Recently, I came across a documentary – Ivory Tower. Written and directed by Andrew Rossi, this June 2014 documentary tackles the question: Is college worth the cost? Ivory Tower delves into the over 1 TRILLION dollars in student loan debt our country has amassed as of March 2014.
The Higher Education Act of 1965 launched the Federal Student Aid program with both grant and loan programs. As Ivory Tower reveals, in 1977 a Federal Pell Grant would cover, on average, 116% of a student’s college tuition. In 2014, only 42% is covered by the same grant. The remaining 58% is split between the institution, the state, the student and his or her family. With state funding for tuition assistance in drastic decline, student loans – both federal and private – have picked up the slack.
I have witnessed both the promise of a better future and the economic hardship student loans can facilitate. When I was a financial aid director I would often face a student sitting on the other side of my desk asking to withdraw from college. At the point they hit my office for counseling all they wanted was their ticket punched to leave campus and go home. Yet, when a student drops out of college mid-semester, they are sometimes subject to 100% of the institution’s charges, but only receive a portion of their financial aid prorated by the number of days they attended class. This can leave a student owing the institution upwards of $10,000 for being on campus just a few weeks. This student may never be able to repay the institution, receive their transcripts to transfer and could face default on their student loan which is not forgivable even in bankruptcy.
You might say it’s the student’s decisions that put him in this situation. This may be true. But many times first generation students, in particular, don’t understand the repercussions of their actions until they are facing them.
But what about the student who does graduate? As highlighted by Ivory Tower, average student loan debt is approaching $30,000. This $30,000 often impedes with the ability to buy a car, a home or even start a family.
With this daunting problem brought to light, Ivory Tower looks into alternative models for funding and delivering education. Examples included New York’s Cooper Union’s endowment funded college providing students 100% scholarships. Founder Peter Cooper’s mission statement for the college stated the college should be open with “free education to all.” Financial hardship due to failed hedge fund investments forced the college’s board to reconsider the founder’s mission when they charged tuition for the first time in 2014. Instead of attending college for free, students faced a $20,000 price tag.
Even more drastic is the San Francisco based Theil Fellowship program which provides $100,000 scholarships if students drop out of college to start their own business by “hacking” their education. By hacking one’s education, these entrepreneurs look to follow in the footsteps of drop-outs such as Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. This Theil Fellowship model questions the need for formalized higher education. The documentary warns, though, that these successful college drop-out entrepreneurs are possibly the exception, not the rule.
The technology of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) present another option. Coursework becomes openly available to anyone with an internet connection, yet the solution is imperfect. MOOCs struggle to provide feedback and support to students. Community colleges were applauded for their usage of MOOC content with an in-classroom faculty member to facilitate content understanding.
Though Ivory Tower didn’t provide concrete answers for solving the issue of the student loan crisis, it did throw the doors of this discussion wide open. We as a society must either find a way to better fund education, use technology to improve the platforms for delivering education to lower cost or completely rethink the value of higher education.
I still believe in higher education… do you?
Watch the documentary and join the discussion.
Rossi, A. (2014) Ivory Tower. United States of America: Participant Media, Paramount Pictures & Samuel Goldwyn Films.
Amanda Randolph Scott, M.A.Ed.
Senior Strategic Enrollment Consultant