Now that the U.S. has exceeded $1 trillion in national student loan debt, there’s no better time for a documentary like Andrew Rossi’s Ivory Tower, which attempts to unearth the reasons for the exponential rise in costs of college tuition. The film admirably tries to offer alternative solutions to the traditional model of four-year college, often using schools in the Western U.S. as potentially ideal paradigms, while condemning the inflexibility of Northeast schools and problematically overlooking most middle-American ones. Among the sophisticated new forms of fostering minds and prospective careers that Rossi spotlights are Death Valley’s Deep Springs College and Palo Alto’s Thiel Fellowship (which pays students $100,000 to drop out of college to become tech-startup entrepreneurs). The prevailing hints at a future solution often, unsurprisingly, fall toward the trailblazing resources that technology could potentially provide, whether using MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) to teach classes or encouraging the young elite to jettison college and pursue careers in computer science and application development.
Rossi’s interrogative yet dull sensibility lends a Freshman Composition 101-esque dry quality to Ivory Tower, but it doesn’t dilute his primary intentions: to create an overview of current college systems and explore more innovative and alternative methods for higher learning. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to distill the complexity and diversity of colleges nationwide while confronting the breadth of issues plaguing campuses in a scant 90 minutes, and Rossi never pauses to focus long enough on one particular problem. Despite the doc’s wealth of information, the over-packing of rhetoric against now-conventional modes of higher education and the fiscal stress that destroys students before they can even land their first job makes Ivory Tower a bit cumbersome and didactic; it’s more interested in covering all its bases than making sure it fully has its foot on each base. The film constantly evaluates the system, but it could have used a more rigidly structured syllabus to effectively challenge the gatekeepers of higher education and change minds.