Andrew Rossi could have made a five-hour film or a series of documentaries about the problems with American higher education.
Instead, in less than two hours, he tries to sum up the troubles and offer possible solutions in his new film “Ivory Tower,” a centerpiece of this year’s Sarasota Film Festival.
Rising costs and overwhelming student loan debt are the backdrop for the film, which is hitting film festivals as the Senate considers reauthorizing the 1965 Higher Education Act.
The act sets federal government student aid. The government provides more than $150 billion for various programs each year.
But students’ debt has already topped $1 trillion, and graduates who may benefit from their education with higher-paying jobs are spending much of their income just paying off loans.
The high cost has prompted many to question the value of college degrees, while several new developments are providing potential alternatives, Rossi said in a telephone interview.
He points to PayPal founder Peter Thiel, who is encouraging some college students to drop out by offering them $100,000 each to help them start their own businesses.
“He has been a very vocal critic about college not necessarily being the pathway for every young person,” Rossi said of Thiel. “In this moment, when people are struggling to pay off these massive student loans, his critique has really caught on.”
At the same time, there has been increasing interest in Massive Open Online Courses, MOOCs, through such programs as Udacity, Coursera and EdX. One class, led by Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun, inventor of Google’s self-driving car, had 200,000 people enroll online.
“They are basically providing classes online and doing it in a way that is more interactive and pedagogically sophisticated than previous online courses, which just had a professor talking into a camera or on a stage lecturing regular students,” Rossi said. “These courses incorporate quizzes in the course of a lecture and chat platforms that simulate the peer-to-peer experience they would get in a traditional classroom.”
Rossi’s goal is to “penetrate the nostalgia around this topic and have a really honest discussion about what does higher education do well and where is it failing and how can it change itself. That’s what the film sets out to do in as comprehensive way as possible.”
His film looks at a range of schools, including elite private universities, general-admission schools, public universities that are nonselective, community colleges, and some more unique programs, including the historically black Spelman College in Atlanta.
He does not deal with the increasingly prominent profit-making universities, like University of Phoenix. “Our feeling is that that sector is big enough to accommodate its own investigative piece,” he said.
“Ivory Tower” had its premiere earlier this year at Sundance, where the Hollywood Reporter described it as “sobering.”
“In putting so many ideas and questions on the table, the documentary usefully opens up a discussion that must be joined by citizens in and outside of academia,” the review said.
His film is the first project funded from the outset by CNN Films, which had previously acquired rights to such documentaries as “Blackfish,” last year’s opening-night festival movie.
“Ivory Tower” will have a theatrical release beginning in June; he expects it to be broadcast on CNN in November.
Rossi was in Sarasota in 2011 with “Page One: A Year Inside The New York Times.” Like that film, his new one deals with a treasured institution “at the crossroads of great change.”
Among the film’s interview subjects is Clayton Christenson, author of “Innovators Dilemma” and the father of disruptive innovation, where technological developments and advances create new markets and desires for products.
He compares the today’s universities to the music and print media businesses of several years ago.
“He suggests that schools will have to face a contraction in demand, once technology is able to offer a product that may not be of the same quality but is so much less expensive,” Rossi said.
“It takes away the demand from the established institutions.”
FILM FESTIVAL PREVIEW
“Ivory Tower” will be shown at 5:45 p.m. April 10 at Regal Cinemas Hollywood 20, 1993 Main St., Sarasota. Tickets are $13, $10.50 for members and $8 for students. 366-6200; sarasotafilmfestival.com