Deconstructing the Ivory Tower: Is College Really Worth the Cost?

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is college worth the costThe numbers say it all: Since 1985, the price of college has increased a staggering 538%. Average student loan debt is approaching $30,000 per grad. And more than 50% of recent grads are either jobless or underemployed.

To many observers—not to mention debt-wracked, struggling graduates—these statistics suggest one thing: Higher education in the U.S. is broken.

So how did we get here, and what can be done to remedy the situation?

To try and glean some possible answers, we chatted with Andrew Rossi, the director behind the new documentary “Ivory Tower.” The film’s premise is certainly apropos: It’s an in-depth investigation into whether a four-year college degree is still worth the cost.

LearnVest: What inspired you to create a documentary on higher education?

Andrew Rossi: After I finished my last film, “Page One: Inside the New York Times,” which looked at the crisis in the newspaper industry and the forces of digital disruption, I wanted to explore another sector that was on the precipice of similar change. And higher education seemed like one that was really ripe for investigation.

It also presented a unique opportunity to challenge my own personal views: I studied history at Yale, and for me, college was such a valuable and rewarding experience. I use a lot of the critical-thinking skills I learned there in my current job as a filmmaker.

And I am the son of immigrants who worked very hard to pay for me to go to school, enabling me to emerge as a first-generation college graduate without any student loan debt.

So, for me, going to college was a 100% win. But I wanted to find out why people like Peter Thiel [co-founder of PayPal] are now offering students $100,000 to drop out [in order to pursue research or launch their own start-ups].

RELATED: How I Did It: I Applied for 100 College Scholarships

  • AK

    How about getting a useful degree instead if going 150K in debt for a liberal arts major at a ‘prestigious’ school that will only get you a job where the return on investment takes 20 years?

    • ddanae

      YES! Thank you. I went to a very small state school and got an engineering degree – funded through scholarships that I worked hard to earn. I paid off any debt I had within 2 years of graduating. There are options out there if people are willing to look for them. Unfortunately, it seems alot of people want to go to a prestigious school to party for 4 years without the realizing they have to pay for it in the end.

      • Eastwestcoaster

        I had a way different experience. In my field you had to go to the “good” schools because they have the better professors and will help you out with your career more than the smaller universities. I know this because I went to both types, and the larger ones had more programs in place to help you out and give you quality skills to get into your field. Your experience works for some, but others it doesn’t and I’m in the other category where I’m over 100K in debt because of high and unchecked raises in tuition every semester. Also, for federal loans, it almost seems that since there are the loan forgiveness plans for public service, that most of this money is imaginary and the schools are receiving imaginary money, which is why the government and the banks are going to keep racking up debt. The numbers make no logical sense. Who would think that 50K a year for tuition is reasonable for anyone, not to mention the people who can afford it. Colleges are pricing some people out and discouraging kids from going to college by doing this, which is the opposite of the direction that we decided we wanted to go in when my parents were growing up in the 60s and 70s.

        • BeeBee

          What is your career field?

          • Eastwestcoaster

            Fisheries Manager and Biologist.

  • ED

    How about colleges and universities controlling their costs and not paying exorbitant salaries to administration? And getting rid of tenure would be a good start as well.

  • Patch Rowcester

    $140,000 for master’s in geography? Why…?

    If you spent that kind of money on a degree that is almost useless in the real world, you have no one to blame but yourself.

    • 2cents

      I often see people going for grad school as a way of delaying going out and getting a “regular” job. I often hear of people getting advanced degrees in very specialized things and then not even attempting to do anything with them. They often still go into some sort of office job not connected to the master’s.

    • Amy

      Geography is not a useless degree. I have one. With a job IN MY FIELD. I graduated at arguably the WORST time to graduate from college – 2009. Now, I’m 27 and will pay off my quite expensive undergraduate degree almost 3 years ahead of time.

    • Sharissa

      Please enlighten us as to what is a degree that would be worth $140,000. The point isn’t that “you have no one to blame but yourself” the point is tuition has gone up over 1000% since the 70s. When tuition was affordable there weren’t so many degrees that were considered “useless” or “niche” by people on their high horses like you, and there shouldn’t be today.

