Sundance film asks, ‘Is college worth it?’ | ParkRecord.com

Sundance film asks, ‘Is college worth it?’

Alexandria Gonzalez, The Park Record

Graduates of Spelman College, a historically African-American women s college in Atlanta, celebrate the empowerment of generations of black women in Andrew Rossi s documentary. Film still by Andrew Rossi, courtesy of Sundance.

Documentary filmmaker Andrew Rossi returns to Sundance with "Ivory Tower," an in-depth look into the world of higher education and the insurmountable debt students find themselves in when they graduate from college.

After finishing his first Sundance Film Festival documentary, "Page One: Inside the New York Times," Rossi said it was reported that student loan debt exceeded $1 trillion, and people were calling for a re-evaluation of higher education.

"I think that the dream of college to provide a way forward, the idea of social mobility, the idea that the university can propel a student into a totally new way of thinking about life, is exciting," Rossi said. "That is the dream I think that college offers everyone, and we want to preserve that."

Rossi added that unfortunately, pursuing that dream is causing students to go so far into debt that their class position is cemented upon college graduation as someone who does not have the skills or money to pay off their debt. If that is the case, then he said we are actually doing the reverse.

Rossi also stresses that scholarships are crucial and students should try their best to obtain them in any way that they can. The film explores financial aid as well as strategies students can use to find and attend the most affordable college for them.

"It is not about going to the school closest to home or the school that everyone seems to have a fun time at but finding a school that has a program that fits your interests and is a perfect fit for your skill set," Rossi said. "Make sure they want to recruit you, not just because you are an athlete, but because you have the great math skills to become an engineer," he added.

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Looking into financial aid at higher education institutions, Rossi begins his story at Harvard University, America’s first university, established in 1636. Harvard is one of only 60 colleges or universities out of the total 4,400 across the country to offer full-need financial aid.

That means someone like David Boone, who used to be homeless on the streets of Cleveland, Ohio, can attend a prestigious university like Harvard for free. Boone may be fortunate enough to have a full-ride to Harvard, but other students at other colleges are not so lucky.

"Ivory Tower" takes a look into Boone’s life and how he used to believe that growing up in Cleveland meant staying there and working at a factory. "He said he was given a glimpse of something better, an inspiration and a tool set to try and get to that better place," Rossi said.

The film looks into student debt servicers and what Rossi calls their "predatory practices." He said they cause students to find themselves in a position upon graduation where they are not able to pay back the money that helped get them through school.

"There are some groups like ‘Strike Debt’ that try and give counseling to students who are experiencing these problems, but people like Sen. Elizabeth Warren from Mass. are trying to change the laws to protect these students," Rossi said.

His documentary also looks into a new option for students: Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. Sebastian Thrun’s Udacity is one MOOC provider Rossi delves into and their experiment at San Jose State. The successes and failures of the Udacity online courses, which promise to "lower cost and increase access," are put under the microscope to figure out where they can be improved.

"Ivory Tower" is not just a look into the higher education sector but how students and parents can begin preparing for secondary education as soon as possible.

"I really believe that parents and students all across the country should think about these issues, and if this movie can help them sort of have a conversation afterwards at the kitchen table about how they are going to afford college or whether the young person can go to college, then that is a really rewarding thing," Rossi said.

"Ivory Tower" is placed in the U.S. Documentary film competition, and it will screen:

  • Thursday, Jan. 23, at 5:30 p.m. at Prospector Square Theatre, Park City
  • Saturday, Jan. 25, at noon at Egyptian Theatre, Park City