Film Fess by Helene Ravlich

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Posted on Thursday 16/03/2017 March, 2017 by

When I was at university the average fee total per year for most students – and it was royally lambasted! – was around the princely sum of $1400. And no, I didn’t miss out any zeros. Education was relatively affordable and scholarships plentiful, but despite this many students I know still racked up massive debts… usually due to road trips, nice cars to complete said road trips in and reluctance to enter into part-time work in case it interfered with the aforementioned long weekends. But I digress! It was a messy situation then and the impact of student loan debt even more so now, but it pales in comparison to the situation in the United States, as outlined by tonight’s documentary, IVORY TOWER.

As tuition rates spiral beyond reach in North America and student loan debt passes an insane USD$1 trillion (more than credit card debt), the film asks: is college worth the cost? Filmmaker Andrew Rossi travels to everywhere from the halls of Harvard, to public colleges in financial crisis, to Silicon Valley, in order to paint a pretty grim portrait of a great American institution at breaking point. It emerges that colleges, long regarded as leaders in higher education, have come to embrace a business model that often promotes expansion over quality learning… and students are indeed suffering.

The film is thought-provoking, and includes some interesting situations and scenarios that I really would have liked to see explored more than they were, with a few less stats flying across the screen. Its look at Harvard University, the first American college, as the “source of DNA” for all colleges was fascinating. The famous university’s influence on pretty much every single higher education institution in the United States is second to none, and it appears that it cares. One thing that Harvard does that few other schools do is provide full-need scholarships to anyone it deems to need financial assistance. It appears only 1.25 percent of colleges in the country offer full need-based scholarships, which is quite astounding. Even more interesting is the fact that it effectively means that a middle-class student can expect to pay more at a public university than at Harvard. 

In less philanthropic news, it was interesting to observe the wild competition between learning institutions when it comes to what can only be called “added extras”. When one school offers an amenity, the rest follow, one-upping each other at every turn. So when the University of Missouri and the University of Alabama have fancy swimming pools, others think about adding them to their campus. Incredibly, some schools even have tanning beds available for students wanting to get that golden glow – I mean, COME ON.

One of the most fast-paced parts of the film concerned Cooper Union, a renowned Manhattan college that was founded on the radical model of free education and continued to provide this tuition-free learning for decades. Then it all changed. Dramatically. Along came a new President, Jamshed Bharucha, who concluded that the school could no longer survive without charging students to learn there. Unsurprisingly, chaos ensued. Critics were quick to point out the debt amassed by the construction of a very expensive new building on campus and the $800k+ salary of their new leader, who in all honesty seems like a right tool. Amazingly, its students did what so many critics of millennials claim they no longer do: they staged a proper protest. In the form of a sit-in in the President’s office, no less! I won’t give away what happened next, you’ll have to tune in tonight and find out.

In conclusion, although the film is a little flawed itself, IVORY TOWER raises a number of fascinating questions about the current, deeply messed up state of the American system of higher education. It gets the conversation started and also serves as a warning to other countries around the world falling dangerously close to a similar model.

 IVORY TOWER premieres on Thursday 16 March at 8.30pm on Rialto Channel SKY 039


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