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New Film, 'Ivory Tower,' Finds Deep Flaws With State of Higher Education

While a college education is part of the American dream for many high school students today, a new film depicts a harsh reality with many young people arriving on campus unprepared, distracted by the party scene, and finding that colleges are often more focused on getting them to enroll than making sure they learn and complete a degree.

The documentary, "Ivory Tower," portrays colleges in a race for prestige that has turned them into businesses deep in debt rather than institutions serving the public's best interest.

With many students dropping out and saddled with a nightmarish $1 trillion in debt, filmmaker Andrew Rossi poses the frequently asked question: Is college worth it?

"In the film, we see the negative effects of students choosing a school based on the popularity of the football team or how big the new student center is," said Rossi after a screening of the film in Washington this week. "Rather, it should be based on the completion rate, the employability of graduates, and the average amount of student debt." 

If more families would ask these important questions before making the investment, Rossi suggests that it could help leverage needed change in campus priorities.

"Ivory Tower" opened June 20 in Washington, Cambridge, Mass., San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Berkeley, Calif., and rolls out in other major cities over the next two weeks. On Nov. 20, the documentary will airs on CNN.

After the premier, CNN's Christine Roman moderated a panel with Rossi, economist Anthony Carnevale from Georgetown University and Jeffrey Selingo, the author of College Unbound, which offers a sharp critique of the current state of higher education. The experts described the higher education system as unsustainable, at a tipping point, yet with little prospect of real reform on the horizon.

Selingo said that although he sees public universities in crisis, there isn't enough pressure yet on them to change. He suggests the focus needs to shift from mechanisms to pay for college to ways to keep costs down.

Also, Selingo said, too many students are going to college because they don't know what else to do.

"It's become a convenient warehouse for students who aren't quite ready," he said. "We need alternative pathways to college that get you there when you are more ready for it."

The film includes scenes of many students more focused on partying than studying and colleges doing little to engage them because faculty are more committed to research than teaching. While some institutions held out hope that technology would be the savior to help manage higher education expense, "Ivory Tower" chronicles how online courses often fail to effectively teach students.

Despite the problems on campuses, Carnevale emphasized his research showing that the investment in a college education is still worth it for most students, as lifetime earnings increase by an average of $1 million with a degree.

Still, he worries about the stratification of higher education, as affluent, white students can afford the best schools and African-American, Hispanic, and low-income students are clustered at two-year, public schools where graduation rates are lower.

The choice of what students decide to study also matters.

"What they take, will determine what they make," he said, adding that too often students don't have the information needed to make the best decisions.

"It's a failed market in many ways," Carnevale added. Current talk about limiting debt repayment or getting alumni to give more are "micro-solutions," he suggested. The bigger issue, he contends, is government funding. If higher education is a public function, he said it comes down to a question of how much the public is willing to support it.

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