      I dare you to find many degrees that don’t result in student loans of some kind AND that have a bustling industry waiting with arms open to every single one of those program’s grads. They don’t exist. Today, people who get jobs in their field are incredibly lucky – I know because I’m one of those people with a “worthless” degree doing exactly what I studied to do. And yes, I have student loan debt, and yes it’s crushing.

      Guess what that means? I won’t be contributing to the economy in the way I would if I didn’t have loan payments eating up my disposable income. I’m not going to be buying house, I’m not spending money buying things or contributing as a tourist anywhere. Not complaining – just the facts. Insane tuition rates and for profit schools will be hurting our economy for a long long time as my generation spends our dollars digging ourselves out of massive loan debt.

      I’m continually amazed that so many people in this country are SO ready to jump on the “blame the students” bandwagon while completely ignoring the root issue, even when it is presented to you in black and white statistical terms. Have some empathy. It’s so lucky that you didn’t make a choice when you were an 18 year old kid to go to a school where costs were out of control, only to graduate into a recession with little to no opportunities in your field. Aren’t you so lucky?

      • Patch Rowcester

        You missed my point.

        I am not saying its OK that tuition has gone up by whatever %. I am saying given that fact, if you or whoever chose to study a major that is not in demand, then they are really hurting themselves.

        • Sharissa

          Yes but you’re ignoring the issue that tuition has gone up by over 1000% – saying “whatever percent” doesn’t cut it. When you place the blame on a student for going to school and not being able to get a job- because that is what you’re doing, there are no majors out there with guaranteed jobs – you are conveniently leaving out the fact that being in a field that doesn’t have “high demand” at the time you graduate wouldn’t be such an issue if tuition wasn’t sky high.

          • Patch Rowcester

            There are certain majors that are almost always in high demand, so much so that the US government imports labor. Engineering for example.

            I know this because I am an immigrant.

            Why not study those majors? I mean STEM degree graduates generally are going to find a job one way or another.

            So instead of spending time and money studying something easy, why not study mathematics?

          • Sharissa

            Unemployment rates for Engineering grads:

            ENGINEERING AND INDUSTRIAL MANAGEMENT: 9.2%

            ENGINEERING MECHANICS PHYSICS AND SCIENCE: 6.5%

            ENGINEERING TECHNOLOGIES: 5.3%

            GENERAL ENGINEERING: 5.9%

            Unemployment rates for “Useless degrees”

            GEOGRAPHY: 6.1%

            LIBERAL ARTS: 7.6%

            ENGLISH LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE: 6.7%

            SOCIAL WORK: 6.8%

            Finding the “high demand” jobs isn’t so cut and dried. Guess we should all go to school for Geological and Geophysical Engineering (0%) or Nursing (2.2%)?

            What happens when “high demand” industries become over saturated? THEN everyone should go to school for Geology?

            It isn’t a bad thing for people to study different things.. there will always be natural unemployment but unemployment coupled with massive student loan debt isn’t something that can be explained away by saying kids are choosing junk majors.

            Saying “pick a better major” isn’t a complex solution.

            If college was free and everyone wanted to be a geologist that wouldn’t be a solution either.

            Complex issue, complex solution.

          • Sharissa
  • Delta_26

    Or do what I did, join the Army and have ROTC pay for school. I came out with a 4 year degree from a private university with $0 in student loan debt.

    • Eastwestcoaster

      What if you’re not fit enough for them? Or what if you don’t want to fight in wars you don’t believe in. I would only do that if I were drafted. I never wanted to join the army because they make you stay in for 4 years and then pay for your college. Meanwhile you could be called into duty and risk your life, and that’s not something I wanted to do because I didn’t believe in fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan as we all know were mistakes now. It’s not as easy as 1-2-3 for everyone. There are different situations for different people. I earned a B.S. and a master’s in my field and I got a job in my field that is well respected, but I’m still living paycheck to paycheck thanks to my student loans.

    • kgal1298

      It’s an option, but the only issue there is the Army still turns away applicants for health reasons. Things like diabetes or scoliosis could ruin someone’s chances. I’ve had friends get turned away for being overweight even after losing weight they still got turned down. Sadly the army isn’t all accepting.

    • Jenn

      My boyfriend joined the Airforce after highschool. Part of the reason he joined is because they would help pay for his college. Unfortunately he went to college to become a pilot and half-way through his college career the government decided that the Airforce would no longer fund pilots’ education. So, see? Not everything is so cut and dry.

