05 January 2015

Ivory Tower -- the review

This documentary "questions the cost -- and value -- of higher education in the United States."

The main focus is on how students are going into debt as costs rise from additional administrators and vanity projects like fancy dorms, climbing walls, etc. (The extra money is not going to higher professor salaries.)

The film looks at the usual suspects (Stanford, Harvard) as well as other models -- Wesleyan (small liberal arts), Cal State San Jose (large public college), Deep Springs (very small, free, two year), and Coursera/edX/Udacity (online).

The films spends a lot of time at NYC's Cooper Union as a perfect example of a worrying phenomena: a school deciding -- after over 150 years of free education -- to charge tuition to students due to "costs" that include a president making $750,000 per year and a $175 million building that was supposed to generate rental income.

Although I found the "poetic" side of the film (the future of our youth) to be compelling, I would have added more on these issues:
  • The way that many universities have raised their fees to absorb additional financial aid meant to lower students' financial burdens
  • The lack of demand for more graduates with unmarketable degrees
  • The impact of slow graduation rates (and drop outs) on universities and student debt
In response to this film (and its familiar themes), I would give my standard advice: young people should think long and hard about why they want to go to university and what they want to study. Many could benefit from a "gap year" after high school. Then they should choose a university that will deliver what they need (not 10x what they need) at the lowest financial and logistical costs. Once they matriculate, they should finish as quickly as possible to minimize their debt and get themselves into "the real world" to put their knowledge to work. If they think they need a masters degree, then they should get 2-5 years of experience so they know what topic to "master."

Bottom Line: I give this move 4 STARS for drawing attention to a serious problem in which schools rip off kids (and parents) who have trusted them with their future.

3 comments:

  1. In response to "get themselves into "the real world" to put their knowledge to work" - it can be argued that getting an internship/job with just a bachelors degree is quite tough nowadays. In light of this, how does one get that 2-5 years of experience?'

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  2. So, what is your opinion on private high school? Am I crazy spending $$$$$ putting my kids in a great high school environment? Just sent my daughter's application to a Catholic high school…of course, I did check the box for financial aid and also crossing fingers of a potential scholarship…and then when college comes they are on their own. My theory is to invest in high school to get into a great college with scholarships?

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  3. @Raghav -- It's obviously possible to get a job with a degree, but perhaps not the job they think they DESERVE. I've worked plenty of hourly jobs that didn't "use my skills" so I know how work, effort and reward relate. (In fact, I remember going to a restaurant in the 80s near Stanford where lots of students *and* graduates were waiters. They loved that job b/c it paid well -- $25/hr or so -- and get them lots of free time. Were they "below their potential? Maybe, but the POINT of education is to learn what you like...)
    Anyway, I'd tell students to go get work to understand the "real world" in all its glory and ugly. Paying bills, making friends, getting raises are all important experiences..

    @KH -- I agree with your strategy. HSs are def a problem and there are MANY excellent public universities. I went from a private HS ($7500/yr) to UCLA ($1500/yr) and it went well :)

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