Is college worth it? New documentary explores higher education costs and rising student debt

Susan Saulny, Richard Coolidge and Jordyn Phelps
Power Players

Power Players

At a time when student loan debt exceeds $1 trillion and the cost of college continues to climb to new heights -- outpacing any other goods or services in the U.S. economy -- a new documentary asks the question: Is it worth it?

“Tuition has risen since 1978 by 1,120 percent, and during that same period state funding for colleges has declined by 40 percent,” filmmaker Andrew Rossi told “Power Players.”

Rossi’s film “Ivory Tower” traces the ballooning price tag for a college education to a shift in the national political and cultural mindset, by which college has come to be viewed as a private good, rather than a public one.

“In the ’60’s and ’70’s, conservative governors like Ronald Reagan argued, in Reagan's words exactly, that the states should not subsidize intellectual curiosity,” Rossi said. “There was a real shift in viewing higher [education] as a public good instead to a private good that is giving the graduate the opportunity to earn more money in their lifetimes; and that legacy has really continued on to today.”

As states pulled back public dollars, Rossi said, colleges have compensated by operating increasingly as “big businesses” out to attract student “customers.”

“We see an interesting sort of vicious cycle in which tuitions are rising as institutions are building on campus and creating these facilities and perks that students are attracted by,” Rossi said. “And students and their parents, who are paying these astronomical fees, are increasingly acting as consumers.”

In the university-as-business landscape, Harvard University is the gold standard. And as other colleges attempt to emulate the Harvard model, Rossi said, a sort of arms race has ensued.

“Everything that places like Yale and Harvard are doing to grow bigger and better, which is part of the DNA of higher education, is becoming unsustainable,” he said. “There are too many other schools that are trying to … reproduce those functions that really don't necessarily need to and are in some cases not actually increasing or enhancing the academic outcomes for their students.”

And while the film points to a statistic showing that nearly half of recent college graduates were either unemployed or underemployed last year, Rossi said college is still worth the cost.

“In purely financial terms, it's hard to argue that it is not, because data shows that median lifetime earnings are about a million dollars more for someone who has a college degree versus someone with only a high school diploma,” he said. “But that data alone doesn't take into account those who do graduate but have so much student loan debt that they're paralyzed from pursuing many life choices like starting a family or getting a car or a house.”

So while college may still be worth it, Rossi said the country needs to find viable alternatives to the Harvard model in order to make college costs more sustainable. One such solution the film explores is community college.

“Community college is sort of the hero of the film,” Rossi said. “Community colleges provide education to students … for two years, they get an associate's degree and then they can go to finish if they want to a B.A., which for students is much less expensive and can help to protect them from getting into more student loan debt,” Rossi said.

For more of the interview with Rossi, and to hear about how the decision by the historically free Cooper Union to charge tuition is a “bellwether” for the state of college education in America, check out this episode of “Power Players.”

ABC News’ Alexandra Dukakis, Tom Thornton, Nick Greiner and David Girard contributed to this episode.