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Higher education under scrutiny in 'Ivory Tower'

POSTED: June 26, 2014 1:00 a.m.

The documentary “Ivory Tower” examines the state of higher education in the United States. And while its entry into limited release this weekend has thus far been quiet, it could end up making a lot of noise.

American colleges and universities face several crises, most prominently the decline of public funding combined with rising enrollments, a total national student debt of more than $1 trillion and attacks on the residential university as no longer feasible nor most effective for many students.

“Ivory Tower” does an outstanding job of discussing these and other challenges, without becoming partisan or losing sight of what is most important — the students.

A persistent theme among the film’s interview subjects, all of whom are either career academics or credible critics of higher education, is the American university system has been unquestionably successful at providing a liberal arts education. The problem is the unsustainable costs of a college education.

Public funding for universities and colleges has fallen dramatically, forcing institutions to raise tuition. And when a college degree carries an extremely high price tag, several things happen. Students are saddled with debt when they graduate, and it is increasingly unlikely their entry-level salaries will allow them to pay off their loans while building a life. This phenomenon has prompted many to question the necessity of a college education at all.

Students also develop a consumer mentality. They are paying quite a lot for this experience and somewhat justifiably expect to “receive” their money’s worth. In response, colleges have tried to outdo each other with the amenities they provide, which raises costs.

Another source of problems is the inefficiency with which many universities operate. Since 2005, the number of faculty at American colleges has grown 51 percent while the number of administrators has grown 240 percent. Compounding these issues are technologies that excite administrators because they are cheap but have now been proven educationally less effective, if not disastrous.

This was a difficult film for me personally to review because I am so close to the content. My position at the University of North Georgia comprises instructional and administrative responsibilities.

I became a little defensive when certain interview subjects overstated or mischaracterized situations. Richard Arum, co-author of “Academically Adrift,” a book which has caused significant ripples throughout academia, criticizes student evaluations as “consumer satisfaction” surveys. His description of how colleges evaluate professors is completely unfair.

The film also stacks the deck at times.

This is especially true of the segment on the Thiel Fellowship and the Education Hackerhouse, a communal living space in Silicon Valley. The film describes it as “college drop-outs work on education-related startups.” Sorry, but very few 18- to 22-year-olds would thrive in such an environment. At one point, Peter Schiff, author of “Crash Proof 2.0,” mentions “the ease with which you can become self-educated” thanks to the Internet. There is nothing easy about becoming self-educated, and again, only a small percentage of students succeed with this approach.

Thankfully, the film acknowledges those realities and returns to the question of how to effectively educate as many people as possible.

The movie also provides a cursory but useful history of higher education in the United States and reminds us of the foundational ideals on which the system is built. It used to be a central goal to make a college education accessible to everyone. An educated populace is essential to a democracy, and making college equally feasible for everyone is itself a democratic ideal. This is one of several core values “Ivory Tower” champions without condescending to offer easy answers or disrespecting educators.

Anyone familiar with higher education will nod along with the film at least some of the time but will recognize what it is: a synthesis of recent, notable analyses of the American college and university system. It does not lob polemical arguments but instead provokes constructive discussion and tries to bring more voices into a dialogue in which academics have engaged for years.

That, like higher education itself, is a noble cause which deserves our support.

Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.


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