  • Rachel

    While I respect the opinion of the previous commentators, and their awesome stories of debt free life, I would have to say that their arguments lack a true empathetic understanding of the context of the problem. These students are children when they enter college. I’m sorry, I know 18 is the legal age of adulthood, but they are still children. They’re going to do what they want to. And if essentially a magic genie came in and said that you can go to college, you can pay for it later, of course they’re going to say yes. Who can blame them? Parents push their children to study whatever is their strength – sometimes people have a natural understanding of geography. Instead of blaming students for pursuing academic interests, why don’t we look at solutions? I think many high schools could do a better job of educating students entering into college about pros and cons of their interests. We’re getting no where by saying that this is their fault and their problem. It’s costing us as a country.

    If people are not buying homes, then tax revenue is not going to our schools and the supply for renting homes is going to increase. If people are not buying goods, then does that not hurt the economy as well? Debt can hurt everyone. We’re going to isolate an entire generation with the potential to earn and give back with the discourse of “it’s your problem”.

    • ddanae

      This is a valid statement. However, I don’t think we just say “high schools” need to do a better job. Parents, professionals, and peers all need to help high school students get a realistic understanding of college. I think alot of people get the message that “college is about the experience” – hence you get people who party for 4 years, or “you should pursue anything that makes you happy” – and you get people who end up with 140k in debt for a degree that will get them no jobs. The message that does not seem to be driven is that you have to PAY for those experiences, college WILL require hard work, and college should be used to prepare you for an actual career. If you want to enjoy a hobby and not pay for it, take an art class at a local art gallery or study history through books at the library – don’t blame colleges for charging you too much money to “pursue your passions”.

    • Eastwestcoaster

      I agree with you other than the fact that let’s face it, there has to be a cap or some regulation on the amount that colleges can charge for tuition and there isn’t right now. My high school started doing the college prep classed in the latte part of my time there and it helped, but college isn’t for everyone either. I think high schools need to focus in on making students well-rounded as well instead of emphasizing certain subjects for state testing, which is total crap.

      There are lending companies and banks that are manipulating the system, so they can prey upon students with loan debt, and nobody is doing anything about it. The feds have done a few good things lately for federal loans, but private loans are a whole different story and there still hasn’t been enough alleviation for people with federal loans that went to college in the period of 2000 to 2013. They announced the pay as you go system, but it only applies to certain loans and for new students, why not apply that to the older loans, there is no difference. Why should I have to pay 40$ of my monthly income to student loans. They base income-based repayment off of gross income before taxes and don’t take any other student loans you might have into account if you have different lenders. How is that fair because different states and incomes have different tax rates, so that system doesn’t seem to be fair. IBR should come into play after taxes on a paycheck.

    • Adam

      While I agree somewhat that we are talking about young people (not children, but young people) I also have to agree that the person who went $140k in debt to get a master’s in geography has no one to blame but herself. It’s not as though the market for geographers was booming 6-7 years ago and the bottom dropped out of it. That’s a useless degree. If you are independently wealthy you can go to college and study whatever you want no matter how obscure or impractical, but if you know you are going to have to get a job when you graduate you should probably be more down to earth with your choice of study. My son loves geography too, but he can study maps to his hearts content in his free time. Knowing where Moldova is isn’t ever going to increase his marketability.

      • Jenn

        There are plenty of things one should be able to do with a Geography Degree… you could become a climatologist, get into environmental management, become involved in international business deals as a result of understanding culture, get involved in transportation planning and waste management, one could become a researcher or get into government/politics. Why do you think it is so useless? The unfortunate reality is students don’t realize college is going to cost so much. They don’t realize it because it SHOULDN’T cost so much. By the time they realize how far deep in debt they are students are already in their third or fourth year. They can’t drop out because then they have nothing, so they muster through it only to have people tell them their degree was worthless and it is all their fault. Ridiculous. That is such an easy way out but really you’re just ignoring the problem.

      • Amy

        As someone with said “useless” degree. Not a MA, but a BA.. I do QUITE well. There’s this field called GIS – you should look it up. One of the fastest growing fields out there. I have an expensive undergraduate degree and in no way do I struggle to pay for it. I have a lot of potential for growth as well. You should probably look what people with these “useless” degrees are doing before you bash something you are obviously uneducated in.

