In the Sundance documentary Ivory Tower, Andrew Rossi (who previously directed the New York Times doc Page One) explores how the cost of college is changing the lives of an entire generation — for the worse. College costs have risen by 1,120% since 1978, far outpacing the rise in the cost of food or health care. Once seen as the necessary price of admission to the professional class, college has become, for some young people, a hugely expensive albatross that even death cannot rid them of: Private student loan debt is passed on to survivors.
"That is practically a Dickensian construct in 21st-century America," Rossi said in an interview on Tuesday in Park City, Utah.
Unlike most other debts — including foreclosures and credit card debt — student loans cannot be discharged through bankruptcy. "I think that President Obama understands that the higher education system needs a very full overhaul," Rossi said. One of Rossi's interview subjects is a young New York City women who has over $140,000 in student loan debt from her undergraduate and master's degrees in geography; in the film, she can't even get a job at Starbucks.
So should less practical majors be restricted only to the rich?
"If tuition rates weren't so high, and you could study English, or art, or philosophy, then you would be able to have a job afterward that would pay off a modest amount of student debt," said Rossi. In the absence of lower tuition, though, Rossi said that students need to be more realistic about their future earnings potential. "Any discipline of study should be valid, so long as the realistic earnings that one can have from that career will pay off the debt one is incurring."
But for now, the options do seem rather grim — particularly for students in the middle, both financially and academically. The very top students from very poor families can get full scholarships at around 60 out of the approximately 4,400 institutions of higher learning in the U.S.; the rich, of course, can afford to pay their own way. Things aren't great for institutions that aren't in the top tier, either. In their competition for students, they're focusing on building recreation centers, swimming pools, and condo-like dorms instead of investing in academics. In the film, Chronicle of Education Editor at Large Jeffrey Selingo calls the decade between 2000 and 2010 a "lost decade" because colleges took on huge debt in order to finance the rec centers, the pools, and the dorms.
"This dramatic expansion forced colleges to charge more tuition to cover their increasing cost bases — debt maintenance and physical plant expenses accounted for a larger part of the increase in colleges' cost bases than actual instruction during this decade," explained associate producer Andrew Coffman in an email. At the same time, states were cutting funding for higher education, cutting off opportunities for the middle class at formerly affordable public universities.
And so students, who are paying these high tuition rates (or at least taking out loans to do so), come to feel more like consumers — and colleges become part of the service industry. "So the education they're getting is a product, and there's a dynamic in the classroom in which professors want to keep the student happy instead of challenging them," said Rossi. "You're paying all this money, you're trying to have a fun time, and then you're not acquiring the skills that you need to get a job when you graduate."