Ivory Tower Opening at Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema on June 27

Ivory tower film in Chicago, film review

Ivory Tower, the film that asks, “Is college worth the cost?” is opening in Chicago at Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema on June 27, 2014. I was thrilled to be able to preview it online because not a week goes by that I don’t have that conversation in real life.

And now that one of my teens is working in a fabulous tech career-oriented summer job, we’re having this discussion almost daily.

If you’re having these conversations, too, you should see Ivory Tower.

With trillions of dollars in outstanding student loan debt and easy to access loans, higher education is the new subprime mortgage crisis. It hasn’t all hit the fan yet, but it’s coming. The current model of higher education is simply not sustainable.

In Ivory Tower, filmmaker Andrew Rossi looks at the current state of affairs at college campuses around the US as well as alternative models of education, like MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses), a San Francisco “hacker house” and Deep Springs, the free(!) desert school.

Tuition costs have increased greatly since DH and I were undergraduates. The amount of money in my kids’ 529 funds could have paid for our degrees many times over, but if we’re lucky their money will cover a couple of years for each of them. Of course, that’s looking at sticker prices.

If you’re new to the college search process you need to understand that, as with new cars, most people don’t pay the sticker price for higher education. Thanks to President Obama, all college websites are required to include a net price calculator to help families get a better sense of what they might pay at that given institution. But it’s still murky and confusing, and families don’t have clear numbers until financial aid forms have been filled out and merit scholarships have been applied.

Sticker price and net price aside, the fact is that many that increases in tuition have outpaced incomes for many years now. According to the film, the cost of college in absolute terms has escalated more than any other good or service in the US economy. And while that has been happening, states have reduced funding for high education. (In other news, my state’s flagship public university will probably be among the higher cost options for my sons–if they even gain admission because such institutions are increasingly trying to attract higher tuition paying students from around the US and abroad.)

I don’t think as a society we’ve reach a tipping point- a college education is still a way to move up in socioeconomic status and those with degrees tend to earn more over a lifetime- but if graduates are shackled with decades worth of loan repayments that limit their ability to full participate in the economy, in life!, we’re all going to be hurt moving ahead.

At one point the film points out three key aspects of higher education:

  1. Acquiring knowledge
  2. Developing a network
  3. Receiving a diploma

It doesn’t take a college degree (ha!) to realize that only one of the points requires an actual university experience. Still that piece of paper, especially one from a reputable institution, means a lot. I liked that Ivory Tower provided a closer look at how young adults can achieve the first two as they interview folks at a hacker house, referenced Thiel Fellowships and delvde into MOOCs.

Interesting concepts all, but they haven’t quite reached a tipping point. There’s a paradigm shift that has not yet occurred. Will it in the next 5 – 10 years? Also, MOOCs are a long way, a very long way, from living up to their promise.

I wish I could have invited a group of friends over to watch the screener with me because I think it would have produced a vibrant discussion. Instead, I have to direct them (and you) to see it in the theater. Overall, Ivory Tower tackles several issues related to higher ed in the “mile wide, inch deep” approach. I would have preferred to see a more targeted approach, but I still learned a few facts and left with plenty of food for thought.

Ivory Tower runs 90 minutes and is rated PG. Watch the trailer below and read more here. The film is playing at select theaters throughout the United States. You can try to bring it to a location near you, too. I hope it gets picked up by Netflix or Hoopla (library service) or some source that provides a broader distribution. I want to talk about it with friends!

Edited 6/26 to add:

Interesting piece from January 2014 Harvard Business Review, “The Degree is Doomed.
Also some interesting news broke this week regarding Kaplan’s purchase of “code school” Dev Bootcamp, which offers crash course in programming/web development.

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