Film Review: Fail State

Fail State’s revealing examination of the broken financial aid system is undercut by a stale and scattered presentation.
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Framed as exposé, the documentary Fail State comes equipped with the right tools for a penetrating takedown of for-profit colleges and universities—sympathetic good guys, ruthless villains, solid reporting and a subject that affects practically everybody. Yet, the film’s disparate elements add up to less than the sum of its parts, and this would-be fiery take on the failures of the American higher-education system never really ignites.

Directed by Alexander Shebanow and executive produced by august newsman Dan Rather, the film darts around its well-researched terrain, digging up sub-topics, rotating interview subjects, and deploying charts and statistics to illustrate the increasing value, and price, of higher education in the United States.

The movie struggles to cram in a couple centuries of pertinent historical and financial detail before even diving into its main story about the predatory practices of for-profit post-secondary schools. It plows through experts explaining how the importance of getting a college education has grown exponentially since the GI Bill helped spur a postwar economic boom. It offers animated graphs to show that, along with that increased importance, the financial cost of a college education has ballooned astronomically, leaving graduates drowning in debt.

Testimonials introduce diverse, average Americans—like Luis in Illinois and Murray of Poughkeepsie—who as adults followed a dream of providing better lives for themselves and their families by earning a college degree. Archival footage and fresh interviews with lawmakers from Congresswoman Maxine Waters to Senator Tom Harkin elaborate the dire tales of how unscrupulous diploma mills have popped up to exploit people like Luis and Murray in the robust market of for-profit education.

The film’s format, taking off from the lively opening credits, lands somewhere between news magazine and public-service announcement, a dry style that’s echoed in the composed visuals, the work of multiple cinematographers and cameramen. But despite the polished look, the storytelling is uneven, as Fail State keeps sprouting tangents of background info rather than maintaining the forward momentum of a compelling through-line. Parsed into discrete episodes, ostensibly as an organizing tactic for the breadth of data on display, the movie feels disorganized and unsure of which aspects of this multi-faceted drama to cover, or how deeply to explore them.

The filmmakers try to build and pay off the mini-dramas of Luis and Murray, and several other subjects who took out enormous, high-risk loans of tens of thousands of dollars to attend for-profit schools that ultimately provided fraudulent or useless degrees. Although the subject matter encompasses a wealth of emotion, touching upon hope and loss, greed and injustice, the underdeveloped segments add seasoning without much punch.

More effective are the film’s explorations of the political and legislative machinations that have allowed and abetted the rise of mercenary institutions like ITT Tech, a “school” that charged students up to $90,000 to learn obsolete coding languages or how to navigate to videos on YouTube. In an interview, Congresswoman Waters discusses a similar case involving fraudulent for-profit vocational schools, and calls out her colleagues on the Hill who protected for-profit schools at the expense of fairness for consumers.

The film itself strikes a fair tone by spreading the blame for the for-profit industrial complex on both major political parties. It hits the Democrats on Capitol Hill for, at first, cozying up to the money men behind these predatory academies under the guise of opening doors to higher education. Republican Senator Sam Nunn is portrayed as a hero for leading an early-’90s crusade against the schools’ exploitative practices, calling a series of hearings that led to legislative changes signed into law by President Bush in 1992.

Alternatively, the film also takes jabs at Republicans, including former House Speaker John Boehner. Records show that Boehner received upwards of six figures in donations from the for-profit education industry. He also happened to co-sponsor legislation that unleashed the for-profits in the digital age, fueling the proliferation of online universities. It’s not a scathing revelation, or even news to anyone paying attention to the issue, but yet another substantive fact in the film’s vast index of flatly narrated reporting about every possible angle of financing a college education. Fail State might better have sacrificed some of its thoroughness for the dimension that comes with sharper focus.