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June 19, 2014

Arizona State University graduation as seen in Ivory Tower (Samuel Goldwyn Films).

The documentary film Ivory Tower, which opens in Boston on Friday, explores the much-debated question of whether the cost of college is worth it. On Campus spoke with the director Andrew Rossi. 

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This is not the first time Rossi has looked at institutions undergoing massive transformation. The Yale graduate's 2010 film Page One: Inside the New York Times focused on the changing newspaper industry. Rossi says he's fascinated by the collision of shifting values and economic realities.

"It's a theme that's been inherent in much of my work," Rossi says. "Since I had a very rewarding experience in college, I thought it would be interesting to go on the ground to see exactly what both students and faculty are experiencing."

What Rossi captures is an industry fully disrupted by technology, rising tuition costs, and questions about the value of a college degree. Much of the film follows intense student protests at New York City's Cooper Union. In 2013, the college began charging tuition for the first time in its 155-year history.

According to Rossi, Cooper Union and other schools have developed a growing dependency on tuition results in some schools losing sight of their mission and treating students more like customers.

But, Rossi notes, it's not all doom and gloom. For example, he turns his camera on Boston's Bunker Hill Community College, where online courses and student engagement have been successful.

Watch the film's trailer:

In lieu of a narrator, reasoned voices like that of Georgetown economist Anthony Carnevale drive home the film's themes with their perspectives. Carnevale says that higher education is still in experimental mode.

"We have no choice but to go very fast," Carnevale says. "Experimentation will produce success and failure, and we need to learn to live with that because technology is the hope for many young people who otherwise won't be able to afford the educations that they need."

Despite those dire predictions, Rossi says higher education is still America's engine of social mobility. He emphasizes that colleges and universities should play a bigger role in addressing income and racial inequality.

"The students who are getting into the best colleges remain the ones who are wealthier and who, in many cases, are white,” Rossi says. “And the students who are getting into the less selective schools are predominantly less wealthy and people of color."

All of this is addressed in a brisk, 90 minutes that Rossi hopes will rattle educational institutions and get people thinking more about the future of higher education.

Ivory Tower will be playing at Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge.

PBS NewsHour's Jeffrey Brown talks to filmmaker Andrew Rossi about the origins of rising costs:

confronting cost, Andrew Rossi, film, Ivory Tower

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