"Ivory Tower" and the crippling cost of college

Ivory Tower

Harvard University footbridge is seen July 30, 2009 Cambridge, Massachusetts.

College tuition is more expensive than ever. In fact, the cost of tuition has risen 1,120 percent since 1978. That's higher than any other good or service during that time. Nevertheless, just under 70 percent of 2013 high school graduates started attending some form of college this past fall.  

Andrew Rossi is the director and producer of a new documentary called "Ivory Tower" that examines the cost of higher education in America. He says the reason college is so popular even though the sticker price keeps rising is that for now, it's keeping its financial promise.

"Higher education is still an engine of social mobility, even as it has grown so expensive. Those who have a college degree actually make in their median lifetime earnings about a million dollars more than those who just have a high school diploma. And that's a really powerful statistic that helps drive the continued demand."

But the average student now graduates with more than $25,000 in loans to pay off, and the nation's graduates owe a cumulative $1.2 trillion. Rossi says the cost is unsustainable, and its a symptom of the corporatization of higher education.

"In an effort to compensate for a reduction in state funding, in an effort to bring students and their student loan dollars to their campuses, many institutions are behaving like big businesses rather than treating their students as pupils. " 

Many of the subjects in Rossi's film argue that the system is unsustainable and headed for a crash, and it could bring down much more than colleges. 

"One of the most devastating consequences would be a sort of macroeconomic one. When young people are saddled with that kind of burden they decide not to form a family, not to buy a house, not to buy a car. It's not just about the constriction of life choices in terms of career and happiness, but it has broader macroeconomic effects on the country."

To hear the full, unedited interview, visit Marketplace's education page "Learning Curve."

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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