Saturday, May 5, 2018

Fail State, Alexander Shebanow's Documentary about For-Profit Colleges, is an excellent movie. Go see it.

A few nights ago, I watched Fail State, Alexander Shebanow's documentary movie about the seedy for-profit college industry.  Director Shebanow did a masterful job of explaining how for-profit colleges have used deceptive recruiting techniques, strategic campaign contributions, and congressional lobbyists to rip off vulnerable Americans: minorities, the poor, and first generation college students. Over the years, the for-profits have sucked up billions of dollars in federal student-aid money while offering shoddy education programs that left their students with enormous student-loan debt and no work skills.

Shebanow's movie has two broad themes. First, the director shows the for-profit college industry for what it is: a quasi-criminal enterprise that undermines the integrity of higher education. Second, Shebanow's story showcases community colleges as the proper institutions for offering inexpensive but useful postsecondary training.

The student-loan crisis is a long, sad saga of corruption and deceit, and no 90-minute movie can cover the whole story. Nevertheless, I wish Fail State had touched on some of the reforms that could offer student-loan victims relief from crushing debt.

About 20 million people are burdened by student loans they can't pay back. This number includes students who attended for-profit colleges, private nonprofit schools, and state universities.  The Federal Reserve Bank of New York has documented that this huge level of indebtedness is undermining the national economy. In my view, the only sensible thing to do is open up the bankruptcy courts to theses sufferers and give them an opportunity for a fresh start, freed from debs they cannot pay.

Moreover, although Shebanow's indictment of the for-profit colleges is damning and irrefutable, I wish the movie had more clearly stated that this industry needs to be completely shut down. Trying to clean up this gangster industry by enacting tougher regulations will be about as effective as trying evangelize a crocodile.

In a sense, Fail State is much like The Big Short, the star-studded movie about the subprime mortgage meltdown. Both stories are sagas about greed, corruption, and governmental indifference. Shebanow directed a fine movie, and everyone thinking about enrolling at a for-profit college should be required to see it before signing on the dotted line.


References

Zachary Bleemer, et al. Echoes of Rising Tuition in Students' Borrowing, Educational Attainment, and Homeownership in Post-Recession America. Federal Reserve Bank of New York Staff Report No. 820, July 2017.

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