Q&A: Why the American system of higher education is at the breaking point

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Photo: Ivory Tower 1A provocative new film "Ivory Tower" opens in Denver this week. As tuition rates spiral beyond reach and student loan debt passes $1 trillion, the film asks whether college is really worth the price.

Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner talks with CPR education reporter Jenny Brundin about this American institution at the breaking point, and how colleges got to this point.

Ryan Warner: Jenny, we’ve taken up the topic before of whether college is worth it. A new movie is out examining this question more deeply, and delving into what exactly is going on in higher education. Costs are spiraling out of control for many students. Can you tell us about the film?

Jenny Brundin: “Ivory Tower” is a new film opening Friday, June 27, at the Mayan Theater in Denver. It’s directed by Andrew Rossi who made "Page One: Inside The New York Times” in 2011. Some of the reviews lament the fact that the film doesn’t have one clear focus – it does pack in a lot of issues and stories and some get more time than others – but I really liked it. It’s a terrifically complex issue and it gives a jaw-dropping overview of how higher education got into this crisis.

Ryan Warner: “Crisis.” So what’s the central issue?

Jenny Brundin: Boiled down: student loan debt has passed the $1 trillion mark. It’s now more than the nation’s collective credit card debt. The average student graduates about $25,000 dollars in debt. Here’s a clip that summarizes the film’s thesis:

Speaker 1: Higher education in America has been very successful for centuries. But now things are changing. Because the scale and the cost is enormous. We have a product that is so expensive that a lot of people can’t pay for it and they have to go into debt and it just isn’t viable.

Speaker 2: The rise in student tuition is unsustainable. We cannot continue to charge significantly more year after year without running into some kind of a brick wall.

Speaker 3: College tuition has increased more than any other good or service in the U.S. economy since 1978.

Jenny Brundin: One Columbia University professor predicts, “the very concept of higher education is about to be broken.”

Ryan Warner: Give us a sense of how much tuition has risen?

Jenny Brundin: Since 1980 it's grown 1,120 percent on average, according to experts in the film. This is due mainly to plummeting state support for institutions; when that goes down, tuition rises.

But the film also focuses on how the lack of state support has fueled a “prestige” race and a competitive race to attract students. The film states that Harvard laid down the model all universities ended up following: You have to build bigger and better dorms, have better sports teams and raise an endowment to sustain expansion. Colleges are making large investments in facilities to attract students and move up the ranking of U.S. News & World Report, because when you’re high up the ranking, you can expand your market, add programs and charge more for tuition. Again from the film:

Speaker 1: You begin to see a tension developing between the mission to educate young people and the competition for prestige, to out-build your rivals.

Photo: Ivory Tower 2Ryan Warner: We know that tuition has risen, as has student debt. What about institutional debt?

Jenny Brundin: This was an eye-opening fact: over the last decade, colleges and universities have doubled the amount of debt they’ve taken on. I found a fascinating report that just came out looking at the billions of dollars the federal government spends to support the construction and renovation of dorms, athletic facilities and the like in the form of tax-exempt bonds. Because there’s no interest, it’s very attractive to high-income investors. So the tax subsidy ends up benefiting them instead of taxpayers.

These bonds issued by colleges could cost the federal government about $18 billion between 2013-17. Groups like the Young Invincibles, which does public policy research, believe that $18 billion could be better spent on grants and low-interest loans for students.

Ryan Warner: At the same time, the film takes a critical look at whether the quality of education has improved commensurate with the jump in price.

Jenny Brundin: Yes. The film implies it hasn’t. The number of full-time faculty is in sharp decline. Many students are taught by part-time adjuncts now. The film also spent some time on the “party atmosphere” that’s taken hold on some campuses like Arizona State University and the University of Iowa, causing academic rigor to suffer on some campuses. And the film points out that nearly half of 2013 college graduates are under or unemployed. The whole debate about the purpose of college is ongoing.

Ryan Warner: Have society’s views about who is entitled to college and who should pay for it changed over time?

