This afternoon I attended my first ever Traverse City Film Festival movie.  It was a film called “Ivory Tower” from the same director Andrew Rossi, who did one of my favorite documentary films “Page One: Inside the New York Times.”


It was an interesting expose on what is happening in higher education.  Big topics like rising costs, rising student debt, value of a college education, and the roots of college education for the masses are all covered and more.  It’s a thoughtful documentary where you do care about the people profiled and see through the eyes of experts what is happening with college education in this country.

The focus is purely undergrad education, but it also looks at how education is changing as people look at online learning and alternatives to 4-year universities. Controversial don’t go to college programs like “UnCollege” are explored too.

The use of online education gets a bad rap in the documentary due to a failed collaboration in California.  I found this not surprising as anyone who has experienced the use of CBTs (Computer Based Training) at work will tell you that computer learning is mostly useless. Later in the film a hybrid of class time and use of online learning did look somewhat promising.

In the end it’s emotional documentary, because you see the struggle happening in education and how so much has fallen apart since I was a student.  See when I went to school kids came out of school with some debt, but not crushing debt.  It’s this crushing five and six figure debt that is a horrible way to start one’s career.  Worse I see new students getting jobs after school, but the jobs are not full-time jobs. They are internships!  We have created massive college debt and then the newly graduated students get to do internships (hopefully paid) for a year or two after school.  The system is a mess, a very sad mess.

The sadness is best represented in this chart that shows how tuition has increased so massively in the past few decades outpacing every other expense considerably.

tuitiongraphI kept going back to my path in higher education.  It wasn’t typical.

I left high school with a 3.8 GPA my senior year and had a lot of opportunities to apply to 4-year colleges and take on debt to do it. I didn’t have rich parents and in fact was living with my grandparents after my parents divorce.  Fortunately, I had a very affordable option down the street from me – Community College.

My first two-years of college were spent taking transferable accredited general education classes at Pasadena City College.  I particularly chose 3-hour night classes four to five times a week so I could work during the day and the weekends at my two jobs. I was saving for my planned move to transfer to a 4-year private college I decided I wanted to go to when I was 17, Hillsdale College.

Those two years at Community College were great. I was focused and saved enough cash to pay for 1 ½ years of my college degree at the school I wanted to attend. I figured I’d make up the other half year over a couple summers working, which I mostly did.  And yes I did have a social life.

I eventually went to the college I wanted and finished it in two and a half years, meaning I did have about $10,000 in debt mostly due to the extra semester I needed to finish my degree as I changed majors from Economics to English my Junior year.

Even though I didn’t come from a wealthy family, I came from a frugal family and my grandparents took care of the $10,000 I went over.  So I started my career with zero college debt.  Some of that was due to family chipping in including my grandparents and my father’s child support, but most of it was due to my attending Community College and saving to pay for most of it.

I kept thinking during the film if my path is even doable today.  Simple answer: No.

The school I went to ran $14,000/year for the 2 and half years I went there.  Today it runs $33,000/year.  I would have to save over $50,000 during my two years at Community College to save the rough equivalent of 1 1/2 years of college savings.  I saved over $20,000 when I did it back in 1990-2.  Of course, pay hasn’t increased enough for entry-level jobs in customer service at Six Flags Magic Mountain or working as a bank teller to cover the additional $30,000 I would today need to earn to save for school.

So today I’d have to stay at the community college 5 years before going to Hillsdale College or a similar priced college or university.  I could choose a different, cheaper local state university to keep costs lower than Hillsdale, a private liberal arts college.  Likely that would’ve been the choice I made as I didn’t want to leave college in debt.

It’s a pretty sickening situation where education is today.  The cost increase has been massive and unreasonable.

Now I’m a parent of two boys and all I can think is where is education going and how are we going to help our kids navigate the insanity of a college education come 2024!!!

Lottery. I must play the lottery.

And there you have it.  The Ivory Tower is fucked and that’s too bad. Hopefully, the film becomes part of the wake up call in the country to reevaluate education and how we can make it a reasonable, responsible decision again.