Director Andrew Rossi (Page One: Inside the New York Times) takes on higher education institutions and the high cost of attending school in the documentary Ivory Tower, which is expanding to theaters this week. With the cost of colleges increasing and the lack of motivation to fix the ticking time bomb of a problem, the timely subject matter of student loan debt won’t be settled anytime soon. I had an opportunity to speak with Andrew Rossi about his latest documentary project.
Synopsis: As tuition rates spiral beyond reach and student loan debt passes $1 trillion (more than credit card debt), IVORY TOWER asks: Is college worth the cost? From the halls of Harvard, to public colleges in financial crisis, to Silicon Valley, filmmaker Andrew Rossi (PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES) assembles an urgent portrait of a great American institution at the breaking point. Through interviews profiled at Arizona State, Cooper Union, and Sebastian Thrun’s Udacity-among several others-IVORY TOWER reveals how colleges in the United States, long regarded as leaders in higher education, came to embrace a business model that often promotes expansion over quality learning. Along the way we also find unique programs, from Stanford to the free desert school Deep Springs to the historically black all women’s college Spelman, where the potential for life-changing college experiences endure. (C) Samuel Goldwyn
Andrew Rossi was fascinated with the subject matter of student loans. He had a goal to make a documentary about an overlooked yet vital issue regarding an established institution. Student loans and colleges seemed like an ideal fit.
“In the beginning I was looking for a story that would involve disruption in a key institution in society,” he said. “I was drawn to that as a potential topic.”
Rossi argues that news articles and opinion pieces can drive debate in this country on a limited basis; however a documentary can lead to substantial change. It is the formatting of merging facts with personal stories to present the subject matter to audiences can engage more people.
“One of the key inspirations to make the film was to look at the research data and stories to put in one 90 minute film weaving arguments and stories to form a cohesive narrative. Having one very accessible film to have a new role to play to inspire parents and prospective students is important. There hasn’t been a feature length documentary in this subject,” he said.
Rossi is relieved when politicians like Elizabeth Warren who recently brought up the issue of student load debt this month on the Senate floor have an understanding of the complex and impending issue.
“My view is that Elizabeth Warnen who is at the forefront of the issue and is fighting for relief,” he said. “Her bill makes complete sense to allow students to re-finance the loans like people who have automobiles and homes. Yet, politically the climate is so divisive to get anything done.”
Ivory Tower covers some surprising topics for the state of higher education. From the party reputation at colleges to the original meaning of a university education, Ivory Tower goes to some unfamiliar places. (The point of college is to learn and be a critical thinker and not to obtain a job.) Yet, one very popular course at Harvard CS50 shows how a new generation of students view the Internet saturated world.
“We had heard it was one of the most popular classes in Harvard. It did have the highest enrollment of any other class,” he said. “It is an indication of how much studying on campuses have changed. It was fascinating to see in the wake of the tech boom and success of Mark Zuckberg that students want to learn how to code. It is insight that young people want to get out of the college experience.”
If Rossi had a specific audience in mind to watch Ivory Tower, it would be students considering attending higher education in the near future. He thinks it is important that various issues are explored and the debate of the cost is considered.
“If parents and perspective students see this film and realize they should choose a school they should evaluate on better terms,” he said.
Ivory Tower is now playing in theaters and is highly recommended as one of the most engaging and thought provoking documentaries of the year. If you have a student loan balance, this should be required viewing!