IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Is College Worth It? New Documentary Weighs Costs of Higher Ed

An interview with director Andrew Rossi on "Ivory Tower," a scathing critique of the “time bomb” that is American higher education.
Get more newsLiveonNBC News Now

Filmmaker Andrew Rossi’s new documentary, “Ivory Tower,” attempts to answer a question that’s on the minds of many debt-ridden, unemployed graduates: Is college a racket? The result is a scathing and dizzyingly thorough critique of the “time bomb” that is American higher education.

Rossi takes viewers from the gothic gates of Harvard to the vast bacchanal of Arizona State to plucky Silicon Valley startups that threaten to upend the very idea of the classic campus experience. The film tethers these diverse institutions to the same worsening problems: ballooning tuition costs driven by the “arms race” of providing luxury facilities to student-consumers; predatory loan systems burying students in debt; and the endangerment of a useful, worthwhile college degree in an era of job scarcity and rampant inequality.

The many characters and experts in "Ivory Tower," which opens Friday, all agree on one thing: higher education in this country is broken, and we may be reaching a tipping point very soon.

“Ivory Tower” comes on the heels of Obama’s executive order extending student debt relief and Elizabeth Warren’s doomed Senate bill that would have allowed student loan refinancing. When you started the film, what was the political climate like compared to now? Do you think anything has shifted at all in the public consciousness about higher education?

I started this film in 2011, right when student loan debt was on track to hit a trillion dollars, and when Peter Thiel was rolling out his fellowship that offers students $100,000 to drop out of college. Occupy Wall Street, and [its offshoot] Occupy Student Debt was starting to happen. The conversation surrounding traditional four-year college was extremely negative. I wanted to bring cameras on the ground at a range of universities to provide audiences with some narrative evidence about what colleges can do well and what seems to be broken.

Image: Ivory Tower
A tuition protest at Cooper Union as seen in Ivory Tower.Samuel Goldwyn Films

The sense of outrage about tuition costs, increasing at a rate that far exceeds any other thing in our economy, as well as the sense that students graduating with debt are really paralyzed from making certain life choices, has really reached a fever pitch. And I think people are starting to listen. I was at the White House yesterday when President Obama was conducting a Q&A and discussing this issue in what I thought was a poignant and open-ended forum. Unfortunately, Warren’s legislation didn’t make it through the Senate, which was somewhat expected.

But I do feel heartened that this conversation about higher education—about its value and importance, but also its unsustainable business model—is becoming a bigger part of what parents and prospective students are thinking about.

Let’s talk about the film’s central question: Is college worth it, both financially and philosophically? The answer many of the characters give seemed to be “no”—especially Silicon Valley types like Thiel, who challenge the very idea that one needs professors in an age where so much information is at our fingertips. What do you think? Is that four-year gold standard worth it?

We did present alternatives to the classic, four-year, brick-and-mortar experience—community college, start-ups like UnCollege and MOOCs [massive open online courses]. But philosophically, I absolutely think the four-year experience is worth it. As [Columbia University professor] Andy DelBanco says in the film, the idea of college from the beginning was to provide education that was really modeled after the sermon, to inspire young minds to live a life that’s more meaningful. I agree that this bridge between adolescence and adulthood, college in its ideal form, is a wonderful opportunity for young people to know themselves better and gain a skill set.

While we made this film, the MOOCs emerged first as a potential savior and then proved to be just one part of the answer and certainly not a substitute for human interaction and instruction. So I 100 percent think the traditional [student-professor] relationship is a good thing. The problem is, it’s just becoming too expensive. And student loan debt is, in many cases, eradicating many of the benefits that students are supposed to get after they graduate.

If we had a healthy economy, $25,000 in student loans wouldn’t be a bad investment. It’s just that the job market is bad, and the alternative without a degree is worse, right?

Absolutely. Unemployment and underemployment are the key reasons why certain characters in the film started with a manageable amount of debt—let’s say $25,000—that quickly spiraled out of control because the student didn’t have a job to start making payments. The entire system that governs student loans is built in a way that hurts the loanholder.

So in the face of these realities, how should students choose colleges—by the kind of education they’ll get, or by the likelihood that they’ll get a job?

Any potential school should be evaluated not by its ranking on some prestigious list, but by completion rates, average student loan debt, and employment statistics. It could very well be that a regional, in-state school has a great program in a specific discipline even though the school itself isn’t considered one of the top schools nationally or is not highly ranked in U.S. News and World Report. Students shouldn’t base their decisions on which school has the better-performing football team or the more exciting party atmosphere.

The film showcases a fairly shocking statistic: that 68 percent of students at public universities fail to graduate in four years, and 44 percent fail to graduate in six years. To what extent is this about students caring about the wrong things—partying, sports—and to what extent is it because many low-income students have to work to pay for college?

It’s a very troubling statistic. If 44 percent of students can’t graduate in six years—that’s not a failure rate we would accept in any other industry. [The reasons] depend on where you are. Universities [with a party reputation] like Arizona State University have students who are unable to keep up with the party lifestyle, don’t have enough money to do all the things that the wealthier out-of-state students are doing, and fall behind in their work because they’re not focusing enough on academic rigor. They think, “Well, I’m not going to get the grades I need to finish on time, so I’ll just drop out because this whole enterprise isn’t working for me.” And there’s not enough of a safety net on campus to catch them.

Other students are juggling 40-hour work weeks because school is too expensive and thus they drop out. In that case, the university is failing the people whose mission it is to educate. That dropout rate complicates the very powerful statistic that those who do go to college have median lifetime earnings of a million dollars more than those who don’t go. Fantastic—we applaud education as an engine to social mobility. But that statistic becomes irrelevant to those people who can’t juggle it all. And they may be stuck with loans, anyway.

Image: Ivory Tower
A graduation ceremony as seen in Ivory Tower.Samuel Goldwyn Films

“Ivory Tower” discusses lots of solutions, but the underlying message is that the government needs to invest more money in public education like it did with the Higher Education Act of 1965. Is this still possible? In the film, California governor Jerry Brown seemed to think it was a lost cause, which is why he pursued MOOCs as public policy.

Student activists have a real voice and they’re trying to directly reach politicians. In the film, you see students marching on the state house in Sacramento, California. You see students marching at the headquarters of Sallie Mae. There are groups like Higher Ed, Not Debt that are active on social media and are gaining a large following. And I think they hope to push this issue beyond the campus walls and to state and federal government.

You cover a lot of ground in an hour and a half. Is there anything that ended up on the cutting room floor that you wish you could have expanded on more?

If there were one argument that I wish I could have fleshed out, it’s the insight that [Georgetown professor] Anthony Carnevale has—how college can actually result in greater inequality in our society. Getting that college degree is now such a prerequisite for jobs in the middle class that those who are not able to get a BA, or those who go to open-access schools and don’t get the same quality education that wealthier white students get, are participating in a two-tiered system that worsens a broader problem of inequality in our society. But I've seen some writers take up that discussion after seeing the film, so I'm glad it seems to be a conversation starter.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Education coverage for is supported by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. NBC News retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.