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The real reasons the high cost of college is threatening society: Filmmaker

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The cost of college tuition has more than tripled over the last four decades, adjusted for inflation, while the student loan burden stands above $1 trillion and employment for young adults has been tough coming off of the last recession. But in asking if college is worth it, many stats seem to indicate that, yes, it still is. What may not be worth it, according to a new documentary from filmmaker Andrew Rossi, is the costs of luxury dorm rooms or the biggest stadium, along with paying to party. And amenities like those, Rossi finds, are too often factored into how a school rates for prospective parents and students. 

In "Ivory Tower," Rossi posits that the high cost of college is threatening our society.

That's even though New York Times reports the pay gap between college graduates and everyone else reached a record high last year -- Americans with four-year college degrees made an average of 98% more an hour in 2013 than those without a degree, which was up from 89% five years ago, and more as you look further back. And that's even though the unemployment rate for those with college degrees is about half the rate of those without one, according to the Labor Department.

Related: Extra $800k in earnings still doesn't mean college is always worth it

Rossi says that while those positive findings matter and "celebrate [college] being an entry point to the middle class ... other factors are threatening that great engine of social mobility, including student debt and the academic environment on some campuses that is not emphasizing rigor and accomplishment."

Rossi says one of the key findings in the documentary is a switch among universities to a model where they are "acting more like big businesses when they are supposed to be nonprofits with a mission to educate students." He cites a "larger structure that the school’s are part of as far as a perks war or race to build," and says it trickles down to students and parents looking at college as an amenity-filled fun ride rather than the start to students' adulthood.

Related: Surprising colleges that offer the best bang for your buck

He points to the findings of the 2013 book "Paying for the Party" as a concern. The book found that public colleges, amid declining government support, need to recruit students who can pay higher tuition. The researchers found those who were affluent or paying the higher out-of-state fees were not attending these schools for the academics, but rather for a "party pathway." But it ends up being to the detriment of low-income students who are distracted by the party environment, alienated or feel pushed to keep up. The affluent students go on to do just fine, because of their socio-economic class and connections.

Related: Could free college tuition be coming to California?

While President Obama has a plan to rate colleges so students can better gauge where investing in higher education is worth it, and the government can do the same for federal dollars spent on student loans and grants, the administration is planning to delay the rollout, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Rossi believes Obama's plan has a lot of important and good aspects -- "we need to be thinking about schools in terms of completion rates and average student loan debt burdens versus who has more luxurious dorms or the biggest stadium." He says the problem is that existing rankings in general can create this race to prestige, which are not based on the aformentioned metrics. 

Related: Do parents 'owe' their children a college education?

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