What’s Wrong With Higher Education? “Ivory Tower” Dissects The Answer

A new documentary from the producers of Waiting For Superman shows how badly colleges “have lost their way about who and what they are.”

What’s Wrong With Higher Education? “Ivory Tower” Dissects The Answer
Still from Ivory Tower

The most compelling moments in Ivory Tower, a documentary that debuted in theaters on Thursday, all surround Cooper Union, a historically free college that will, this fall, charge tuition for the first time in its 155-year-history. The standoff between student protesters and Cooper administrators boiled over into the occupation of president Jamshed Bharucha’s office, all of which played out during the making of the film. The footage of the standoff, inside the office, is incredible, and so, so depressing. The head of finance at Cooper comes in and says, “First let me say, I’d rather you just leave.” A member of the board comes in and explains, “The numbers are what they are, however they got there, that’s where they are.”


It’s crazy that we need a film to stoke outrage at the cost of higher education. Tuition has increased 1,200% in 30 years, a far faster rise in cost than any other good or service, including houses and food. Part of the problem is that the problem seems so persistent, the numbers so gargantuan, that it’s difficult to know where to even begin, much less go from here.

Hints of a better way forward, if not quite concrete solutions–as well as a healthy bit of outrage–can be found in Ivory Tower. It should come as little surprise, then, that the film comes out of Participant Media, which last dissected the education system in the controversial 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman. Think of Ivory Tower as an alarmist, buyer beware-type documentary, only the thing we’re buying has resulted in more than a trillion dollars in outstanding loans and left its average customer $25,000 in debt with zero guarantee of a job.

The story begins in the Ivy League, at Columbia and Harvard, where professors speak of a coming apocalypse. The system, you see, is broken, and it goes back to the very beginning of universities in America. Clayton Christensen, the famed Harvard Business School professor, explains how Harvard is really the “DNA of higher education,” and how, “as it passed that DNA down to everyone else, it created a race.” The race is for prestige, but how does a college build prestige? Not through the simple education of young people, but awards, which are almost never given for the ability to give a really great lecture.

We then hear from Mitchell Stevens, an education professor at Stanford, who calls higher ed “an extraordinarily effective, yet inefficient system.” We learn about how, as federal and state funding has gone down, and tuitions have gone up, far more of the cost is borne by the student (and parents) than ever before. To entice students (and parents, but mostly students) and gain prestige in a newfangled and silly way–those U.S. News and World Reports rankings–colleges have embarked on a totally insane spending spree. What follows is an incredible montage of the most beautiful student centers, poolside lounges, and plasma televisions I have ever witnessed. Oh, and climbing walls! Climbing wall after climbing wall after climbing wall. It’s a great metaphor, because on an indoor climbing wall, you’re truly going nowhere. You get to the top, only to belay down. Also: what does any of this have to do with education? Nothing, obviously, and that’s the problem.

Colleges “have lost their way about who and what they are” another professor says (the second most interesting aspect of Ivory Tower is just how much of the sharpest criticism of the system comes from within, from the professors themselves). To deal with this massive construction boom and the complex finances required to create it, universities have also embarked on a hiring spree, bringing on hordes of extremely well-compensated people who will never step foot in a classroom. Graduation rates are down, party schools are up, and still the administrators’ salaries rise.

After I watched Ivory Tower, I spoke with Andrew Rossi, the director. I wanted to know why he’d chosen to tackle this topic, especially because it doesn’t easily lend itself to film. When he set out to make this, he’d just finished Page One, a documentary about the inner workings of the New York Times and its media desk. Compared to the insular, character driven world of the Times, Ivory Tower is sprawling. But Rossi saw similarities. Our higher ed system was, he told me, like the newspaper industry. “So many people have a lot of negative things to say about media and higher ed, but at their core they add something extremely valuable to society,” he said. In both cases, he wanted to see, firsthand, what was working and what wasn’t. For Ivory Tower he knew he wanted to start at the beginning–Harvard–but from there, he and his crew followed many, many storylines, shot 500 hours of material, and a whole lot fell away.


There are small moments, however, of tremendous insight into the process of education, which hint at that way forward without picking one specific path. At Deep Springs, an all-male, two-year college in Death Valley, a professor and student argue about Hegel after class, and we witness a non-corporatized version of education. The professor is lightly bearded and wearing flannel, untucked. He asks the sort of questions that leave plenty of room for his student to puzzle through his own issues. This is education: learning how to learn. In a hacker house in San Francisco, we see the “uncollege” movement in action, and what’s striking is how similar to college it appears. There are young people throwing a football, hanging out, but they are doing their own dishes and “not living,” as Rossi told me, “on a billion dollar campus where someone cleans the bathroom.” This is also education: learning how to be a responsible person in the world.

The most inspiring model comes at the very end, when Rossi visits Bunker Hill Community College and looks at “flip-classrooms,” in which students watch a lecture on their own time, away from school, and the class itself is a workshop. There’s far more focus on individual learning and one-on-one time between the instructor and student, but it also wouldn’t have been possible just a few years ago, before the online learning model took off–to a degree that the film, quite adeptly, interrogates and finds problematic. This hybrid model is entirely practical, inexpensive, and seems to be working.

Rossi said that his film will have succeeded if parents and prospective students go into the college application process thinking about schools differently, if they “reorient towards more important metrics” such as best four-year completion rates, most favorable student loan averages, rather than the football team or party scene. This is probably the best, most optimistic takeaway. My own was a bit bleaker.

Cooper Union president Bharucha says almost nothing during the standoff in his office. Then later, interviewed by the filmmakers, claims to have not understood the investments in hedge funds he signed off on inherited, which went bust. The money the university used for the investments was part of a $175 million dollar loan, much of which went to constructing a too-expensive building that Cooper didn’t need. They are now paying that back for about $10 million a year, which is what Cooper’s administrators claim necessitates charging tuition.


Near the end of the standoff a student rises and begins telling the adults just how blind they are, how they’re missing the point, the opportunity, and how they need to grow up. “This,” he says, “is a moment for this school to be the vision for higher education. It’s a historic position, and a historic moment.” The adults just grimace and leave the room, and later vote again to charge money for entry.

About the author

I'm a freelancer writer and editor. Previously, a senior editor at Fortune.