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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    CNN analyzes worth of college in new film ‘Ivory Tower’


    Participant Media

    In an age when public universities compete to build the biggest recreational center, a CNN documentary dissects the politics behind higher education.

    “Ivory Tower” features filmmaker Andrew Rossi traveling around the country to find out why the cost of college tuition has increased more than any other American good or service in the last 30 years, yet the quality of what students are paying for hasn’t changed by much.

    Filled with colorful graphics displaying shocking statistical data, the film will coerce student viewers into questioning their investment in a college degree. Profiling a number of professors, authors and students, Rossi illustrates a divided tension between those who think the college system works and those who think its time for some change.

    Appropriately beginning the film on “Move-In Day” for the incoming freshmen at Harvard University, Rossi reminds viewers of the immense prestige associated with higher education. Excited students and parents walk the sacred halls of the Ivy League school with contentment that they have achieved the American dream.

    David Boone, an incoming Harvard student Rossi interviews, tells his story of redemption as being someone who was once homeless and downtrodden but is now a proud member of this elite crimson crew. Rossi uses Boone as a reminder of the infinite opportunity once so strongly associated with earning a college degree, a mindset that has gotten lost in a job market oversaturated with talent and lacking in positions.

    To begin by solving the mystery as to how the national student debt has escalated to over $1 trillion so quickly, Rossi begins with a history lesson. Harkening back to the Civil War era, the film explains the impact of The Morrill Act of 1862, which funded a number of land-grant institutions such as the UA.

    The film then shifts into demonizing Republican politicians who began a pursuit to privatize education in the 20th century. Trashing former President Ronald Reagan’s ambition to disband the Department of Education, the film quickly becomes a minefield for political mudslinging.

    What makes Rossi’s film fascinating is his profiling of smaller, lesser-known institutions that have found a way to cheat the system. Deep Springs College in California’s Death Valley is recognized as a free university that disciplines young men, and recently women, in fundamentals of democracy. Working on a farm by day and participating in group debates at night, Deep Springs College combines the efficiencies of a hippie commune and boarding school in one place.

    The Uncollege Movement based in San Francisco, which may seem cultish on the surface, is another institution profiled in the film that rebels against the four-year college model. Encouraging young, aspiring entrepreneurs to basically teach themselves and others while living in a shared house, the movement stresses the lack of valuable instruction being taught in universities.

    Arizona State University is notably depicted by Rossi as an example of universities that have created “party pathways” to lure students into appreciating the social aspects of college over the education. Interviewing Michael Crow, president of ASU, about the university’s branding as a party school, Crow simply calls the allegations “bogus” as Rossi cuts to a montage of ASU students chugging and raging in mosh-pits of lunacy.  

    Though it may be enjoyable to mock the Sun Devils’ lack of maturity, Rossi generalizes most public universities as descending into profit-hungry corporations eager to commit students to a lifetime of debt. With the evidence Rossi supplies, his argument is disturbingly valid.

    It may seem there is no reason to hope with the way Rossi characterizes higher education, yet in the final hour, he presents community college as the saving grace for society. Presumed as a second-class, poor man’s education, the innovative changes community colleges are making in class structure and online resources rival their more-renowned counterparts.

    With its images of students ambushing college offices and public protests outside the White House, “Ivory Tower” is a perhaps a harbinger for greater grumblings accumulating among milllenials. Rossi makes apparent that college is not worth what it used to be, and, therefore, something will inevitably have to change. The question is who will make the first play in this high-stakes chess game. 

    Follow Kevin C. Reagan on Twitter.

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