Thanks to the Utah Film Center and all its generous supporters, I just saw a free screening of Ivory Tower, the 2014 documentary about the problems facing American higher education.
For the most part I thought the film was excellent. It focused on the crisis of rising tuition and student loan debt, and touched on most of the reasons why this crisis has arisen: growing enrollments, shrinking state subsidies, and increased overhead costs for bloated administrations and frivolous amenities. The film also explored a variety of innovative variations on higher education, ranging from massive open online courses to the tiny Deep Springs College. It came down heavily against impersonal, one-size-fits-all solutions, and emphasized the importance of one-on-one human interaction.
The film fell short, though, in its inadequate attention to profit motives. It didn’t even mention the for-profit college sector, which has played a disproportionate role in the student debt crisis. It seemed to blame the federal government for pushing loans on students, when in fact it’s private banks and investors who are profiting from those loans. And although it highlighted the for-profit MOOC startups Udacity and Coursera (and the much-publicized collaboration between Udacity and San Jose State University), it failed to mention the lower-profile infiltration of software for canned courses that’s coming from traditional textbook publishers.
To get to the bottom of a scandal, you need to follow the money.