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."

Rossi said there has also been a change in the public perception of higher education throughout the past several decades. Where education was once seen as a public good, enriching society and strengthening the economy, it is now seen primarily as a means for an individual to increase earning power.

"People started to think of college as exclusively a way to make more money, and it was around that time the student loan industry really started to grow aggressively," he said.

Historically, Rossi said, the American concept of higher education has included the character formation that comes from a student's time in college, which is not always replicated in Internet-based coursework and massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

"That’s something that we sort of show is not really possible in the exclusively virtual experience that some students are having with online courses of study," Rossi said.

The film points to the example of San Jose State University, which last year partnered with MOOC provider Udacity to offer low-cost, online remedial courses for students but ultimately saw success rates fall.

"The pass rates for those classes were really abysmal," Rossi said. "On average, about 23 to 25 percent of the students actually passed, and that rate is lower than what it was for the brick-and-mortar versions of those classes."

Last month, Inside Higher Ed reported that San Jose State plans to scale back the number of Udacity-created courses it offers, effectively ending the partnership after the disappointing results.

"It’s almost anticlimactic, given where they started out in January,” California Faculty Association President Lillian Taiz told Inside Higher Ed. “Here we are a year later, and it’s fizzling out like a firecracker.”

But online colleges, such as the Salt Lake City-based Western Governors University, maintain that interpersonal development associated with higher education can still be accomplished in the Internet age.

Joan Mitchell, vice president of public relations at WGU, said that while courses are completed online, faculty continue to bring students together through webinars and group assignments to collaborate with one another.

"There are lots of ways for the students to interact," Mitchell said. "We say, 'You're online, but you're not alone.'"

Western Governors University also uses a model of competency-based learning, where students advance by demonstrating mastery of a subject rather than passing through the calendar days of a typical semester.

"It measures learning rather than time," she said. "Our students have access to world-class learning resources. They can study any time of the day or night depending on their schedule."

Rossi said MOOCs and other online-enhanced learning models are still considered the likely future of the higher education industry, which is approaching a tipping point where high costs could prompt major reform.

He said the most frequently cited suggestions for reform include shortening the time required for a degree from four to three years, but coupled with more structured internship and apprenticeship opportunities for students.

The other suggestion Rossi said he most commonly heard was using MOOCs and video lectures in conjunction with a classroom setting, where the nation's top instructors make their lectures available online with quizzes and other work that supplements in-class instruction. In that type of system, he said, college and university faculty would function more as in-class guides or mentors rather than lecturers.

"This is seen as a way to cut costs," Rossi said. "It’s also, I think, legitimately viewed by many faculty members as a sort of existential threat because there’s the possibility that these lectures from Stanford and Harvard could end up meaning the end of people’s careers at different schools."

That type of blended or hybrid classroom, where in-class instruction is supplemented by a substantial online component, has been seen by many institutions as a way to both engage students and maximize classroom space.

At Utah Valley University in Orem, courses that deliver more than 50 percent of their content online are colloquially referred to as "hot bunks" because they allow two courses to occupy the same classroom space.

As schools continue to adapt, there is a feeling that career preparation and personal enrichment are not mutually exclusive, Rossi said. Even in the pursuit of tomorrow's classroom, higher education officials are cognizant of the role that education plays in shaping society, he said.

"I definitely believe that it is possible to have both of those things simultaneously happening in college, and that is the goal," Rossi said. "Even the administrators who are facing all kinds of financial problems and are making radical changes do believe that’s what the aspiration should be in higher education — to both prepare our students for a 21st-century economy, but also develop them as ethical participants in the communities in which they live."

Several screenings of "Ivory Tower" will be held at the Sundance Film Festival, beginning with the Saturday evening world premiere and followed by subsequent screenings in Park City and Salt Lake City. All screenings are sold out, but individuals interested in viewing the film can waitlist for any available seats.

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com

Twitter: bjaminwood

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