Students at Spelman College in Atlanta show their school spirit in a scene from Ivory Tower (courtesy of Sundance Institute)



A recent college graduate complains that she’s still struggling to find a good job despite her shiny new degree. Meanwhile, she faces the even bigger challenge of paying off $140,000 worth of student loans.

“It’s syphoning off my future,” she says of the massive debt.

The woman’s all-too-common predicament is explained in Ivory Tower, a thoughtful documentary that examines just how college came to be such an overwhelming expense. Directed by Andrew Rossi (Page One: Inside The New York Times), the film goes so far as to suggest that America’s ever-rising cost of higher education is unsustainable.

It wasn’t always this way, the film recalls. As recently as the 1960s, education at a state university was so cheap that just about anyone could afford it. But then came the 1970s, and conservative politicians such as Ronald Reagan started pushing government to stop subsidizing students’ education.

State funding of colleges and universities fell off, and tuitions began rising at a rate that far outstripped inflation. Ironically, the schools probably would have priced themselves out of a market if it hadn’t been for federally subsidized student loans. Designed to make college more affordable, they instead allowed students to absorb the rising costs by running up crippling debts.

Rossi paints his troubling portrait of higher education with the help of a slew of educators and students, but his main collaborator is Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco, whom Time magazine once named “America’s best social critic.” Delbanco and others suggest that educational institutions keep spending beyond their means—or rather, beyond students’ means—because they’re trying to buy prestige by constantly building bigger and more elaborate facilities.

The film visits an array of schools to complete its picture of higher education:

▪ Arizona State University, where wild pool parties appear to justify its reputation as a top “party school.”

▪ Spelman College, a historically black college for women in Atlanta.

▪ Deep Springs College, a no-frills two-year college in Death Valley that prepares men for a life of service.

Most significantly, the film pays a prolonged visit to Cooper Union in New York City. The college has always offered free education, but a new president pushes the board of trustees to start charging tuition, setting off a fierce student protest.

The president claims he’s simply bowing to the realities of modern education, but critics point to an expensive construction project and unwise investments. They also question the president’s $750,000 salary, saying it’s excessive for a relatively modest-sized school.

One of the few questions the film doesn’t address is whether colleges and universities began losing their state funding in the 1970s due in part to a backlash against student anti-war protests that arose in the 1960s. Otherwise, it’s an inclusive look at the subject of higher education, even addressing the claim that a college degree is no longer necessary in an age when knowledge is as close as the nearest computer.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Ivory Tower, rated PG-13, opens Friday (Aug. 29) at the Gateway Film Center in Columbus. For more information on the film, visit www.takepart/ivorytower.