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"Ivory Tower" Studies the Value of College Education

An interview with "Ivory Tower" director Andrew Rossi about an American institution at a crossroads.

| BY Donald Liebenson

“Ivory Tower,” a film festival award-winning documentary being broadcast tonight on CNN and  available now On Demand, as well as on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital HD, explores the state of higher education and ponders whether it is worth the cost. Director Andrew Rossi has two children, ages six and five. He has fast-forwarded to the day when they will reach college age.

“I have thought about it,” he said in a phone interview with Millionaire Corner, “and if my children had a passion for something that didn’t necessarily require going to a brick and mortar school, then I would gladly support them choosing a path that did not involve going to college. When my wife heard that, she said, ‘Slow down.’” So, I’m not sure. What I do think is that within ten or thirteen years or however long it is, hopefully higher education will have changed significantly (for the better) and the range of options will be broader.”

Rossi has done his homework on higher education. “Ivory Tower’s” lesson plan is to present the challenges facing the nation’s colleges and universities as well as the families striving to give their children the opportunity to earn a degree that in turn will give them their best shot at a good-paying job and sustainable career.

At issue: Is a college education worth the ever-increasing cost? Is financial reform of the higher education business model possible? Are colleges shifted their priority from providing a top-flight education to providing the college “experience” with amenities that many colleges struggling to lure students can ill afford?

“Ivory Tower” visits several institutions, among them Harvard, where a student, formerly homeless, struggles to make the most of his full-ride scholarship; Deep Springs, a two-year men’s college located on a cattle ranch, where tuition is free but students are required to perform manual labor;  so-called “party school” Arizona State, and Cooper Union in the midst of student protest over the financially-struggling school’s possible abandonment of its free tuition policy. 

As with his previous film, the film festival award-winning “Page One: Inside the New York Times,” Rossi finds an American institution at a crossroads. What “Ivory Tower” finds is an educational landscape fraught with pitfalls, but not without hope.

Here is an edited transcript of his conversation with Millionaire Corner.

Q: What compelled you to make “Ivory Tower.”

Anthony Rossi: I began thinking about this film in 2012 after ‘T-Day,’ when it was announced that student loan debt exceeded $1 trillion. Then there was (billionaire venture capitalist) Peter Thiele, who was part of this new Silicon Valley movement to dissuade people from going to college or to drop out of a system he saw as inefficient.

Q: Where did you go to college?

AR: I went to Yale undergrad.

Q: What do you remember about the process of choosing a school?

AR: College and higher education was a value that was instilled in me and my older brother from when we were very young. My parents came to this country from Italy so I was among the first generation to go to college in America. There was a sense that intellectual curiosity should be nurtured, but also that at college one could earn the credentials to go out into the world, get a job that is profitable and contribute to society. I feel extremely fortunate that that was the mindset my family had. It’s one that most families aspire to, but certainly inequality in this country is a terrible problem and it leads to that goal frequently being obscured by a wide range of other problems even before a young person is able to get to that point of applying.

Q: What in your research surprised you the most?

AR: It was some of the data regarding how much college costs have grown, how much state funding (for higher education) has declined, and how much a terrible burden student debt has become. Tuition increased by 1,120 percent since 1978, more than the cost of housing and health care, and certainly much faster than the rate of inflation. State funding has declined by about 40 percent in that same period.


Q: Most of the reviews of ‘Ivory Tower” praise it and you for asking the questions, while some others took you to task for not providing any solutions. What is the conversation you wanted to start about higher education?

AR: That’s an interesting question.  The movie doesn’t have an agenda other than to engage in this conversation about the value of college and the meaning of it both in an historical context as well as a contemporary context in looking at the financial model of universities and a system that cannot be sustained.

Q: What are the biggest obstacles to access to a college education?

A: The biggest threats are price—with tuition continuing to climb—and the burden of student loan debt becoming even more paralyzing when interest rates (eventually) go up. The rate of students who are going into American colleges and universities continues to grow. It's not as if the demand is likely to drop off a cliff, but the burdens that students as well as the institutions, are taking on to keep in the game are liable not to be supportable in the future. Affordable college is becoming a fantasy. Many people think of it, morally, as something society should provide, so they get angry, and I think that’s something that is bound to grow.

Q: You mentioned that you would tell your children it would be okay to forgo college if they found something they were passionate about. Do you think your parents would have said the same to you?

AR: No. (laughs). But that’s part of the change, too, I think.

About the Author

Donald Liebenson

Donald Liebenson writes news and features for Millionaire Corner. He has been published in the Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Los Angeles Times, Fiscal Times, Entertainment Weekly, Huffington Post, and other outlets. He has also served as a marketing writer for Chicago-based Questar Entertainment and distributor Baker & Taylor.  

A graduate of the University of Southern California, he is married with a college-age son. He also writes extensively about entertainment.