Shugart: Documentary on College Costs Ignores Obvious Solution

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Is college worth the cost? And are there any alternatives to the high-priced system that dominates American higher education? Those are two of many questions that “Ivory Tower,” a new CNN documentary that airs Thursday, raises.

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Ivory Tower - CNN Documentary

In the documentary, filmmaker Andrew Rossi tries to address many of the questions and issues plaguing higher education: Is a college education worth it? Is the college model broken? Are online courses any good? Do state universities hype their party reputations to attract out-of-state students?

Sandy Shugart desk

Dr. Sandy Shugart,
president of Valencia College

When choosing colleges, many students — and their parents — make the mistake of thinking that all expensive colleges are great colleges — and the best choice. That, says Shugart, is exactly what those pricey private colleges want you to believe.

Alarmed by the nation’s mounting student loan debt, Rossi takes viewers to expensive private colleges, where we meet a recent graduate who has $140,000 in student loans with no prospects. There are the party animals at Arizona State University, juxtaposed with the studious kids who seem lost at the massive party school. Rossi also examines massive open online courses (MOOCs), which were a failure at San Jose State University — where only 25 percent of students passed algebra and 50 percent passed elementary statistics.

Film critics have chided Rossi for presenting such a bleak portrait – without pointing the way toward any solutions.

But Rossi may have overlooked one obvious solution, says Dr. Sandy Shugart, president of Valencia College — which was in 2011 named the nation’s best community college by the Aspen Institute.  Affordable and accessible, the nation’s vast network of community colleges can save students tens of thousands of dollars — and allow them to finish a bachelor’s degree without taking on nearly as much debt.

Shugart, a board member of the American Council on Education and a regular lecturer at Oxford, knows that many teenagers have visions of college life straight from the movies —  ivy-covered dorms, fraternities and sororities and football games. But too often, he says, college students feel lost for the first year or two and, at big state universities, they’re often stuck in large, impersonal classes.

What does a community college have to offer a student whose sights have been set on a four-year residential experience?

When choosing colleges, many students — and their parents — make the mistake of thinking that all expensive colleges are great colleges — and the best choice. That, says Shugart, is exactly what those pricey private colleges want you to believe.

Have too many of us bought into the notion that if a college is expensive, it must be good?

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