Ivory Tower and the Student Debt Crisis: An Interview with Andrew Coffman

Last month, Ivory Tower was released online and on DVD. The film takes a serious look at the rising cost of college education and seeks to answer questions about the future of higher education in the United States. With college debt in the U.S. now over 1 trillion dollars and the percentage of graduating students carrying student-loan debt at an all-time high, it is becoming more and more important to evaluate the benefits of our post-secondary education system.

After being nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, the film is now available to a wider audience through online purchase and rental. Andrew Coffman, Associate Producer, Editor, and Cinematographer for Ivory Tower took the time to answer questions from Erstwhile’s Beau Driver.


Erstwhile Blog: Could you please introduce yourself?

Andrew Coffman: I’m Andrew Coffman, and I was the Associate Producer as well as one of the editors and cinematographers of Ivory Tower.

EB: As Associate Producer, what were you responsibilities on the film?

AC: Since I had several different roles on the film, my responsibilities varied throughout the entire process, from the initial researching phase through the final delivery of the film for distribution.

So, I played an integral part in helping to construct the arguments for the film and getting them onto the screen.

EB: Both Ivory Tower and Page One [a previous film by Rossi and Coffman], are in many ways declension narratives. What has drawn you and Rossi to these subjects?

AC: I think what Andrew (Rossi) is drawn to is the drama inherent in any sector going through a radical change or disruption.  For Page One, that radical change was the rise of digital media pushing many traditional newspapers out of business.  With Ivory Tower, the passing of $1 trillion in total student debt and the rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) promising to educate millions of people for free sounded an alarm that something might be about to change in higher education.

I would also say that what both films hope to tap into is not so much a sense of decline but rather an understanding of what needs to be preserved going forward in times of rapid change.  For journalism, that means preserving rigorous, high-quality investigative reporting, even if it will be delivered in a digital format.  In higher education, we found that the key component was face-to-face learning with peers and dedicated teachers that inspires students and improves their lives.

EB: Your film shows that most students are now paying much, much more for an education that is not as intensive as in times past; they’re paying more for less. Is this a trend that can continue?

AC: I would hope that such a perverse trend couldn’t continue. Unfortunately, I think as long as universities hold the keys to a successful career and status, people will continue paying top dollar for a credential, even if they’re not getting a top-notch education in terms of rigor. Moreover, the predominant cultural image of college as a 4-year frat party will only help perpetuate that trend.

But we don’t want to over-generalize about the diversity of experiences that people are having in higher education. So yes, the troubling findings that we report in the film from Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift apply to a wide range of students, but there are still many students at many schools across the country engaged in rigorous academic programs. For instance, in the film we see the students at Deep Springs College, who combine intensive liberal arts study with farm labor and self-governance. So even though there are some disturbing trends that are emerging, there are also many sources of hope for the future, and I hope the film conveys that duality.

EB: By design, you don’t address for-profit schools in the documentary. With Corinthian Colleges, Inc. (owner of Everest College) now making the news and the fact that other for-profit schools are coming under scrutiny, can you comment on why you all didn’t address these schools and also weigh-in a bit on what’s been happening with schools like Everest?

AC: When we started researching the film, we found that there were already several great resources documenting the perils of for-profit colleges, such as the Frontline documentary College, Inc. as well as 60 Minutes and Dan Rather Reports pieces.  And just recently John Oliver did a great in-depth segment about student debt and for-profit colleges.

Since we did not want to cover ground that had already been covered so well, we decided to focus exclusively on nonprofit universities and to look at the disturbing trend of some of those schools beginning to increasingly resemble for-profit corporations themselves.  Moreover, we wanted to talk about the tradition of American higher education in its purest form, where schools are supposed to be dedicated exclusively to improving the lives and minds of their students instead of creating shareholder value.

The recent bankruptcy of Corinthian Colleges is a sign that the era of for profit colleges as we have known them for the last few decades may be coming to an end.  Increased government oversight and stricter legislation that has been proposed will help crack down on for-profits’ abilities to siphon off federal aid as their primary source of revenue.  Moreover, for-profits have historically relied on recruiting people from demographics overlooked by traditional colleges, such as adults already in the workforce. But with the rise of Massive Open Online Courses and similar free online educational opportunities, those people will have more options other than enrolling in a for-profit college, which most likely would require them to go into a lot of debt (and would probably be entirely online anyway).

However, let’s not lose sight of the fact that many free online course providers, including two of the biggest, Coursera and Udacity, are for-profit companies themselves.  So while the “traditional” (if we can call them that) for-profit colleges like those operated by Corinthian may be losing steam, we’ve already seen an explosion of new ed-tech companies innovating new models to make money off of higher education.

EB: One thing that you address briefly, but not in depth is the falling wages that are given to educators. In the film, you highlight the rising pay for administrators, but how do you think the falling wages and the move away from tenured faculty to adjuncts is affecting college education in the US?

AC: There’s a pretty big misperception out there that you will find expressed mostly by people on the conservative side of the political spectrum, which is that college is so expensive because fat cat tenured professors are enjoying their inflated salaries while brainwashing students with postmodern theory.  In reality, as you say, tenured (or tenure track) faculty are increasingly becoming a rarity, even at some of the best schools.

There have been several studies showing that the use of adjunct faculty leads to poorer academic outcomes among students, and we should not take that correlation as an indictment of the quality of adjuncts themselves. Rather, that is an indictment of the lack of resources and support allocated to adjunct faculty for educating larger numbers of students. When an adjunct professor is given below poverty-line wages and has to work a second job just to generate a living income, the institution is not setting that teacher up to successfully engage students in rigorous academic study.

I think there’s a danger of the faculty becoming more and more stratified, where universities will invest in attracting a few tenured star professors, who can add to the prestige of the institution and bring in research money, but leave the bulk of the less glamorous task of actually teaching undergraduates to low-paid adjunct professors and graduate students. That’s a trend that will hurt not only the students but also the entire academic discipline, since fewer and fewer people would be able to pursue academia as a viable career.

EB: Finally, what are you working on now?

AC: I am working on a few other documentary projects with Andrew, including a crime narrative as well as a movie examining the stigma associated with mental illness.  I am developing a fiction project as well.

EB: Thank you for your time.

For more information on Ivory Tower or to inquire about arraigning a screening, please visit the Ivory Tower TakePart page.

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