Movie Review: “Ivory Tower”

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“Unsustainable” has become our watchword for a bubble about to burst, a system — financial, climatological or health care — on the brink of collapse.
The experts in “Ivory Tower” use it, with varying degrees of alarm, to describe the state of college education in America.
Andrew Rossi’s documentary is a bit scatter shot in its approach. It broadly laments the collapse of America’s contract with kids — to educate them, get them into a college and into a career or careers and a life that college helps prepare them for — and narrowly zeroes in on a myriad of causes for this.
It’s built around an interview with educational theorist Andrew Delbanco of Columbia University, who uses words like “apocalyptic” and “time bomb” to describe the threats that the very idea of higher learning faces. There’s student debt, a system with misplaced priorities, students unprepared for college, and growth-obsessed colleges dealing with kids as sources of income, commodities to be lured with amenities, “perks” and lifestyle upgrades.
The film drops in on Arizona State University and lays bare the costs of getting a reputation as a “party school.” Schools like ASU, experts suggest, depend on out of state students who are “less academically inclined,” paying a premium to attend a college with big time athletics teams, pool parties and a lively pub crawl nearby.
“Just give them beer and circuses,” one of the authors of a book about that, “Paying for the Party”, complains.
We meet dedicated kids who have made it into Harvard, or who attend classes at the rigorous, desert-set Deep Springs College and meet the activists at Cooper Union, a legendary “free” admissions New York college which has made financial and real estate blunders that forced it to start charging students tuition for the first time in 150 years.
The film also finds students buried under debt and suggests many push for degrees simply as a way of “putting off thinking about the future.”
The larger worry in play here is that colleges, battling their way to the bottom to maintain enrollment, have dumbed down their degrees, that a legacy of the Reagan Revolution may be that colleges, which used to be subsidized because the nation as a whole valued higher education, is returning to something only a rich elite can afford. Governor Jerry Brown talks about what happened to California’s iconic state college system was and how deep in the hole it is today.
And somehow, in it’s 90 brisk minutes, “Ivory Tower” finds the time to look at and, on occasion, shoot down solutions to the myriad problems suggested by overbuilt, over-enrolled degree factories with athletic teams. MOOC — Massive Open Online Courses? “Hacking” college through Uncollege.org? A return to what community colleges used to be charged with doing?
Those many subjects mean that most of what is addressed here is only touched on. “Ivory Tower” plays like a prospectus for a series of films, a “Cosmos” on higher education that could explain what we used to expect out of colleges, how that worked and how far society, government, the institutions and those chasing degrees in them have drifted from that. As it is, this film doesn’t dwell on any problem or solution long enough to get us outraged or inspired to insist on a change for the better.
 
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MPAA Rating:PG-13 for some suggestive and partying images
Cast: Andrew Delbanco, Elizabeth A. Armstrong, Jerry Brown, Peter Schiff, Richard Arum, Drew Faust, David Boone
Credits: Written and directed by Andrew Rossi. A Samuel Goldwyn/CNN Films release.
Running time: 1:31

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