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Fail State

(2018) *** 1/2 Unrated
94 min. N/A. Director: Alexander Shebanow.

/content/films/5092/1.jpgFor some time now, pundits, parents, and young people have had to ask themselves if colleges and universities are worth their ballooning cost and promise of debt, if higher education can deliver on its promises of enlightenment and a step up in the job market. The answers are, of course, knotty and variable, but the new documentary Fail State takes a cogent look at the issues, making comprehensible the complex history of American higher education, the government's shifting role in supporting it, and the increasingly corporate exploitation of the American-dreaming underclass.

Executive produced by Dan Rather and directed by Alexander Shebanow, Fail State kicks off with one of many devastating indictments: "This year, over 7 million low-income Americans will attend college. Most of them won't graduate." Over the densely packed 94 minutes that follow, Shebanow employs archival footage (including advertisements, news reports, and C-SPAN clips), expert talking heads (including lawmakers Maxine Waters, Tom Harkin, Dick Durbin, and Bill Haslam), and student case studies to elucidate the dire crisis in higher education. The crunch is on: with rare exceptions, college lays the path to earning, but its high price and high dropout rate for the poorest students are only part of the story. Government commitments like the G.I. Bill and the Higher Education Act of 1965 and the success of public education (like the U.C. system) posed a threat to private and for-profit colleges. As government aid and regulations diminished over the years, subpar education flourished, in the form of oft-predatory and sometimes fraudulent vocational schools, correspondence schools, and online-only schools.

Fail State proves most gripping when it serves up the predatory recruitment tactics of such schools and the human toll they take (a comparison to used-car salesmen is too kind). Student victims cannot help but stoke anger in the viewer, and following the money fans the flames. As one expert observes, "The whiter the institution, the more money it gets. And the more affluent the students at the institution, the more money it gets." For-profit schools benefit from incestuous accreditation as they pursue aggressive and sleazy recruitment tactics reminiscent of the subprime mortgage crisis, all abetted by a powerful lobby that has wisely protected its interests by cozying up to powerful Democrats and Republicans alike. Meanwhile, overburdened community colleges struggle to pick up the slack and serve the neediest of students.

Shebanow employs sharp cinematography and appealing graphics in making his case, the kind of Frontline-style documentary ruthlessly mined by John Oliver's Last Week Tonight for its humorous but outraged summations of urgent social issues. Of course, there's nothing funny about Fail State, which happily eschews an on-camera host, but its incisive take is never less than clear-eyed and clear. If the only letdown is Shebanow's inability to get any of the perps on record, it's not hard to understand why: they've flourished so well in the back rooms where it happens.

[Fail State is currently on the film-festival circuit.]

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