‘Fail State’: Film Review

Dan Rather presents ‘Fail State,’ Alexander Shebanow’s critique of for-profit higher education.

A dispiriting look at the way young Americans have been failed not just by sham schools but by the lawmakers who help those businesses thrive, Alexander Shebanow’s Fail State puts for-profit colleges under the spotlight and finds shameless exploitation. Exec produced by Dan Rather, it gives the feature doc treatment to a topic TV journalists (and news-comedy hero John Oliver) have looked at over the decades — showing the slimy ways that reforms prompted by public outrage have been neutered by politicians on both sides of the aisle.

The film starts off looking like it may intend to argue, as many people have in recent years, that higher education simply isn’t for everyone. It notes how many low-income Americans enroll in college every year and how few of them graduate; it listens to people who’ve been raised to think college is just “what you’re supposed to do.” However, it’s soon digging into the meaning of higher education, showing that many of these dropouts are leaving institutions that have nothing to offer them at all.

The Bottom Line

Think Trump University was a one-off scam? Think again.

Shebanow sets the stage with some bits of history that are well known (say, how the GI Bill sent a huge chunk of America to college, and how an unprecedented economic boom followed) and others that aren’t: As public universities grew in stature, older private schools felt threatened, and got involved in designing the way public funds were directed to higher education. When Pell Grants started giving money directly to students in the 1970s, letting them choose where they’d use it, they encouraged a market-based view of education. Soon, profiteers started opening schools left and right, trying to steal students from both state and private institutions.

Maxine Waters was among the first to see something wrong with this, catching recruiters who hawked sham vocational colleges to residents of low-income housing projects. But others on the left, thinking job-centered education would help the poor, were slow to see the fraud. Ironically (given where Republicans would wind up on this issue), it took criticism from political conservatives such as William Bennett to help move Washington toward regulating for-profit schools.

As Shebanow tracks the political story — seeing how controversy led to rules that were subsequently watered down, which led to another cycle of outrage and stymied reform — he introduces a few men and women who are paying for government inaction. All did what the world said they should do: They tried to better themselves, taking out loans to go to schools so they could get better jobs. But they found themselves attending “schools” that don’t even try to teach.

He also introduces people like former ITT Tech recruiter Laura Brozek, who helps explain the sleazy psychological tactics that for-profits have used to get people to sign up for loans they don’t understand. Recruiters learn to target prospective enrollees’ sense of shame or inadequacy (sometimes having nothing to do with schooling), sending them into a “pain funnel” before offering what they claim is a solution.

The flipside of all this is the legitimate community college, and Shebanow introduces both students and administrators in this humble but astonishingly productive sector of the education ecosystem. LaGuardia Community College president Gail Mellow is a much needed hero for the film, pointing out the role schools like hers play in giving people a second chance and in helping working students learn on their own schedules.

As for the film’s present-tense villains? Shebanow doesn’t beat the point into the ground, but he does observe that stock prices for exploitative for-profit schools surged as soon as America elected the figurehead of Trump University to the White House.

Production company: SDCF
Director: Alexander Shebanow
Screenwriters: Alxander Shebanow, Regina Sobel, Nicholas Adams
Producers: Alexander Shebanow, Julia Glausi, Terrence Crawford, Tyler Comes, Adam Bolt, Alan Oxman
Executive producer: Dan Rather
Editor: Regina Sobel
Composers: Keegan Dewitt, Jeremy Bullock
Venue: Maysles Cinema

93 minutes