The senior who first scrawled the words “Thanks Wikipedia!” on their graduation cap in sparkling silver glitter probably intended it as a silly bit of fun. And yet, by the time their take on the tradition appears in Andrew Rossi’s Ivory Tower, it reads less like a cheeky kiss-off to his formative years than it does a damning critique of higher learning as it exists in America today. The student’s joke, of course, is at their own tremendous expense—they’re openly admitting that they spent six figures to learn things that anyone with an Internet connection can learn for free. But Rossi’s scathing (yet seemingly fair) documentary doesn’t just illustrate the institutional ironies of modern education. It also strives to understand why tuition is at an all-time high when knowledge is practically free.
Rossi’s first feature since 2011’s Page One: A Year Inside The New York Times, Ivory Tower employs the same conventional but intellectually probing approach as its predecessor. A convincingly comprehensive portrait of higher education in the United States, the film trains its lens on everything from storied institutions to anonymous community colleges, hopping around the country from one talking head to the next with an unusually keen sense of how each subject is contributing to the crisis they share in common.
The film begins with the Ivy League, homing in on Harvard’s largest course (a computer programming class that immediately brings America’s oldest college into conflict with the mandates of modern technology) and an underprivileged student who attends the school for free courtesy of a rare full-aid scholarship. It’s a flattering introduction, but Rossi tempers the warm portrait with a volley of sobering facts, contrasting the codified virtues of secondary education with tuitions that have risen 1,200 percent since 1978—and continue to rise even though nearly half of all recent graduates are unemployed.
Ivory Tower traverses the country looking to diagnose the problem and convey its proposed solutions, visiting “party schools,” empowering liberal arts institutions like Atlanta’s Spelman College, and even Deep Springs College in the remote California desert, a free two-year program where students practice hard labor and self-governance. The film eventually returns to the transformative role of technology, coming full circle as it chronicles the stunted launch of Udacity, an online educational startup that has struggled to replicate the benefits of a brick-and-mortar classroom. With the righteous indignation of a polemic and the airtight structure of a graduate essay, Rossi’s film insists that our university system’s misguided attempts to remain relevant have turned students into consumers, resulting in a fundamental betrayal of the Higher Education Act.
Early in the film, a (presumably tenured) Columbia professor observes that college is a way to preserve cultural memory, a way to cheat death, and Rossi’s argument is galvanized by how sincerely his documentary believes in that sentiment. Whereas many issue-based documentaries exhaust themselves by stridently attacking their subjects, Ivory Tower recognizes the ideals of higher learning even as it questions their present value. The film is understandably concerned that America has now surpassed $1 trillion in student debt, and Rossi makes no attempt to flatter the president of Cooper Union as he tries to impose a tuition on the historically free institution. But the anger on the surface of Rossi’s inquiry is underwritten by a genuine disappointment in how the only cultural memory colleges seem to care about preserving these days is their own.
Rossi’s approach may be as stubborn and outmoded as that of the institutions he visits, but the clarity of his argument compensates for the familiarity of its grammar. And the message is clear: If college has become a business, it’s time to reckon with the quality of its product. As one of his interview subjects puts it: “The value of my education is priceless, but the value of my education is also not $140,000.” Thanks Wikipedia!