Higher education is at a tipping point. Ivory Tower, Andrew Rossi’s latest documentary, explores the factors that could push it over the edge.
The film opened in Washington, D.C. at the E Street Cinema on June 20 in the wake of political action such as President Barack Obama’s executive order that capped student loan repayments at 10 percent of income and Senator Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act that failed to garner enough votes in the Senate.
The dire financial straits many students face takes a leading role in the film. During a panel discussion following the screening, Generation Progress Executive Director Anne Johnson emphasized the need for societal dialogue on the topic.
“We have to push institutions to stop saying, ‘We need more money,’” she said.
College tuition has increased by 1,120 percent since 1978, which is easily higher than any other good or service in the same time period. For reference, that’s four times larger than the rise in inflation.
The average cost of a four-year public university is about $30,000 a year. Private colleges come in at an average around $40,000. Only about 1 percent of universities offer full need financial aid. This leaves students at private and public universities alike taking out loans to cover the cost of their degrees.
Although there has been plenty of conversation on the topic of refinancing student loans, there has not been the same amount of quantifiable action.
Which begs the question: is college worth it? This question propels Ivory Tower forward. Rossi started working on the documentary shortly after “1-T Day” in 2011, the date that student loan debt passed the $1 trillion mark.
“It was a moment when people were questioning the value of college,” Rossi said in a recent phone interview, “and it seemed like an opportune moment to go on the ground and capture some of the best aspects of college education, but also some of the problems with the financial model, which is unsustainable as tuition rates continue to rise.”
The film is full of graphics and that expand, balloon and skyrocket in line with student debt.
“I think that anecdotally, one may hear that college is becoming more and more expensive, but to confront this level of increase, one has to ask what is going on with the financial model of higher education that would justify such an increase,” Rossi said, “particularly when many of us view public education as a good that should be accessible to as many Americans as possible.”
Rossi noted both in conversation and in the film that students are treated as consumers of an increasingly expensive product. Instead of investing in academics, university finances are directed toward plush student centers, administrative salaries and an abundance of indoor rock climbing walls, he explained.
One of the most compelling plot lines in the film follows student Victoria Sobel and the story of Cooper Union, a Manhattan college founded on the principle of free education that offers four-year degrees at no cost. When the administration announced the school would charge tuition for the first time in 2012, Sobel and a band of students occupied President Jamshed Bharuch’s office for two months. The students’ passion for upholding the school’s core value of free education emanates from the screen.
“Education is at the heart of what we think about as traditional American livelihood,” Sobel said. She emphasizes that their situation isn’t unique to Cooper; school across the country face conflicting priorities between administrations and students.
After the occupation disbanded and the board nixed a proposed leaner budget that would have maintained free tuition, Sobel and other Cooper Union students, alumni and faculty banded together to form theCommittee to Save Cooper Union. It is currently pursuing legal action against the Cooper Union Board of Trustees.
At the panel following the D.C. screening of Ivory Tower, Sobel spoke about the continuing action against Cooper Union administration.
“Instead of letting that energy die down into the apathy that Millennials are mischaracterized as having, take that energy and push it into. . . frameworks for helping students like myself, young graduates who have debt, helping high school students who are prospective students, and doing the advocacy work in the middle to make sure we’re not pushing students into these gateways to nowhere,” Sobel said.
This fall, Rossi will “absolutely” stay involved in the higher education dialogue. The Ivory Tower crew is partnering with Higher Ed, Not Debt for a college campus tour centered around the issues in the film.
“What Andrew has created is a conversation starter,” Sobel said. “We have agency within our communities to demand better, however we see fit.”
Ivory Tower screenings are being held Friday in Phoenix, AZ, Minneapolis, MN, and Seattle, WA and Saturday in Los Angeles, CA, as well as in other cities throughout the summer.