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New York Times Op-Ed columnist Frank Bruni Discusses 'Ivory Tower' and the State of Higher Education


Class, Cost and College

By Frank Bruni

New York Times

May 17, 2014

THE word “crisis” pops up frequently in “Ivory Tower,” a compelling new documentary about the state of higher education in America.

It pops up in regard to the mountains of student debt. It pops up in regard to the steep drop in government funding for public universities, which have been forced to charge higher and higher tuition in response. That price increase is also a “crisis” in the estimation of one of many alarmed educators and experts on camera.

And “crisis” isn’t even their direst appellation. Andrew Delbanco, a Columbia University professor of American studies who functions as the movie’s conscience, notes an “apocalyptic dimension” to today’s discussion of college’s failings. The movie is set on verdant campuses. It’s rife with lecterns, books and graduation gowns. And yet it’s a kind of horror story.

Scheduled for theatrical release next month, “Ivory Tower” does an astonishingly thorough tour of the university landscape in a brisk 90 minutes, touching on the major changes and challenges, each of which could sustain its own documentary.

But as I watched it, one theme in particular kept capturing my attention. One set of questions kept coming to mind. How does our current system of higher education square with our concerns about social mobility? What place do the nation’s universities have in our intensifying debate about income inequality? What promise do they hold for lessening it?

The answers in “Ivory Tower” and beyond it aren’t reassuring. Indeed, the greatest crisis may be that while college supposedly represents one of the surest ladders to, and up through, the middle class, it’s not functioning that way, at least not very well.

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