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Why Does College Cost 1,120 Percent More Than It Did In 1978?

You can be forgiven if you’d rather play with your kids outside than spend 90 minutes staring into the abyss that is the future of higher education in this country. So, maybe you won’t go see Ivory Tower, a new documentary that examines the financial corner into which colleges and universities have painted themselves (and everyone else). Fortunately, we saw it for you. Here’s the short version:

1. The cost of a college education has increased 1,120% since 1978

You read that right. For comparison’s sake, food costs have increased 244 percent and health care 601 percent during that stretch. But don’t spit coffee all over the screen just yet, because it gets worse: Over the same period of time, states’ funding of their colleges and universities has plummeted 40 percent. Ok, now spit the coffee.

2. Student loans might create more problems than they solve

Soaring tuitions mean kids take on more college debt than ever, to the tune of $1.2 trillion and rising. The average graduate in 2012 entered one of the worst job markets in history with $29,400 in debt and half of them were unable to find jobs. Adding insult to injury, student loan debt has no bankruptcy protection, so defaults affect the whole family. But Sallie Mae, the largest provider of student loans in the country, made $949 million last year, so the financial industry’s incentive to help is … compromised.

3. Technology is not the answer

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) made headlines in 2011 when Stanford started offering its classes for free, but a pilot program between MOOC provider Udacity and San Jose State University was halted last year after it failed to graduate more than 25 percent of its entry-level math students. Venture capitalist Peter Thiel, meanwhile, spearheads an “UnCollege” movement that encourages prospective entrepreneurs to forgo a diploma in exchange for real world experience in the tech industry. How could his program scale to provide for the hundreds of thousands of kids who aren’t going to be Mark Zuckerberg? “I don’t have an answer for that,” says Thiel.

4. Don’t sleep on community college

As the crisis in higher education gets worse, community colleges are doing more with less. The film looks at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, which flips the standard college model by having lectures take place at home through MOOC while homework takes place in the classroom. The result is higher quality student/teacher interactions than are found at many larger institutions, and students who graduate with a fraction of the debt carried by their peers with brand-name diplomas. Of course, it’s fair to ask: Exactly what sort of teachers we’re talking about here?

5. The students didn’t get themselves into this mess, but they might get themselves out

Ivory Tower features a formerly homeless teenager from Cleveland on a full ride to Harvard; a group of modern day cowboys experimenting with educational socialism in Death Valley, and the dogged organizer of the 65-day protest that erupted when Cooper Union announced it would charge tuition for the first time in 154 years. If there’s hope to be found in the movie – and that’s a big if – it’s in the talent, creativity, and determination exhibited by so many college students.

With all due respect to Zuckerberg, college graduates have done some pretty amazing things in this country. They might even be able to fix a system Ivory Tower convincingly insists is broken.

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