    • kgal1298

      I think that’s true. I went to college with kids who could easily afford tuition, but I always had wished I had better guidance in finance mainly because I racked up 50K in debt and still couldn’t graduate after 4 years because of my finances. Most of it could have been avoided and I could have easily done my pre-reqs at a more affordable community college. Though what I did learn is I didn’t need that degree to get a job after I gained enough experience in my area it became easy to land jobs and no one really cared or questioned if I had a degree.

    • Jenn

      Yes! I absolutely agree!

  • Eastwestcoaster

    And they say that there is a border crisis. The biggest crisis in the U.S. right now is the fact that this new generation that worked their butts off to be able to earn a good degree and be able to move up the ranks in their field, are getting screwed by interest rates from loan companies and unchecked tuition raises by universities. People thought the housing bubble was bad in 2008, well this is a bubble that is swelling to gigantic proportions and is going to effect an entire generation.

  • cabmab

    One of the ways to change this is for students to start at their local community colleges for their fundamental classes that all students have to take as requirements, these schools are much cheaper and probably 99% of them have credits that can be transferred to a higher education college. This way they can save money for two years and at that time maybe have a clearer idea of what they want to do and where they are headed. Then with only two years of a major college that would save them tons of money. This is exactly what I did and ended up with a Bachelors degree much cheaper than others who went away for the 4 years. This also can save on housing and food since most students can live home during these first two years instead of also paying room and board. A 4 year degree is a great thing to have and I would not have the job I have now without it, this firm doesn’t hire anyone without a degree so I do recommend getting the degree.

  • Jenn

    It is such a shame that people are so quick to
    divulge in individualism when that is just so clearly not the case, especially
    with this subject. This is a problem among my entire generation. Our parents,
    guidance counselors and teachers all guided us, telling us, sometimes even
    forcing us to go to college because we supposedly HAD to in order to get a
    decent job. I personally went to a decent college for Accounting and am 30k in
    debt. I have a decent job and I do not regret going to college HOWEVER I do see
    that there is a serious issue here that goes much farther into shaming someone
    because of their degree choice. I hate pulling the ignorant card, but that is
    exactly what it is – extremely ignorant given the facts shown just in this
    article alone. When you really understand the effects of something on a
    cultural, economical, political, and societal level you realize that it is not
    one person’s fault. It baffles me that people are so unwilling to see this…
    Maybe if we stuck together instead of making one another feel ashamed we could
    make some serious changes.

    • kgal1298

      Degree choice shouldn’t be shamed because sometimes you still take away special skills that you wont get in another field. Even English majors are valuable because they actually learned to communicate effectively.

  • Smbirch

    I definitely agree that something needs to be done about the rising costs of tuition, as well as educating students about the detrimental affects of taking out student loans. When I was 18 I attended a private massage therapy school and now have a debt of about 10,000 dollars, despite the loan counseling they require you to do before taking out these loans I don’t think it’s enough to properly educate young people about how serious these loans are. Unfortunately I had to learn this the hard way and am now enrolled in a community college and working very hard in order to finance my education without taking out loans untill it becomes absolutely necessary.

  • Hind sight is 20/20

    There was a time, recently, when I would have answered with aplomb: YES!!!!!! However after an undergraduate and two master’s degrees from private universities while currently trying to finish a PhD at a #1 ranked department, I now regret each decision. Even though I was fully funded at the undergrad and doctoral level, I owe well in the 6 digits to sallie mae. And, due to a lacking advisor (although prolific scholar!), I may not get that PhD due to red tape. It feels like the Olympics, you give up everything and might win, but likely are looking at a career of high course loads and committee work. Had I really known that, at the time I made the decision at 22, I would have gone to a state school and just powered through ASAP and taken my 50k-ish academic job. Powerhouse private schools mean precious little these days. And, who is to say that I learned more by attending “the best schools?”

    Have to run, I am researching bankruptcy currently.

  • Daxgolf

    Perhaps colleges should be required to disclose to applicants the expected cost for a particular 4 year degree, as well as the projected prospects for employment, salary and loan repayment cost. I suspect many students don’t consider the financial consequences for choosing a particular course of study – I know I didn’t.