When I arrived at college back in 1991, I might as well have been wearing a toga. I spent my first year in an interdisciplinary study of western civilization, starting from Plato, moving through Dante and ending with Nietzsche. It was an extremely rigorous course of study with papers due every week, lectures by professors including Harold Bloom, and seminars led by experts like the late Jaroslav Pelikan, who was as committed to research as he was to mentoring students.
The Latin root for the word educate is “educere” which means to “draw out from within.” As a freshman at Yale, I felt some new kind of maturity and insight was indeed being “drawn out,” as I grew to understand what I was creatively passionate about and developed strong friendships. My parents worked night and day owning and running a restaurant so that I could attend college without taking on debt, and even though the price then was about $22,000 a year, it was somehow affordable relative to our family’s income. As a first generation Italian-American, I was living the ideal college experience.
Fast forward about 20 years, and this American Pastoral image of college seems, for the average college student, an ancient dream. Although Yale is among the 1.25 percent of colleges that offer “full need financial aid,” in 2014 a year of study at Yale is close to $60,000 all-in. And at many of the 4,440 institutions of higher education in the U.S. that do not have the ability to offer robust financial aid, studies show that schools are “drawing out” money perhaps more effectively than intellectual curiosity.
Since 1978 the price of college has increased in absolute dollars by 1120 percent, more than any other good or service in the U.S. economy. (For example, the cost of food has increased by just 244 percent and healthcare by 601 percent in the same period). A widely cited study by Richard Arum, Academically Adrift, concludes that 36 percent of college students show no significant gains in learning over the course of their four years in college. Indeed, 68 percent of students at public colleges and universities fail to graduate in four years. And in 2012, over 50 percent of graduates under the age of 25 were either unemployed or underemployed.
If you haven’t been living on an island without access to newspapers, cable news and social media, you already know that cumulative student loan debt in the U.S. is now over $1 trillion—more than the nation’s credit card debt. And the average student borrower had $29,400 in debt as of 2012. For those graduates unable to make monthly loan payments, going into forbearance or default can actually increase the principal on their debt, and bankruptcy protection is unavailable for student loan borrowers except in exceedingly rare cases.
In millennial parlance, WTF is going on with college?
Wasn’t college supposed to be the gateway to the middle class, a “given” for every high school senior hoping to participate in the American Dream? Why are billionaires like Peter Thiel—the Internet era’s analog to the philanthropists of the Gilded Age, who helped to create the foundation of higher education in America—offering students money to drop out of college?
Somebody explain, is college worth the cost?
Well, it’s complicated. In my new documentary Ivory Tower, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, we find examples of meaningful, life changing post-secondary education taking place all over the country. From the desert school Deep Springs in California’s Death Valley to the Historically Black College Spelman in Atlanta to the politically active art students at Cooper Union in New York to the first college in America, Harvard, and the community college Bunker Hill just across the river, the ideal of challenging academic studies, ethical debate, and peer-to-peer learning endures.
But the business model of higher education has become so massive in its scope that growth in tuition shows no signs of abating, and the debt burden of student borrowers continues to mushroom with no legal protections or relief. Colleges are caught in an arms race for prestige, and those that do not have the benefit of multi-billion dollar endowments have to go into unsustainable debt themselves, passing on the cost to students. State funding for public colleges and universities has plummeted, decreasing by 40 percent across the country since 1980.
As a society, what can we do to change the course of higher education? How can students and parents empower themselves to evaluate a given school, the amount of debt that would be incurred and even the course of study and relative earning potential after graduation, in order to decide for any individual whether college is worth the cost for them?
That’s the premise of The Ivory Tower, and in 97 minutes of emotional stories from students and professors at a range of schools, along with analysis from some of the leading minds in higher education, we try to marshal as much insight as possible into a resource for prospective students and a provocation to decision makers. There are no easy answers, and while massive open online courses (MOOCs) offer one exciting direction for the future, there appears to be no substitute for the in-person instruction of students who need the most help. There are also ethical questions to confront when beta-testing educational technologies with real, live students. So reform will involve a recalibration of national priorities and a paradigm shift in the financial structure of higher education, hopefully away from the corporatized, expansionist model, with a pivot to a streamlined approach to the core mission of most non-profit colleges: educating students.
Following a Q&A session after our premiere, a Sundance volunteer joined a group of young people gathered in the hallway outside the theater still talking about the movie. She explained that she had just graduated from college and her parents and even grandparents could not understand why she couldn’t get a full time job. She started tearing up while she spoke to Victoria Sobel, a graduate of Cooper Union who is one of the central voices in the film, and she said that the film made her feel just a little bit better, a little less alone in her struggle. She wanted her parents to see the film, because she thought it would help them understand the predicament she’s in.
All across the country, at the dinner table, in classrooms and college boardrooms and hopefully in the hallways outside some theaters, I hope this conversation can continue. What’s happening to the college ideal in America is outrageous. I think it’s fine for students to arrive on campus in togas and pursue a liberal arts study of the classics, so long as they are not incurring so much debt that the job they are likely to find at graduation will never allow them to make their loan payments. Because when students emerge with paralyzing debt, their class position becomes cemented, and the dream of social mobility disappears. We don’t want the ideal of college to become so arcane that we read about it in history books, like a golden age as remote as ancient Greece.
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