Is college a bastion of intellectualism, providing a broad-form liberal arts education to prepare driven young people to go forth in the world, or an over-priced trade school teaching its acolytes to land a good job at 22? That’s one of the conundrums posed by Ivory Tower, a new documentary about the value, if any, of higher education.
The defenders of these elite institutions speak reverentially about “The Ivies,” private and public (full disclosure: I attended one of the schools focused on here, and had a productive time there) and how essential they are. But even some of them realize universities have become an arms-race of educational institutions that have become too expensive. “It just isn’t viable,” says one, noting that since 1978, the cost of college tuition has increased 11-fold — twice the rate of healthcare, and four times that of food.
The film, which is now playing at the Magnolia Theater, is comprehensive and, in true academic style, laden down with statistics — percentage of out-of-state students at party schools, money spent on making colleges seems more attractive to prospective students, etc. — but it’s not dry and uninteresting … at least not if you’re interested, as I am, in the role of education in our society. Director Andrew Rossi peels back much of the veil surrounding the educational elitism, and how students are being served (or disserved) by the pressures of fundraising, popularity and reputation. It’s not exactly a hopeful movie, but it is a sobering one, and a reminder that non-for-profit schools have to survive.