In the opening minutes of Andrew Rossi’s documentary Ivory Tower, the cost and value of higher education in the United States is described as having an impending “apocalyptic dimension.” With college tuition on the rise, many Americans are questioning the purpose of higher education. For those with student loans, pursing a post-secondary education can be a time of high anxiety that adds to the already tantalizing pressures of passing college courses. Ivory Tower explores this anxiety through a diverse overview of college systems across the United States, but what the film lacks is an answer to the questions that worry students and parents nationwide.
Institutes of higher learning are becoming more competitive than ever before not only in the admissions process but also in the expansions and amenities used to maintain enrollment. Because of this, colleges and universities are also burdened with debt, forcing students to bear the cost.
Ivory Tower examines many educational institutes across the country that approach education in different ways. From the United States’ oldest institution of higher learning (Harvard University) to a private, alternative college isolated in rural California (Deep Springs College), the film does a good job at providing multiple points of view in the purpose of higher education debate. By showing these perspectives, higher education is given a real sense of importance. But with ever-increasing tuition rates, the balance between cost and value is being skewed.
While the film presents the deeper facts with elegantly composed visuals, it doesn’t seem to stretch very far beyond what an article in The New York Times can bring to the public’s attention. In fact, the film itself seems like an adaptation of one of those picturesque Time magazine feature stories. The only problem is that it tackles too many subjects within the central conflict and never provides a well-plotted resolution.
Instead, the film ends like a PSA, encouraging viewers to visit a website that acts as a companion to the film for people to learn more about the financial stipulations of college. Though this isn’t entirely motivational, the film itself succeeds in its delivery of information. After all, documentaries of this kind are meant to bring important issues to the forefront. But without a clear solution to the college debt crisis, Ivory Tower fuels the continual anxiety instead of relieving it.