If you are going to watch one single documentary about higher education in the United States, you can do no better than CNN's 'Ivory Tower'. Is College Worth It? That's the question Director Andrew Rossi sets out to answer. The points made in this documentary are nuanced, and the answers are many. But in the end, for anyone that's been through the 'college experience', or is about to, or is considering embarking on that difficult journey, you will walk away thinking very differently about the way the United States as a whole handles higher education after viewing this, and the future of where this education experience should go from here on out.
tagline for 'Ivory Tower' is: A documentary that questions the cost -- and value -- of higher education in the United States. Those two words, cost
, are really what the conversation boils down to.
Let's start with the cost of a typical college education. The average cost of a 4-year public degree with room and board (for 2013) was $67,156
. It's no mystery that the average student doesn't come from a family that can simply afford to pay for this hefty price tag outright. So that leaves millions taking out student loans. Actually, the rate of students needing to take out student loans has risen dramatically from even the last 10 years, from 5.9 million in 2002-2003, to 10 million in 2012-2013. This has to do with several factors, but mostly it is because of rising tuition costs, coupled with dramatically less invested from taxpayers into higher public education in general. So, quite simply the buck gets passed down to the student. Or customer really, when it comes down to it, because that's largely what the college experience has become: a way for massive educational businesses to construct mini cities that attract top dollar student-customers to live and learn in their complex over the coarse of 4-10 years of attendance.
Now, that term customer-student is not necessarily in the documentary. And keep in mind that this is my take, directly after watching the film. But it's hard not to come to that conclusion when you consider the amount of money typical colleges and universities are spending today on recreational centers, apartment complexes and dormitory amenities, sporting events and stadiums, and not too mention advertising, faculty research grants, and of course administrator's vaunted salaries.
That's not to say that everyone experiences this universally. Or that all schools charge ungodly sums of cash in exchange for a piece of paper. There are exceptions to the rule. Some of the most prestigious institutions on earth, like Harvard and Stanford (as the doc does highlight) offer free education, or 'full rides' to students that qualify. And there are some schools that teach alternative models of education that are still free. Although a vast majority of "respected" institutions in this country do cost tens of thousands a year. And a vast majority of students feel the sting of debt out of college, whether they graduate or not. In fact, the average student is roughly $26,000
in debt after graduating. That's a price tag that on average takes 10 years to pay off, if you are shilling out $277/month to pay it off. And of course, don't forget about interest. With a $26K debt out of college, in 10 years of paying that off, you will have payed an additional $6,700 in interest alone!
The term "respected" definitely comes into play when it comes to asking if the college experience is valuable, or worth the price tag. You may ask, 'Well, what about community college?". And that's a great question. For going to a community college is a great way to get higher education at a heavily discounted right, in comparison. But you have to then take into account the second term the IMDB descript provides: value. What's the value of a community college degree? Almost universally, a community college is a 2-year program, usually labeled with 'continuing education' over 'higher education'. That is because the real-world, economic value of attaining a 2-year degree from a community college is the equivalent of going to the 13th and 14th grade, as I have heard many a hiring manager tell me. An Associates degree is good for what it is. But it doesn't give you the perceived value that a Bachelor's degree provides, which is half the reason most kids venture into college in the first place. That value is one of opening doors, with the concrete opportunity to make much more money with said piece of paper, over simply just having a high school diploma or GED. Community college is an intermediate between high school and a 4 year university. And in most cases is treated as such. They are a way to allow you to get some basic courses out of the way while you figure out what major you wish to pursue. But the goal for most is to still transfer into a 4-year university to get that coveted BA. And even now, the BA is falling way to the ever-growing standard of the MBA or Doctorate. (talk about even more money invested)
Those are just some of the stats to consider when talking about the cost of education. Here's another: As a nation, we are over $1.2 Trillion in debt with student loans. That's Trillion, with a T. Education reformers like Elizabeth Warren find this every bit as abhorrent and shocking as I do. And she has a great many ideas about just how to 'change the system
', which I invite and encourage everyone that reads this to check out. If I'm being honest, I would vote for her for President of the United States solely on her promise to champion this single issue (if she does ever run that is) because it is that important.
Alternative models of higher education are promising though. Enter the internet, and the ability to learn without the enormous expense of a campus. Online education is a clear alternative that I believe is extremely viable. Although it is in its infancy. And the doc points that out in a very matter-of-fact way. 'Ivory Tower' reminds that nothing beats person to person interaction. And I have to agree. Which points you toward some variation of a hybrid situation; a higher learning environment where a vast majority of the vaunted price tag is mitigated by online courses. But coupled with a smaller, more practical institution where you can still psychically go to get in-person mentoring and additional training on the subject in question. This would maintain real-world value and cut down on the cost dramatically, if every institution were to adopt a variation of a hybrid method. That's my 2 cents and takeaway.
Whatever you think of the college experience, it's value, the high price tag, and if it's worth it or not, I still highly recommend checking out the documentary. Or investing further into Andrew Rossi's work. The college model is in flux right now, and much is at stake. I personally feel we need to prioritize higher education in more the vein of the late 1960s, where it didn't cost much of anything to attend college. We need to invest in the future of our workforce and make higher education as accessible as humanly possible. Simply put, everyone will benefit, and the United States will be better because of that investment. Please leave a comment below and give me your thoughts. What would you change? Do you feel the college experience is worth it, and why or why not? That sort of thing.
At the end of the doc, the film encourages action and education by visiting:takepart.com/ivorytower