'Ivory Tower' is smart and necessary

Matt Pais movie review: 'Ivory Tower'

'Ivory Tower'

'Ivory Tower' (June 23, 2014)

*** (out of four(

Picture how much different “22 Jump Street” would have been if Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum’s characters had gone to college to infiltrate a drug ring … and discovered that most of the students had dropped out. Sure, WHYPHY (Work Hard Yes Play Hard Yes) is the hot new product on campus, but higher education is expensive!

With “Ivory Tower,” documentarian Andrew Rossi probes deeper than he did with “Page One: Inside the New York Times,” this time to discuss the astronomical cost of four-year undergraduate schools and the reasons costs have increased 1,120 percent since 1978.

Read that again: 1,120 percent since 1978.

The effect is well-covered evidence that the problem is worse and more complicated than you realized. Rossi doesn’t explore the details about why state funding has withered and tuition has been forced to compensate, and in addressing prospective students who choose alternate next steps after college he neglects to get a feel for the value of traveling versus jumping into employment. He could have spoken to more recent grads to get a sense of how valuable their four-year educations proved to be--in contrast to what some feel is an remarkably expensive excuse to party your face off.

The meat of “Ivory Tower,” however, keeps plenty of fragile plates spinning. Authors of books with titles like “Paying for the Party” and “Academically Adrift” question what students actually gain in college; some Arizona State University students insist it’s not a party school while others turn a private residence hall and its pool into constant spring break; a Harvard student who used to be homeless savors the school’s “full-need” aid and his opportunity to better himself; and students at New York’s Cooper Union occupy the president’s office, fighting to maintain the school’s founding principle of free tuition.

Rossi knows this issue won’t be solved easily, regardless of online classes and other Internet-based educational opportunities, and makes a salient point against students being seen as consumers. When Cooper Union pupils turn their backs on the school's president during graduation, you won’t need a degree to recognize the irony in the president refusing to accept the ways institutions and administrators turn their backs on the people they’re theoretically being paid to support.

Watch Matt review the week's big new movies Fridays at noon on NBC.

mpais@tribune.com

 

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