Is college, specifically the elite four-year residential model, overrated? Is it worth its ever-increasing cost? Has it been oversold as the key to a child's brighter future? The stimulating documentary "Ivory Tower" asks all these tough questions and, most provocatively of all, declines to give definitive answers.
As directed by Andrew Rossi, whose last work was the informative "Page One: Inside the New York Times," "Ivory Tower" wants to educate and stir the pot, to get us to understand the extent of the dilemma, which is considerable.
This film throws an enormous amount of information at us both in terms of original interviews and archival footage from more than 100 sources, but it's too sophisticated to suggest that any one-size-fits-all solution is lurking just over the horizon.
That's partly because nothing about the college imbroglio is as simple as it seems, not even the eye-popping costs, which can be as high as $60,000 per year, an expense level that gives parents sticker shock from coast to coast.
Yes, the cost of college tuition is staggeringly high — since 1978 it has increased more than any other good or service. Yes, the nation's student loan debt incurred to help pay those fees is now at a just-about-unsustainable $1-trillion-plus — more even than what we owe on credit cards.
But on the other side of the ledger, as the New York Times reported just a few weeks ago, analysis of recent income statistics shows that "the pay gap between college graduates and everyone else reached a record high last year." No matter how much college costs, statistically it still pays to go.
To help us understand how we got to where we are now, "Ivory Tower" takes us on a tour of some half a dozen colleges and universities, each one carefully selected to make a point about the looming crisis that all this debt and spending seems to be inevitably leading to.
First stop is Harvard, the first American university and the model for all others, a place that seems as much an industry as a purveyor of higher education. But a student profiled here, David Boone, a freshman from Cleveland who is attending on a full scholarship, was homeless during high school and hadn't regularly slept in a bed for a year before arriving at his dorm room. The college experience may not benefit everyone, but the good it will do in his case is clear.
A different dynamic is at work at many large state universities like the one Rossi visits, Arizona State. Government funding has gone down in these places, which means that students, especially those from out of state who pay more, bear more of the cost.
To attract these out-of-staters, state universities often focus on the notion of the student as consumer, throwing in perk after party-school perk — dorms with plasma TVs, climbing walls, "a swimming pool in every room" — as they chase tuition dollars. Education is often lost in the process: 68% of public university students do not graduate in four years, and 44% do not make it out in six.
Yet for every school like Arizona State, there is a Deep Springs College, an intense, focused institution in Death Valley that features a commitment to old-school learning that is so deep and so passionate it almost takes your breath away.
"Ivory Tower" also visits Atlanta's Spellman, founded 20 years after the end of slavery and the nation's oldest college for black women, a place that provides a space for its students to define themselves.
The film also spends a considerable amount of time at the Cooper Union in New York, a school founded on the notion of free education that went through a wrenching crisis when questionable financial decisions led to the imposition of tuition.
Ever even-handed, "Ivory Tower" also examines the phenomenon of MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, and finds them not to be quite the panacea they initially promised to be.
If you're considering college for your children or are just a concerned citizen, this comprehensive documentary gives you a lot to ponder.
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes