplexed now as I was before watching the movie.

Unfortunately there’s a sense of both defeatism and predestination to all of this. I don’t know what kind of education my kids are ultimately going to get in college, but I do know one thing: They’re damn sure still going to go.