Documentary Review: “Fail State” digs into for profit colleges

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The problems started pretty much the moment the Pell Grant, named for a U.S. Senator who wanted to move college aid from colleges which dispensed it to students, to the students themselves, was invented.

The idea, as recounted in the documentary “Fail State,” was to give students “choice,” to spend aid money at state schools and community colleges, or private — typically non-profit ones.

But that act opened the Pandora’s box of “for profit” education, “schools” built on “the market model,” which found they made more money by not actually providing an education, by spending their Federal student loan guarantees obtained from students on obtaining more students — advertising, recruiting and rounding up warm bodies that qualified for loans — and paying for lobbyists and making campaign donations to ensure Congress would never ever derail their fraudulent gravy train.

Jennifer Wilson, an alumnus of Everest University pictured above, holds up her degree, which no prospective employer would recognize, and states a cold, hard personal truth — “This $50,000 piece of paper is completely worthless.”

The film’s title — a play on college names like “Boise State/Albany State/Ohio State” — isn’t the cleverest. And the film is something of an overreach, offloading far too much information to easily process. That’s because the movie has a lot of ground to cover, with a lot of policy turning points, too many villains to track and too much money spread around to trace.

Still, Alexander Shebanow’s film shines a damning spotlight on these “degree mills,” which many represent as simple “frauds.”

We see how The University of Phoenix sponsors concerts at military bases because they need veterans to sign up for their courses. Not shown, Full Sail University buys billboards all around their city block-sized Orlando, Florida campus (re-purposed shopping malls along with a few purpose built structures) touting how many “Oscar nominated films” or “Grammy winning albums” their alumni worked on. What they did on those projects, or even if the figures themselves are accurate, isn’t disclosed.

And your TV is filled with ads for schools that sound prestigious, but are often just money-transfer operations making their investors and founders rich.

“Fail State” focuses on academics, journalists and legislators fighting to expose, regulate or close such schools. And it zeroes in on their victims — low income people of every race, recruited, pressured, hustled and conned into signing up for “educations” that are in most cases, lacking, and for loans that millions of such students will never be able to repay.

Shebanow sums up decades of reporting on this, another solvable problem made unsolvable by politics. The first story we see identifying this then-new ripoff was introduced by Walter Cronkite on “The CBS Evening News” back when he anchored it. The latest, by John Oliver on “Last Week Tonight.”

Members (Maxine Waters) and former members of Congress (Senator Tom Harkin) detail how attempts made, over the decades, to regulate, police and if necessary close such businesses, which are responsible for billions in un-repaid student loans every year.

Former President Bill Clinton is given millions to sit on the board for Walden University. Former Speaker of the House John Boehner rode to the speakership on the millions donated by parent companies of such schools, the sainted John McCain defended them and George W. Bush started the gutting of rules his father’s administration pushed through years earlier.

And Trump University? Never let it be said that a grifter doesn’t know a good grift when he sees one.

Schools such as Kaplan’s ICM School of Business,  Westwood College, Rasmussen, Columbia School of Broadcasting, DeVry, Everest, ITT Tech, Strayer, University of Phoenix and hundreds of others focus their pitch on the disadvantaged, offering a fast-track (months instead of years) program that won’t cost you anything up front.

But even as a narrator notes the shifting nature of work in America, where “college is the only route to the middle class,” “it’s increasingly out of reach.”

The many academics interviewed point out how “poor students have just a one in ten chance of graduating,” how “higher education is functioning as a caste system.”

F. King Alexander, president of LSU, details the history of collapsing state support for colleges that began under Reagan and continues today

One film chapter explains “The Pain Funnel” approach to recruiting — a step-by-step plan recruiters use to break down recruits, embarrass, frighten and goad them into signing up.One Miami “campus” even hired strippers as on-street recruiters.

With $100 billion in student loans going out today, there’s a lot of incentive to get that money, moving it from taxpayers to corporate chiefs, sticking the poor and when they default, the government with the debt.’

It’s no wonder one congressperson calls two of the instigators of this mid-2000s deregulation looting spree, Congressmen John Boehner and Howard McKeon, “bag men for the mob.”

The warnings about “creating a permanent underclass” are underscored with who is losing out on the money the for profit operators are grabbing — America’s community colleges, “the Dark Matter” holding the country together, providing cheap, practical and legitimately accredited educational training for millions hoping to better their financial situation.

We meet Marquette Bascom as she struggles to raise two sons and attend LaGuardia Community College. Her student loans are sizable, but not onerous.

And unlike the other students hoping for the same results she does, she will have a legitimate degree and a loan she will be able to pay off.

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It’s a lot to take in, and “Fail State” doesn’t leave the viewer with a lot of hope. When the Obama Administration figured out how to grade such operations and shut down the ones plainly set up to fail their students, Corinthian, Everest, ITT Tech and DeVry went away.

And then Donald Trump got elected.

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MPAA Rating: unrated

Credits:Directed by  Alexander Shebanow, script by Alexander Shebanow, Regina Sobel, Nicolas Adams, narrated by Gibson Frazier. A Gravitas/Starz release.

Running time: 1:33

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