Fail State


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Fail State
"Where the film is strong is in its exploration of the relationships between politicians (from both major parties), regulators and college owners."

Got no money? Struggling to make a living with what you can scrape together from minimum wage jobs? Want a better future for yourself or the chance to create more opportunities for your kids? Then the obvious answer seems to be to go to college. Once you have a qualification it'll be easy to get a good job, right?

Well, maybe...

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In the US, it's surprisingly easy to register a company as a provider of education. There's little oversight to check that for-profit colleges are properly staffed or even properly equipped. As for the value of the certificates they issue, there things get a little more complicated. Hiring organisations are naturally cautious about which institutions they consider up to scratch. So graduates can find, after studying hard for years and racking up considerable debts to pay the fees, that the qualifications they've obtained aren't worth the paper they're written on.

Alexander Shebanow's documentary, executive produced by Dan Rather, explores the for-profit college phenomenon by examining the business model, the political decisions that have made it possible (with strong implications of corruption) and the consequences for some of those who studied there. It achieves a good balance of historical information and human interest but such is the scale of the subject that it is perhaps inevitable that it struggles to explore every angle in depth.

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the situation is that the same students who are left $50,000 or more in debt - with no qualifications adequate to enable them to pay it off - could have taken legitimate courses in the same subjects for a fraction of the cost within the public education system. The reasons why they didn't are complex; the film looks at the lack of funding coming from the government and at the way many for-profits focus on online earning (the only option for many people with disabilities or care responsibilities) but doesn't really touch on the way this distorted marketing, with public institutions having a very limited visible presence even on the internet whilst private ones run targeted social media campaigns and television ads. There's a risk of this making those who were exploited look as if they made a stupid choice when, for the most part, they didn't know that there was a choice.

Where the film is strong is in its exploration of the relationships between politicians (from both major parties), regulators and college owners, which serves as a reminder of the difficulty involved in effectively bringing about change as a voter living under a duopoly of power. Shebanow has secured extensive access to education professionals who discuss the issues involved in an informative yet accessible way. Accessibility is important because the film is an educational tool itself and is aimed, at least in part, at reaching future potential victims.

Also present here is an acknowledgement of the good intentions of many who initially supported making it easier for private companies to enter the field of education, hoping that it could really provide a step up for people who were willing to work hard and invest in their own futures. The presence of people at the sharp end provides the film's emotional core and means viewers can't easily write them off as stupid or as unfortunate statistics.

At a time when the US is beginning to reckon with the economic and social costs of having an undereducated population, Fail State is a useful contribution to ongoing debates.

Reviewed on: 14 Oct 2018
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The rise of for-profit colleges in the US.

Director: Alex Shebanow

Writer: Nicholas Adams

Year: 2017

Runtime: 88 minutes

Country: US


DOC NYC 2017

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