Meet MNFF: Alumni Interview with Alex Shebanow

Welcome back to Meet MNFF, a series of biweekly interviews with Festival alumni. Today, we talk to Alex Shebanow, whose film Fail State won the Audience Award – Feature at MNFF4 in 2018. An expansive documentary exposé, the film reveals the dark story behind the rise of predatory for-profit colleges, and how politicians and business tycoons sold out the dream of American higher education.

MNFF’s Sophie Hochman caught up with Shebanow to chat about his experience navigating the higher ed system, changes in the for-profit college landscape amidst COVID, and the unlikely story behind his award win at MNFF. 

I read that the impetus behind making Fail State had to do with your own college experience. Would you mind speaking about the origins of the film?

I went to community college after high school, during the height of the Great Recession. It was nuts. I remember my first ever college class, which was an 8am or 9am Government 101 course. You walk into the class and you have your regular desks, but then, lining the entire room, every wall, there were people standing there. The rule was that if you had a seat at the end of the class, you were enrolled in that class, and if you didn’t have a seat, you were not enrolled. This happened over and over and over again, and it only got worse. During the Great Recession, community college budgets got smashed. So there were fewer classes at a time when people were losing their jobs and going back to college to gain better career prospects. Then, I was very blessed and lucky to get into USC. When I transferred, the difference between the community college and the wealthy school was just staggering. It was a total culture shock to me. I had to take out my own student loans, my parents had to take out student loans, and at a school like USC, they were just racking up. Having to take on student loan debt was really upsetting, and I became really passionate about student loan debt issues. 

I remember the moment when I decided to make the film that ended up becoming Fail State. I was in the graduation line, smiling and happy, and then it just dawned on me. I was like, “There’s never been a student loan debt film. Why has there never been a student loan debt film?” From there, it was a long journey, starting as a student loan debt film, stumbling into this whole dark world of predatory for-profit colleges. It became clear to me that on one level, there was this student loan crisis. But beyond that, there’s the outer decimation of people, low income people and a lot of minority populations, by predatory schools whose only purpose is to churn and burn through students, regardless of the damage that they were doing, to support private equity and Wall Street. As a guy in his mid-20s, taking on an industry like for-profit education was scary. Over time I just became an expert at higher ed policy issues. I could talk with anyone. I’m not as sharp as I used to be, but the only thing I haven’t lost at all is that any time I talk with a victim of the for-profit college crisis, I’m just as mad as I was on day one. There are so many people whose stories aren’t heard. We’re talking about millions of victims here. That’s the thing I still just as passionate about today.

What have you been up to since the film festival, in terms of for-profit college activism, or other projects?

For a few years after MNFF, I was doing a lot of impact screenings at law schools and other places who would invite me to screen the film. I was given a legal fellowship at a legal nonprofit for a year based in DC so I did a lot of advocacy with congressional people and other government officials to essentially implement protections for students with student loan debt. So I spent a year doing that, still doing the impact screenings meanwhile. Once that fellowship wrapped up it became time to start figuring out what comes next. I can’t really share what I’m looking at right now, but I started looking at a lot of different topics for my next documentary. It’s still really early, so I don’t know exactly what I want to do yet. I still have that desire to tell stories that don’t get told. So I’ve been laying the groundwork for different projects and hoping one sticks, and I’m still getting calls all the time to work on for-profit college related stuff. I’m currently working with a law school right now on a big project that is interviewing a lot of victims of the for-profit college crisis. The for-profit stuff has really not ended. The Biden administration is doing work, but I wish it was a lot faster. Because as we’re talking right now, there are students being recruited by for-profit colleges. Literally right now. It’s just ridiculous that this stuff is still allowed today.

With COVID, we’ve seen some massive changes to higher education. Do you have any thoughts on how these changes, especially the normalization of online education, relate to for-profit education? 

I’m gonna say something surprising. It’s actually been very positive. I know that many students think that it is stupid to pay so much money for online education. Yes, for higher end schools, the dollar value of that online education is definitely not equal to what you’re getting in person. But the reason why for-profit colleges were so successful, to give them credit where credit’s due, is because they pioneered online education. Traditional colleges just didn’t do it. They just looked it as stupid, but for-profit colleges saw that traditional colleges were only catering themselves to 18 to 22 year old students. Meanwhile, there was this whole market of people who were older: they were parents, they had full time jobs, but they still wanted to get a college education. So these for-profit colleges pioneered online education, and they marketed the living bejesus out of their schools. The big tragedy of this is that if they had done what they promised they would do in their ads and recruitment practices, they would have had an actual spot in the ecosystem of higher education: they were filling a real void that needed to be filled. But as we saw, they just ruin people’s lives. Their students saddle this debt that they have no utter possibility of repaying, and they end up with a degree that isn’t worth anything. So going back to today with COVID: because many other types of schools, like community colleges, have resorted to online education, it has actually taken a huge dent in the popularity of for-profit colleges, since people have real online alternatives. So that’s the positive thing. 

What was your experience like screening Fail State at MNFF? 

Fail State is a big exposé on the predatory for-profit college industry, and the whole political engine behind their rise. The doc was just straight-out investigative journalism, and so it took many years to do. I started that film shortly after college in 2013, and it didn’t hit the festival circuit until the very end of 2017, and it still wasn’t really done. It was nerve wracking initially, because with the film in that state, we didn’t get it into a festival for eight or nine months after we finished the final cut edit. For many months I was like, “Did I do something wrong? Did I just make a huge mistake in undertaking this project? Is it ever going to be seen?” It took a while. And then in the fall of 2017, we got our first festival acceptances. From there it just became a big tour around the country. I think we did 17 or 18 film festivals, and MNFF was actually one of the last ones. That festival, hands down, is one of the best ones we have ever been in. I attended a lot of film festivals, and I would say that the way MNFF treats filmmakers was just unbelievable. At some festivals it was kind of like, you show up, you do the screening, and you walk out, but with MNFF it was just like, boom, it was such a different dynamic. 

Do you have a favorite story from the Festival? 

Before MNFF, we’d only won one award. Investigative documentaries are not fun to watch. People leave very upset, with their fur rubbed the wrong way, and they just want to rip down the system. We’d had a few sold out screens, but there were many that weren’t. To win a film festival award was generally pretty hard. And so one of my fondest memories of MNFF was, first of all, just going to the screening itself, which was brilliant. It was in a smaller theater so it was sold out. My co-producer and I did a panel together and the audience was so receptive to the film, and they were asking so many questions. I think the panel itself lasted over an hour. Even just after the screening, I was like, this has been one of my favorite film festivals of all time. After the screening, I was like “Well, it’s time to go home, I’m so broke, I can’t afford to stay another day. Time to go back to New York.” So then I’m driving back, like an hour away from Middlebury, and I get a text from Lloyd, saying “Alex, are you still here?” and I’m like, “No, I already left!” and he’s like, “can you come back?” So I turned around and found out that we’d won the Audience Award. It was so shocking to the system, because it just never happened. The fact that the town of Middlebury supported this investigative doc, a doc that is upsetting and not very feel-good, because of the importance of the story, validated the feelings I had about the story. I spent so many years knee =-deep in making the film, and to have that reward just blew me away. Now I’m sitting right next to my VTeddy Award. It’s my favorite trophy