I finally caught up with the CNN-supported documentary Ivory Tower (2014). In it Andrew Rossi offers an overview of the current status of American higher education. I’d like to share some thoughts here.
We need to realize this moment in the country, with a trillion dollars in student debt, with all the models of higher education as a business, it’s failing.
-Cooper Union student
The movie begins with American studies professor Andrew Delbanco walking to his campus, Columbia University. He gets the movie’s first lines, and uses them to talk about sadness and melancholy, of all things, neatly establishing tone and a theme (see below). After following him through campus, the movie briskly moves on to Peter Thiel, Anya Kamenetz, Clayton Christensen, and Anthony Carnevale. And then many more.* This is primarily a movie based on people talking to us. Director Rossi doesn’t appear directly.
Those speaking people cover an awful lot of ground in just over one hour. They provide a sketch of American higher education history, from John Harvard to the Morrill Act to federal student aid and Pell Grants. They present data and topics, which include debt, rising tuition, the decline in state support, and the amenities arms race (climbing walls, pools, plasma tvs, student centers, football stadiums mentioned). Also covered are institutional debt, students as consumers, administrative growth and costs, the decline of academic rigor, student delaying or failing to graduate, the decline of tenure, and the rise of adjuncts.
Ivory Tower goes on to hit the shift from seeing higher education as a public good to a private good. We see intergenerational tensions (Boomers criticizing Millenials), dropping out versus the college premium, the rise of the MOOCs bubble and its popping, class differences in education, and even the flipped classroom and blended learning.
How are these titular ivory towers responding to such threats? Continue reading