Jenny Brundin: Yes, that is perhaps the most fascinating part of the film. Higher education started out for the elite. But after World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt talked about it as a “basic right.” Two million veterans took advantage of the GI bill, opening up college to thousands of people who would never have considered it.

For much of history, higher education was seen as a public good. In signing the 1965 Higher Education Act, President Lyndon Johnson talked about how any high school senior should be able to apply to any college and not be turned away because he or she was poor.

Ryan Warner: But in the 1970s things started to crumble for students.

Jenny Brundin: Yes. The film describes it this way: The rug began to be pulled out from students. It talks about the role Ronald Reagan played as governor of California in changing the cultural perception of higher education: that if something is giving you an advantage in life, you should pay for it yourself. He famously said the state should not subsidize intellectual curiosity.

Ryan Warner: What about when he was president?

Jenny Brundin: A staffer here was in school during that time, and her tuition jumped 10 times in one fell swoop. Turns out that President Reagan oversaw severe cuts in financial aid, and there was a ripple effect that we see today. Loans became the way students paid for education, not grants, and student loans turned into a lucrative industry.

The loans, some argue, make it easier for colleges to keep raising tuition. And the film contends that families, because of how easy it is to get student loans, become less sensitive to price. Around this time, graduation rates stopped rising and access for the poor started going down. Student loan defaults began dramatically increasing.

Photo: Ivory Tower 4Ryan Warner: This spring there’s been a lot of discussion in the news about student indebtedness.

Jenny Brundin: Yes. Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren’s bill to let students refinance their federal loans at a lower rate failed to even get votes to come up for debate, prompting Starbucks to announce its plan to pay for online degrees from Arizona State University for it’s full and part time workers.

Ryan Warner: The film also touches on alternatives to the system as it is now. What are some of those?

Jenny Brundin: It talks about some models that show promise for small numbers of students, like a free college in the California desert called Deep Springs College. That school focuses on hard physical work and intellectual rigor. And it touches on the “uncollege movement,” like the Thiel program in San Francisco that encourages bright young people to forgo college and go directly into business. But those models are for a select few.

Ryan Warner: Some would argue that the system most students are in remains highly inefficient – a system that has 500 professors at 500 different universities teaching the same thing.

Jenny Brundin: Yes. The push for more online education is seen as a way for just one top-ranked professor to teach a million people at the same time, and a way to expand free access to all. These programs are called ‘MOOCs’ – massive open online courses.

They still hold a lot of promise, but lost some of their luster in one well-publicized failure last year. San Jose State University in California partnered with a private MOOC to provide remedial and entry-level math and statistics courses inspired by MIT lectures. By the end of the course, most students were more confused and failing the course.

Ryan Warner: They preferred face-to-face contact?

Jenny Brundin: Yes. In particular, research is showing disadvantaged students and those least confident about their abilities fare better with face-to-face instruction. This is something the nation will have to grapple with as more and more underserved students enter college.

Photo: Ivory Tower 3One critic at San Jose State is quoted as saying the system is evolving into one where the wealthy will have face-to-face 4-year college experiences and the rest will get their higher education off of YouTube.

Ryan Warner: So you won’t give away whether the film focuses on one big solution.

Jenny Brundin: No. But if you want a good overview about the complexity of the issues in higher education, “Ivory Tower” is an engaging film.

Ryan Warner: Fascinating, Jenny, but for a lot of students and parents out there, pretty depressing. Any positive news you’ve found lately?

Jenny Brundin: As we roll up the school year, I loved this quote from a teacher I found in a New York Times blog. It's a nice counter to all the negative news in education. Writing for the Times, K.C. Potts, an English teacher, looked to his students for evidence of this year’s successes and failures. He writes:

"I always have my students look at their work and have them write a WILTY (What I Learned This Year). I’m astounded at what they write, at their humble epiphanies. What [teachers] do extends far beyond assorted assessments; percentage points that become single letter grades.

"We teach human beings about who they are, about the world around them; about the way they fit in the grand pageant of life. What they write reminds me that what we do as teachers really does matter, often in ways that grades cannot quantify. I end the year an optimist, once again, confident that the future looks bright."