What CNN Documentary Ivory Tower Didn’t Tell You: There’s a Solution to the Crisis in Higher Ed

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

This week, people who are interested in higher education – as well as legions of parents – will be watching a new CNN documentary, “Ivory Tower,” which explores some of the issues plaguing the nation’s higher education system.

“Ivory Tower,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this summer and airs on CNN Nov. 20 at 9 p.m., is a fascinating – and, in many ways, disturbing – documentary about higher education.

The filmmaker, Andrew Rossi, takes viewers to expensive private colleges, where viewers meet a recent graduate who has $140,000 in student loans with no job prospects. There are the party animals at Arizona State University, juxtaposed with the studious kids who seem lost at the massive party school. Rossi also examines massive open online courses (MOOCs), which were a failure at San Jose State University — where only 25 percent of students passed algebra and 50 percent passed elementary statistics.

Film critics have chided Rossi for presenting such a bleak portrait of higher education – without pointing the way toward any solutions.

But I believe that the filmmaker overlooked one obvious solution: community colleges.

Affordable and accessible, the nation’s network of community colleges can save students tens of thousands of dollars — and allow them to finish a bachelor’s degree without taking on nearly as much debt.

Community colleges educate 45 percent of all undergraduate students in the United States and yet only 20 percent of all public community college students took out a federal student loan in 2011-12.  Millions of students – and not just those who couldn’t get admitted elsewhere – have discovered that community colleges can provide a path to a very good, and often debt-free, education.

At Valencia – where we were honored to be the first college in the nation to win the prestigious Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence – we have become something of a national laboratory for best practices in community college education. Right now, one of our graduates is enrolled at Harvard Medical School, two are studying at Amherst College, two are attending Smith College and another just won a Fulbright scholarship and is studying in Hong Kong. A Valencia grad last year became the youngest person to pass the bar exam in England.

Those students have discovered one of the best-kept secrets in higher education: That you can save tens of thousands of dollars by starting at a community college and transferring elsewhere – whether it’s to a state university or an Ivy League college – to complete your education.

That’s a smart move, financially, and it allows you to save that money to complete your undergraduate degree – or apply those savings to graduate school.

Rossi says that he began working on the documentary when he became alarmed about the nation’s growing student loan debt.  But if we’re really interested in reducing student loan debt, it may be time for a national conversation – and some real honesty about the solutions.

Sadly, many people watching “Ivory Tower” will walk away with many questions, but not many answers. “Ivory Tower” doesn’t answer the questions it poses – and it doesn’t help parents and today’s high school students figure out what the best path for them will be. But I hope viewers — and the many parents in our community – will consider my perspective, both as a college president and as a parent.

After working in the field of higher education for most of my career, I can tell you honestly that what you pay for at college is not always what you get. You can go to some very expensive universities and sit in classes of 1,500 students and never meet the professor. You can go to some pretty expensive colleges and take most of your courses from your dorm room without ever going to a classroom or a laboratory. These are not experiences worth paying for.

You can also pay very little at some colleges – like Valencia – and be part of a class of 20 to 25 students who get to know their professor well and work with that same professor in the laboratory.

I often hear from friends whose sons and daughters – many of them honor students – have headed off to colleges and universities, many of them large flagship universities where they’ve attended football games since they were knee-high. But on these large campuses, many are disappointed. They feel lost and wonder if the college they dreamed of attending was really the right choice.

I understand that. I went to a large university as a freshman and it was a big shock to enter a huge university, not knowing very many people. I had to discover how to navigate the place, mostly by making mistakes.

But a university or a college is not “one size fits all.” I find that a lot of students – even very good students – get carried away with the tide when choosing a college. They base one of the most important decisions of their lives on a college’s “brand,” whether that’s the prowess of its athletic teams or the lifestyle: the party atmosphere, the rock-climbing walls, the student apartments.

That’s the core of the problem: Colleges and universities are selling lifestyle, rather than engaging students in a vision for what a life of learning might mean for them.

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