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“Ivory Tower” gets good grades for its school of thought in the critical cost of learning

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Ivory Tower

Written and directed by Andrew Rossi

USA, 2014

Filmmaker Andrew Rossi’s documentary Ivory Tower certainly brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “higher education” as audiences will get a matriculating lesson in the cost of learning and the massive debt it has impacted on the nation’s struggling students and their parents that have to flip for the enormous bill of investing in their children’s brain power. Thoroughly thought-provoking, insightful and steeped in revelation concerning the student debt crisis Ivory Tower cleverly investigates the country’s spiraling financial burdens of obtaining a college education. The questions remains: is the ultimate price of undertaking an expensive collegiate learning experience worth tip toeing in bankruptcy’s backdoor?

The talking heads that make up the presentation in Ivory Tower consists of the various academics including college presidents and professors not to mention the put-upon students–the revered victims that are being subjected to the strenuous monetary manipulation in exchange for their education at an extravagant cost. Interestingly, Rossi’s expose into the burdensome load of financing a student’s education is dissected cleverly in the film’s approach to the several theories as to why there are skyrocketing economic factors in college classrooms across the country. Furthermore, Ivory Tower democratically looks at a few seemingly effortless ways in which to tackle the student debt crisis by touching upon alternate paths to gaining an effective education at a bargain price such as considering unconventional and low-key colleges that do not have the flashy reputations of the bigger and bombastic schools that are notoriously costly or concentrating on the surging craze of online college courses as a quick remedy.

Fittingly, Ivory Tower uses the country’s first and oldest American college in the Massachusetts-based Harvard University as the measuring stick for the other higher education institutions to follow suit in terms of how it conducts its business shaping the inquiring minds of its thousands of attending students. Surprisingly, Harvard is portrayed as a more sensible and caring learning institution despite its worldwide notoriety as the ultimate standard for college-bound excellence. In fact, the brilliance behind Harvard’s educational price tag and prominence is its willingness to reach out to needy students via full-fledged scholarships and other financial assistance to individuals that traditionally would not be deemed Ivy League material. The fact that an educational powerhouse such as Harvard University could demonstrate more economical compassion and consciousness as compared to its other collegiate contemporaries seems somewhat mind-blowing and humanistic.

One of the explanations for the student debt crisis is showcased in some of the “country club” colleges featured such as the University of Missouri or the University of Alabama where luring young people to their expansive campuses complete with luxurious amenities including massive swimming pools, tanning salons and rock-climbing displays suggests the pros and cons for why the head-scratching high costs for paying tuition is so insanely exuberant. The schools will argue that it is necessary to draw in the young crowd (particularly out-of-state students that pay more) to their posh learning institutions to balance the investments of the college’s upgrading in cosmetic design. Besides, the students are paying a pretty penny to attend these schools anyway so why not justify the high tuition costs with providing them with “campus playthings” to go along with their educational pursuits?

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Whereas we are introduced to the concept of the country club colleges as a standoff in necessary excess Ivory Tower also winks at the escalating frivolous “party-hearty” colleges such as Arizona State University and focuses on the debauchery that the selected party animal students thrive on without any discipline to taking their classroom courses seriously. ASU college president Michael Crow downplays the criticism of his institution as mainly a “wild bash” learning venue and explains that his university is not guilty of having the same kind of animated atmosphere of carefree and celebrating binge-drinking hard-body young folks than any other college located in warm climate states such as California, Texas or Florida. Crow’s ASU should not also be overlooked for its commitment to educational gain–or at least this is what he and his fellow high-paid contemporaries would probably emphasize when solely penalizing their schools for benefiting from sunshine and scenery as its idyllic calling cards.

A great deal of the documentary sets its sights on Cooper Union, the New York-based learning institution that was a prime enforcer and championed the students’ privilege of a guaranteed free education as reinforced by the school’s founder well over a century ago. However, the contemporary times of rigid schooling finances and the overall modern-day economic urgency has rendered Cooper Union to finally charge its students tuition for the first time in its 150-year existence. The outrage saw many of the concerned students confronting Cooper Union college president Jamshed Bharucha and his decision to have the students pay for something that they thought was a sacred given–their right to a free education without any financial restraints whatsoever. From protesting Bharucha (and questioning the CU prez’s eye-opening $750,000 annual salary and free mansion-based living arrangements) and the board of trustees to lodging a disrespectful stance at the school’s graduation ceremony the Cooper Union attendees are adamant about the perceived “unfair” tuition policies that threaten their collegiate experiences and aspirations. Thus, the once revered distinction of Cooper Union cannot even save this treasured learning facility from joining the mess that is the over-extended game of education-based debt politics.

When Hunter College graduate Stephanie Gray, a master’s degree candidate and college overachiever, cannot seem to find a decent job to compliment her pricey education which overwhelms her ability to survive and settle for something she earned the right to secure professionally one is left wondering of the unjust and unstable state of today’s young adults and what they face in the epidemic of an exceedingly expensive education that does not seem to be the expected rewarding payoff.

If anything Ivory Tower is a realistic slap in the face accompanied by a blunt kick to the butt in trying to get a bang for one’s buck in the onslaught of  educational emptiness feeding into financial uncertainty.

–Frank Ochieng


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