'Ivory Tower' looks at looming crisis in college costs

  • Article by: KENNETH TURAN , Los Angeles Times
  • Updated: July 10, 2014 - 2:03 PM

REVIEW: “Ivory Tower” visits campuses nationwide to look at rising costs vs. benefits.  |  ★★★ out of 4 stars


A graduation ceremony at Spelman College in Atlanta is part of the documentary “Ivory Tower.”

Is college, specifically the elite four-year residential model, overrated? Is it worth its ever-increasing cost? Has it been oversold as the key to a child’s brighter future?

The stimulating documentary “Ivory Tower” asks all these tough questions and, most provocatively of all, declines to give definitive answers.

As directed by Andrew Rossi (“Page One: Inside the New York Times”), “Ivory Tower” wants to educate and stir the pot, to get us to understand the extent of the dilemma, which is considerable.

Nothing about the college imbroglio is simple, not even the eye-popping costs, which can be as high as $60,000 per year, an expense level that gives parents sticker shock from coast to coast.

Yes, the cost of college tuition is staggeringly high. Yes, the nation’s student loan debt incurred to help pay those fees is now at $1 trillion plus — more even than what we owe on credit cards.

But on the other side of the ledger, “the pay gap between college graduates and everyone else reached a record high last year.” No matter how much college costs, statistically it still pays to go.

“Ivory Tower” tours half a dozen colleges and universities, each one carefully selected to make a point about the looming crisis.

First stop is Harvard, the first American university and the model for all others, a place that seems as much an industry as a purveyor of higher education. But a student profiled here, David Boone, a freshman from Cleveland who is attending on a full scholarship, was homeless during high school. The college experience may not benefit everyone, but the good it will do in his case is clear.

A different dynamic is at work at many large state universities such as the one Rossi visits, Arizona State. To attract higher-paying out-of-staters, state universities often throw in perk after party-school perk — dorms with plasma TVs, climbing walls, “a swimming pool in every room” — as they chase tuition dollars. Education is often lost in the process: 68 percent of public university students do not graduate in four years, and 44 percent do not make it out in six.

Yet for every school like Arizona State, there is a Deep Springs College, an intense, focused institution in Death Valley that features a commitment to old-school learning that is so deep and so passionate it almost takes your breath away.

Atlanta’s Spelman, founded 20 years after the end of slavery and the nation’s oldest college for black women, provides a space for its students to define themselves.

Ever evenhanded, “Ivory Tower” also examines the phenomenon of MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, and finds them not to be quite the panacea they initially promised to be.

If you’re considering college for your children or are just a concerned citizen, this comprehensive documentary gives you a lot to ponder.

★★★ out of 4 stars
  • IVORY TOWER ⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars.

    Unrated by the MPAA. • Where: Uptown.

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