Q&A with Fail State Director, Alex Shebanow

January 17

Alex Shebanow is a political documentary filmmaker who started his career making documentaries on non-profit organizations around the San Francisco Bay Area. From 2010 to 2013, he served as media director at StudentMentor.org, a non-profit that aids students from more than 2,000 colleges nationwide graduate and embark on their careers. His other documentary work includes films on Autism Spectrum Research Alliance, Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program, and A Better Place Foundation. Alex attended Foothill Community College before finishing his studies at the University of Southern California.

Alex and producer, Tyler Comes, were invited to MIT for a screening of their documentary, Fail State, which reveals the dark story behind the rise of predatory for-profit colleges and how a cabal of politicians and unscrupulous business tycoons sold out the dream of American higher education. Fail State is executive produced by former news anchor Dan Rather.

What are for-profit colleges?

For-profit colleges are what their name indicates: They are profit-driven. They are not like traditional public and private non-profit colleges like San Jose State, University of Minnesota, or MIT where their revenue is spent on costs mostly related to enrolling and educating students as well research and administration. For-profits function like traditional businesses and have owners and investors expecting returns. Some of the largest companies in the industry are traded on Wall Street or are backed by major private equity firms. For-profits largely offer programs catering to working adults and non-traditional students looking to improve their skills in fields such as criminal justice, beauty, I.T., and healthcare. In the 1990s, they pioneered online education and exponentially grew their enrollment in the 2000s. They frequently advertise on daytime T.V., radio, subways, bus stops, billboards, and on the internet. You might have seen their names over the years from ITT Tech to DeVry University to the University of Phoenix. For-profit colleges argue they are filling in the vocational training void left by traditional higher education.

But in reality, the vast majority of for-profits are low-quality, high-tuition, often lack proper accreditation, or are so poor in reputation that employers don’t even recognize their credentials. In the past twenty-five years, these schools have collected tens of billions of dollars in federal student financial aid but the outcomes have been disastrous for students. Hundreds of thousands of students in default today attended for-profit colleges.

I spoke with dozens of students who attended for-profit colleges in the course of making this film and found recurring themes and storylines in all of their testimony. Almost all them were low-income, minority, immigrants, single-parents, and/or first-general college students. They all were lured in by promises of a high-paying career that could be attained in as little as 9 months. They were promised the education was affordable and that grants would cover the bulk of the tuition. In actuality, the education was tens of thousands of dollars more than their local community college or state college and student loans would finance their education.

Most of these students did not know what they were getting into when they signed up. These colleges pray on people’s dreams and peddle themselves as institutions of higher learning; yet, they are nothing more than fraudulent schemes out to siphon billions in taxpayer money and leaving the student drowning in debt.

How has your outlook on higher education changed in the making of Fail State?

The students I met in the course of making this film strengthened my belief in the importance of a college education. It also made me realize that picking the right college is just as important as going to college.

All of the students featured in Fail State grew up in low-income households in some of the most disadvantaged areas in the US. Their siblings, parents, and extended family hadn’t gone to college. Their friends and their parents hadn’t gone. There wasn’t an expectation for them to go to college after high school. Yet, when I asked them what college meant to them growing up, they passionately told me that college was a ticket out of poverty and a ticket to a career and a middle class life. They told me not having a college degree would leave them working a low-paying job with an unsteady future. Hearing their stories made me fully grasp just how important college is to those who have the least. It made me realize the full social and economic impact a college education can have on a person.

That’s why what’s happened to these students in Fail State is so tragic and dire. It’s also why not all colleges are “good.” These students fully understood the importance of going to college but predatory for-profits preyed upon their beliefs to make a profit. They viewed these students as nothing more than dollars signs with heartbeats. These students attended their respective for-profits at different times throughout the past twenty years but all of them have still not recovered. They remain drowning in student loan debt and working low-paying jobs or jobs far from their field of study. They have no legal recourse or way out and the majority of them will remain locked in poverty for decades to come. This film has shown me and I hope audiences across the country that not all colleges are well-intentioned or have the interests of their students at their heart. In the case of the students featured in my film, all of them would have been better off had they gone to their local community or state college. My hope is this film will prevent more students from falling victim to these schools.

What impact do you hope your documentary will have on higher education?

My hope is for this documentary to convince the public and our lawmakers that we need stronger policing of our higher education system. Today, the federal government spends over $150 billion a year in student financial aid in the form of student loans, grants, and tax cuts in order to open the door to higher education for all Americans. Although well-intentioned, this taxpayer money largely comes with few strings attached and highly-inadequate oversight. Consequently, as the film shows, this lax oversight and easy money was a huge boon to the for-profit college industry and devastating to students who were lured in by these predatory schools.

What advice would you give to students looking to make a successful transition from community college to a four-year university?

I remember when I transferred from my small local community college to a 20,000+ student university a couple hours away from home, the transition was a bit shocking. The class sizes were huge and campus teamed with students. I remember feeling really small in those first few months. What helped me was I had a circle of advisors and counselors to guide me through the process. Without them, I could have seen myself getting overwhelmed and maybe even transferring or dropping out. My advice would be to find your circle, whether it be your parents if they attended college, your community college counselor, a work colleague, or someone who has graduated from a four-year. Another good source could come a local non-profit that works with community colleges and transfer students. Ask your community college counselor for recommendations.

A small thing that goes a long way before you transfer is really research the institution you are about to transfer to. Ask your counselor for graduation rates among Pell recipients (low-income students) and overall student graduation rates. Ask for student debt loads among the school’s graduates and other success data your counselor might deem relevant to you. Reach out to students who attend the institution through Facebook or other social media channels and ask for their thoughts and tips. It’s almost like buying a car or a cell phone. Do your due diligence. It really goes a long way and gets you prepared before you officially enroll in the school.

There’s been a surge in online education, micro-credentials, MOOCs, and other non-traditional higher education platforms. What do you think will be the next transformational movement in higher education?

I think we are already witnessing the transformational move to free and debt-free college. The conversation surrounding student loan debt in this country has made students and their families price-conscious and price-sensitive to tuition. And rightfully so. Many colleges today are incredibly expensive. When I started this film in 2013, there were only a handful of free college promise programs across the country and most of them were private endowments. Even in 2013, the idea of free public college seemed like a distant dream. Today, there are 200 free college promise programs with the majority of them government-sponsored. Tennessee was the first major player to offer free statewide community college to its high school graduates. New York State is now making 4-year college free for all NY residents from families making under $125,000 a year. I think in the next few years we’re going to see federal legislation proposed making public college debt-free across the country for low-income students.

It’s a remarkable first step and one I fully support. I think the steps after that are figuring out how to make the program sustainable for future generations while also improving quality at the institutions that are educating predominantly low- and middle-income students.

If you could invite one person to a private screening of Fail State, who would it be and why?

I have to cheat and answer with more than one person. I’d like to show the Democrats and Republicans in Congress the film. For-profit colleges are creatures of federal policy and money. Ultimately, the solution to predatory for-profit colleges and the affordability crisis facing higher education at large have to be solved through policymaking. What Fail State shows is these issues are not right or left issues. There are valid liberal and conservative reasons to want to rein in abusive for-profits and provide high-quality and affordable postsecondary education to our citizens. I think this film proves that and makes a strong argument for bipartisan fixes. The next step for my team and I is figuring out how to get the film in front of Congress.