'Ivory Tower' Doc Explores the Origins of America's Student Debt Crisis

The film premieres in theaters June 13.
Apr 26, 2014·
Kristina Bravo is Assistant Editor at TakePart.

In 2011, Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel offered 20 teenagers $100,000 each, with one not-so-tiny catch: They had to drop out of college. But not to stop learning. Instead of professors, a group of entrepreneurs, investors, and “visionary thinkers” would mentor them in launching their own start-ups.

The idea wasn’t so far-fetched—it was the height of the Zuckerberg era, after all. Now, the offer sounds even more tempting as many question whether college is still worth it. This Friday marks the date in 2012 when student loan debts surpassed the $1 trillion mark. That number has since risen to $1.2 trillion. According to Maggie Thompson, campaign manager for Higher Ed Not Debt, an organization tackling the growing problem of student loan debt in America, today’s college graduates are saddled with an average of $30,000 in debt.

How did the system get so broken? That’s the question award-winning filmmaker Andrew Rossi (Page One: Inside the New York Times) explores in his new documentary, Ivory Tower, which premieres in theaters starting June 13.

The son of Italian immigrants, Rossi was taught to value a meritocratic society. Like most young Americans, he believed that education unlocked opportunities. But in the years after graduating from Yale University in 1995, he has witnessed the dramatic change of the landscape.

“I was really shocked to see what happened to higher education,” Rossi says. “I heard how critical some very reasonable people were about the system in its seemingly broken state. I felt it would be really productive to capture the experience that students, faculty, and administrators are having and see what’s going on.”

Ivory Tower approaches the problem by pinpointing moments in its evolution. Originally, higher education was seen as a public good, “as something that government should be involved in propagating for as many people as possible,” Rossi says.

Nineteenth-century magnates like Andrew Carnegie and Peter Cooper invested heavily in research and educational institutions. In 1944, the GI Bill sent veterans to school for free, and the Higher Education Act of 1965 allowed poor students to go to college.

“It’s important to remember that [time] because we now live in an era when people think nothing can be free,” Rossi says. The 1970s and 1980s became a major turning point for education, according to him.

“Reagan, as governor of California, argued that the state should not be funding intellectual curiosity. Because higher education gives people the ability to get jobs that would make them more money, it’s benefiting them as a private good."

In other words, education should be something that its recipients pay for, or are at least obligated to pay back. That’s when student loans bloomed as an industry, he says. “Now, the concept that education should be free is a laughable proposition.”

But it’s not all gloom and doom. People like Thiel are working around the system, and Rossi thinks that not having a degree is “no longer a badge of dishonor on your record.” After its launch, the Thiel fellowship continues to attract college-age students who would rather take the money and learn outside the classroom setting.

Does Rossi think that college is still worth it?

“College is definitely worth it for those who can emerge from their years of study without a crippling amount of student loan debt,” he says. “If you pursue a field that you’re passionate about, then motivation is going to put you in a better position. The most important thing is that whatever you study is [something] that you are committed to learning.”

TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, is collaborating with Samuel Goldwyn Films on the distribution of the documentary Ivory Tower.