Let’s say you’re walking in a yellow wood, probably in Ripton, and you hit two divergent trails. If you continue down the trail on the left, you will find a treasure with the same dollar value as the GDP of Spain. If you select the trail on the right, you will find another equal to the total federal student loan debt in the United States. Which do you choose?
You probably chose the one on the right, realizing my riddle serves to show that the $1.5 trillion dollars in U.S. student loan debt is, in fact, larger than the GDP of Spain. Or, perhaps you already knew this because you watched Fail State (2017), the winner of the Audience Award for Best Feature Film at last year’s Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival.
Fail State is a feature-length documentary chronicling the rise of the for-profit college industry in the United States. The film serves as an expose, detailing the predatory practices of such institutions. MNFF’s Will DiGravio caught up with Alexander Shebanow, the film’s director, writer, and producer, to see what he and the film have been up to since MNFF4.
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WD: A moment that stuck with me was one with Murray Hastie, an Iraq veteran who wasted his G.I. Bill money at a for-profit school, left with nothing to show but debt. Is there a moment in the film that particularly resonates with you, one that you think about often?
AS: We show a student named Jen, who enrolled at a for-profit college after her daughter was murdered. We worked with her to get her loans forgiven, and what appears on screen is her reading the letter saying her $50,000 in loans had been reduced to $0. Helping her in our little way to get fraudulent student loans off her shoulders was special. She is one of only a few students who has actually received that relief.
I want to take a step back and ask how you first became interested in the topic of student loan debt. What prompted this film’s creation?
The film started in 2013 as a general student loan debt documentary. My co-producer Julia Glausi and I were recent college graduates and I was thinking a lot about student loan debt as it became a major news element. Fast forward to 2014, Corinthian Colleges, Inc., a major for-profit college company with $4.5 billion in revenue, effectively collapsed. It imploded. Reminiscent of when Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008. Corinthian was the equivalent moment in higher education. When that happened, I began to wonder, what’s going on here? From that point forward our production shifted gears and became an expose on the for-profit college industry. A story of corruption and unscrupulous business practices, all too typical for America.
The film obviously resonated with our audience here in Middlebury. Have others responded similarly? Any push back, threats or late-night phone calls?
I have screened the film for policymakers and staffers. We held an event last year with Congresswoman Maxine Waters, former U.S. Secretary of Education John King, and civil rights leader Wade Henderson. The response in Washington D.C. has been stellar. We used the film as a tool to help pass the Forever G.I. Bill in 2017. Now, we’re working with other U.S. Senate staff members who are trying to pass legislation to regulate for-profit colleges. The film also debuted to a large audience on STARZ last December.
I don’t want to mention names, but a bunch of for-profit college owners confronted us on the panel. It was awesome. I loved it. I was waiting for that moment. I heard unconfirmed stories from people who were at a conference where a lobbyist for the for-profit college industry had a slide devoted to Fail State. I know there was a Christmas party at the Department of Education where we were the talk of the party. There was also a newsletter that went out to all for-profit colleges disparaging us for not requesting comment for the film. Spoiler alert: we did, but they blew us off.
In addition to film screenings and live events, what have you been up to?
In March, the National Student Legal Defense Network awarded me a one-year policy fellowship. It is a full-time job that allows me to use Fail State as a tool to make lawmakers aware of this issue, to get states to pass laws, and to coordinate screenings around the country. We will be in six or seven different states over the next couple of months introducing legislation to strengthen regulations and student protection. I am also working on an online platform for for-profit college victims to share their stories, where people can read, watch and listen to students.
The relentless trauma and darkness of this story keeps me passionate. These students are low-income, single parents, veterans recently out of the military, first generation college students from low-income areas, trying to better their lives. They do what everyone has been told you have to do: go to college and get a degree. Many students will never get justice, they’re never going to be heard, and if no one tells their stories they will continue to be in the shadows.
What are three films that influenced the creation of Fail State?
“Inside Job” (2010) directed by Charles Ferguson, “The Invisible War” (2012) directed by Kirby Dick, and “Frontline” on PBS.
For folks who enjoyed Fail State and want to watch something similar, what would you recommend?
“Unlikely” (2018) directed by Jaye and Adam Fenderson, and “Personal Statement” (2018) by Juliane Dressner and Edwin Martinez (the 2018 MNFF opening night film!),