Sundance documentary 'Ivory Tower' asks if college is still worth it

Published: Monday, Jan. 20 2014 5:45 p.m. MST

Co-writers, Andrew Rossi and Kate Novack, of the film "Page One" pose for a portrait in the Fender Music Lodge during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival in Park City. In the 2014 Sundance documentary 'Ivory Tower,' director Andrew Rossi examines the spiraling cost of higher education in America.

Victoria Will, Associated Press

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PARK CITY — During the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, director Andrew Rossi premiered his film "Page One: Inside The New York Times," which looked at print media's efforts to adapt — or die trying — in the Internet age.

This year, Rossi returns to the festival with "Ivory Tower," a documentary that similarly examines an industry plagued by rising costs and the onslaught of new technologies.

But instead of an inside look at America's newspaper of record, the subjects of Rossi's lens in "Ivory Tower" are the nation's colleges and universities and the soaring tuition costs that have prompted many to ask whether a degree is still worth the investment.

"Across the board, everybody said that something must be changed and the higher education sector cannot continue to have this model that is unsustainable, that is just charging students more and more every year," Rossi said.

The film, which premiered Saturday in Park City, profiles students at several U.S. schools and includes interviews by Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco and Utah native Clayton Christensen.

Christensen, a best-selling author and professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, is renowned for his studies and theories on disruptive innovation, in which new markets are created that ultimately displace existing technologies or methods.

The film also takes a critical look at higher education culture, where administrative salaries have ballooned, faculties are rewarded for their research and scholarships rather than their teaching ability, and schools condone — if not actively cater to — a perceived party-school culture in order to court out-of-state students and the higher tuition costs they pay.

In "Ivory Tower," Delbanco describes the perpetual facility construction on college campuses as a "feeding frenzy" that is "grotesque," and Christensen predicts a shakeup of the higher education sector as a result of swelling costs and competition from innovators.

"There will be a lot of heads that will roll," Christensen said.

In 2012, Bloomberg News reported that the cost of college tuition in the United States had swelled by 1,120 percent since 1978. That growth outpaced the consumer price index and the costs of health care, food and real estate.

Students have increasingly turned to lenders, both private and public, to address those costs. Last year, cumulative federal student loan debt topped $1 trillion.

But unlike other forms of debt, student loans can not be absolved through bankruptcy, and an increasing number of graduates struggle to find meaningful employment after receiving their degrees.

In 2012, the Associated Press reported that 53 percent of recent graduates were either unemployed or working in jobs below their education level.

Rossi said higher education is still seen as the "best ticket" to the middle class and an important ladder for social mobility. But he said the statistics related to higher education often contradict each other, as greater numbers of Americans — particularly minorities — turn to colleges and universities to advance their education, but large numbers of students fail to complete their degrees or obtain meaningful employment after graduation.

"It's a complicated sort of equation. There are people who are benefiting greatly from their time in college, and there is also 68 percent of students who are not completing college in four years," he said. "So there are people who are flooding the campuses, but not all of them are actually getting degrees or leaving with preparation that allows them to get a job."

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