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'Ivory Tower' Explores Crushing Cost of US College Education

  • Penelope Poulou

It’s a hot, muggy day at Port City Brewery in Old Town Alexandria, just a stone’s throw from Washington D.C., but the heat does not slow down Brandon Attilis, a college student who spends summers working for extra cash.

The money will come in handy when he is away at college renting a house with two of his friends.

“My parents are paying the cost of the house, but I’m paying utilities," Brandon said. "So, between the two, it’s still less expensive than actually living in the dorms.”

Brandon has a lot going for him. He has a good work ethic, brains and pre-paid college tuition.

“We took care of four years of college education for less than a year’s costs in today’s market,” said Chris Attilis, Brandon's mother.

She says she and her husband began saving money for college tuition shortly after each of their children was born. But most college students today are not as lucky.

Andrew Rossi’s new documentary, Ivory Tower, shows American college students drowning in debt.

“We see that college tuition has increased by about 1,100 percent since 1978 to today," Rossi said.

That's due to many factors, including less government support for higher education because of tighter budgets. Once students graduate, Rossi says half are either unemployed or underemployed. His documentary shows that the tough job market does not deter colleges from hiking tuition fees.

"There are certainly those who can argue that certain Ivy league schools have a brand associated with them that might be worth paying a premium for," he said.

In their effort to entice students and to raise their prestige, colleges build impressive campuses and students end up paying for those construction costs.

Chris Attilis experienced this firsthand when she visited campuses with Brandon. .

“They put on a good show," she said. "And walking through and looking at the granite sinks in the bathrooms I’m thinking, 'This is not what it was looking like when I went to school.' And we had a conversation saying ‘We’re paying to send you to a country club.’"

According to Ivory Tower, many students choose not to pursue a college education because of the unsustainable costs. Some try online education, but Brandon notes that is not for everyone.

“You have to be a real hard worker, you have to really want it," he said.

Brandon is thankful he is getting an education without going into debt. He feels life is already like an assembly line, where he has to tackle everything coming his way - getting a business degree, building up job experience to have an impressive resume so that one day, he hopes, he can have a career and a family without the staggering debt from the ivory towers of higher education.