Conservatives have assumed that young people are coming to understand that increased government inducements to take out student loans for college are traps that keep graduates from becoming financially independent, starting families and otherwise embracing full adulthood. What started modestly as scholarship aid is now a trillion dollar loan program that perversely gives colleges and universities incentives to continue raising spending and tuition rates, thereby promoting the still further government expansion of student loans.
Students are hurt, taxpayers are hurt, but universities — part of the political base of progressivism — are the financial beneficiaries.
But that interpretation is not the message of Ivory Tower, a documentary film by Andrew Rossi that opens in big cities in coming days. Rossi and the authorities he assembles, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), want the subsidies made both greater and more direct. Highlighted in the film is an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street at Cooper Union College in New York. Cameras and microphones dwell lovingly with the occupiers (who have taken over the President’s office) as they insist on continuation of Cooper Union’s tradition of free tuition, ignoring setbacks in the school’s finances. “Free Education for All,” demand the self-righteous protestors.
In telling his story, Rossi does amuse viewers with examples of wasteful collegiate grandiosity, such as resort-like accommodations for partying students and a rising administrative overhead that far exceeds that found in any other institutions of society. He also pays tribute to the brilliant, but tiny program of tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel that encourages bright students to bypass college altogether and follow their dreams now, not later; and Rossi also describes at some length the promise of online learning.
But ultimately, Ivory Tower is not an argument for reform of runaway higher education spending, or for innovation, but a case for government acceptance of the bill for some variation on the present system. It’s a new entitlement, folks, like pre-school education, and whatever it costs and whatever it does to warp the lives of students (and those who don’t go to college or drop out) is for someone else to consider another day.
In a tidy coincidence, Ivory Tower hits the theaters just as President Obama, by executive fiat, offers more and more means to reduce student debt loads. The progressive mindset is beautifully encapsulated in loans that can be paid off more quickly if a student will agree to enter public service (government) after graduation or work for a non-profit. In other words, repayment of student loans is the left’s new backdoor to the long sought utopia of National Service. Instead of the stick of a draft we have the carrot of reduced school debt. Implicit in the scheme is contempt for students who think that the private sector is the most productive place to be — you know, the sector that merely pays the taxes.
Meanwhile, overall reform is slighted. To watch Ivory Tower you would have little sense of the frivolous and ideological courses that have come weigh colleges down, and certainly no sense of the political correctness codes — written and unwritten — that punish dissident academics in field after field. There also is no sense that what increasingly defines a major research university is subservience to government funding agency priorities as the freeway to grants, or that undergraduates are consigned to a rambling, unfocused curriculum that that indulges professors’ fancies and teenagers’ whims, rather than meeting students needs as mature citizens.
Formerly the road to success, higher education is becoming a primrose path to dependency and delayed maturity for those who aren’t rich enough to pay their way and for talented, if poor, youth for whom someone else pays the freight. Whereas college once was meant to help young minds think for themselves, it is becoming a funding instrument for government to shape their thinking in school and their behavior later on.