Q&A with Andrew Rossi on Ivory Tower, His New Documentary on Higher Education in the USA


Andrew Rossi

Filmmaker Andrew Rossi’s new documentary “Ivory Tower,” is a compelling documentary on the ballooning costs of higher education in the USA. Many students carry a significant amount of debt when they graduate from school. What does that debt total. How about $1 trillion? That is the number pegged to the student loan debt in the USA and that is what got Rossi interested in looking into this black box called higher education that comes with a huge sticker shock for many students.

Here is our Q&A with Rossi.


Q. What prompted you to make this film on the higher costs of education and spiraling student loans?

 Rossi: When I began thinking about an investigation into the value of college, one of the key inspirations was the theme of disruption.  In so many corners of the higher education landscape, it seemed that disruption was barreling forward at great speed: the promise of freely accessible online learning through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs); the crisis of young people suffering with student loan debt, which, in 2011, exceeded $1 trillion cumulatively (more than the United States’ credit card debt); and even the audacious offer of Peter Thiel’s 20 Under 20 Fellowship, offering students $100,000 to drop out of school and start a company.

My interest was piqued because Institutional change has been at the core of almost every movie I’ve made, from the upheaval in the newspaper business depicted in PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES (2011) to the death of grand, formal dining experienced by the Italian family in LE CIRQUE: A TABLE IN HEAVEN (2008) to the advent of legal same sex marriage in Massachusetts, as documented in THE SKY DID NOT FALL (2004).

But just as motivating was the inner voice of a devil’s advocate perspective, borne of a life-long appreciation for education, teachers and the peer-to-peer learning experience. Throughout my life, teachers, professors and classmates have been some of the most important influences, and “school,” as a physical space, has provided a nurturing environment sometimes rivaling even home or church. So how could it be that just fifteen years after I left school, successful and respected entrepreneurs like Peter Thiel were exhorting students to drop out of excellent colleges? Could the state of teaching and learning on campuses have become so out of whack? I wondered what was really taking place on the ground in colleges, and I believed that a close look inside a diverse array of institutions might provide narrative data to fuel a sober discussion of what college has become and where it can do better.

Q: How did you pick the colleges that you highlight in your documentary? 

Rossi: We wanted to pick a diverse set of institutions that would do justice to the breadth of schools in the higher education sector. We followed storylines at elite private universities such as Harvard, which is also the first American college and “source of DNA” for American higher education, according to Clayton Christensen, smaller liberal arts colleges like Wesleyan, large public research universities such as Arizona State, regional public colleges like San Jose State, and community colleges such as Bunker Hill. San Jose State and Bunker Hill were particularly interesting to us because they were both involved in experiments with online education, partnering with Udacity and edX, respectively. We also included portraits of Spelman College, a historically black all women’s college, and Deep Springs, a free two-year all male college in the California desert, in order to demonstrate the transformative power of a liberal arts education that emphasizes intimate, peer-to-peer interaction. We also devote significant attention to Cooper Union, which has been free for every undergraduate throughout its 159-year history up until this year, to show a dramatic example of what can go wrong when a college embraces a corporatized business model. We felt that telling the story of the students occupying the President’s office in response to the decision to begin charging tuition was also a great way to depict the power of student activism and engagement.

Q: What does education mean today?  Is college worth the cost? Do you need a degree to succeed in life?

 Rossi: Education remains a critical gateway to the middle class, and data shows that the economic value of a college degree is even increasing. But the fact that student debt is so high and threatens the financial well being of many young people, combined with the fact that 68% of students at public universities fail to graduate in 4 years (and 44% fail to get out even after 6 years) is threatening that value proposition. What’s unfortunately been lost in a lot of the public debate surrounding the value of college is the conception of higher education as a public good that benefits our overall society by producing educated, engaged citizens. We now view it exclusively as a private good that benefits individual graduates’ lifetime earnings. Casting the value question simply in individual financial terms glosses over the critical role higher education has played in our national history and the character formation that college should encourage among students.

Q: Is the education sector poised for a change? Is it going to pivot? Could technology and Internet change the way we learn? (There is the California role model of education throughout he UC and Cal system. And then there is the Silicon Valley model of online education. And as if that were not enough there is Peter Thiel’s UnCollege movement.) Is there a tug of war between the Cal State model and the Silicon Valley model in education?

Rossi: While we were in the thick of shooting the movie, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) seized the attention of the national media, and many observers of the sector hailed technology as a savior for education. California, whose public university system has a storied history, was most eager to try to adopt this new technology. However, as the movie clearly depicts, the early experiments at San Jose State University, which partnered with Silicon Valley startup Udacity to provide purely online instruction to remedial math students, failed badly, causing much of the enthusiasm for MOOCs to subside dramatically.

So, while Silicon Valley and the California public education system both share a desire to expand the franchise of higher education to previously underserved populations, it seems as if Silicon Valley has been a little too ready to do away with critical aspects of the traditional college experience—namely, in-person instruction. The prospect of flipped classroom models, however, whereby students can engage with video lecture material at home and then work together with an instructor present in a face-to-face environment, offers a more promising future. At the same time, we’ve actually seen Udacity begin to “pivot” away from higher education and into corporate training, suggesting that Sebastian Thrun’s predictions of dramatic disruption in higher education may have been premature.

Just as MOOCs best serve students who already have a college degree, the UnCollege movement offers an exciting alternative for highly driven students, who have already acquired critical thinking skills from a good K-12 education and enjoy a certain degree of financial stability. But as Thiel himself admits in Ivory Tower, it is not an approach that can be easily scaled to benefit students from less advantaged backgrounds, who have yet to be exposed to high quality education and may not be equipped to take the financial risk of forgoing what is an increasingly important credential in the marketplace.

Q: What are your thoughts on President Obama’s Pay As You Earn (PAYE) program and his recent announcements to cap student loans and forgive student debts that are over 20 years old?

 Rossi: President Obama’s recent executive order to expand student loan repayment options is an important step in reducing the debt burden many graduates are shouldering. Similar efforts, including Elizabeth Warren’s recently defeated student loan refinancing legislation, should be commended as necessary measures for keeping our young people and our economy financially healthy.

However, I believe a more systemic overhaul is necessary in order to cure the “cost disease” in higher education. Universities have been pursuing an unsustainable business model and have become caught in a race for prestige to attract the student loan dollar (as a substitute for government support) while attempting to keep up with competitors in an arms race of amenities. Unfortunately, such a dramatic government intervention, which would follow in the tradition of the Morrill Act of 1862, the GI Bill, and the Higher Education Act of 1965, appears unlikely given the current political climate.

Q: Where do you see the light at the end of this education tunnel?

 Rossi: If higher education is going to overcome its financial crisis, it will also need to see a cultural change take place, where we as a society affirm that higher education is a public good. Moreover, we need to recognize that universities are not businesses and that students are not customers. With this mentality we can enable students to pursue an affordable, debt-free education in a rigorously engaged manner, instead of having them passively consume an overpriced educational “product” that too often focuses on things that have nothing to do with academics.