On Wednesday, The Wife and I trekked to LaGuardia Community College to catch the premiere screening of the documentary Fail State, by Alex Shebanow. It’s about for-profit higher education and its human cost.
Alex interviewed me for it shortly before I left Holyoke, and mentioned that my interview made the final cut, so I had to go. I met his editor shortly before the screening, who mentioned that it was weird seeing me live; she had spent so much time on footage of me that it was a little disorienting. I think her first words to me were “you grew a beard!” That’s not usually a stranger’s first line. I also got to meet Robert Shireman in person, which was fun; I’ve read his stuff for years, but we had never met.
On to the movie.
The title is a play on typical university names, but also a sideways reference to Max Weber’s definition of the state as the agency in society with a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Fail State is a story of governments abandoning public higher education, and thereby creating a vacuum that allowed for-profits to grow and thrive. One walks away with the impression that higher education lacks a central authority for anything, and is therefore a sort of wild west. In the absence of a clear source of legitimacy, scam artists can proliferate.
To its considerable credit, the film spends time on policy history. That can be a harder sell to an audience than, say, teenage werewolves in love, but it’s worth covering. For example, it traces the shift in funding away from direct aid to institutions and towards a voucher model in which money goes to students. That created the possibility for for-profit providers to capture that money. I was particularly struck by the quote attributed to an unnamed state politician who told a college president that he can’t raise taxes and get re-elected, so he won’t; instead, he told the college president to raise tuition and get his money from the Feds, via financial aid. Spin that story out a few decades, and you have a pretty good approximation of where we are now.
The student stories, though, really made the film work. It follows the stories of several students who attended for-profit colleges in order to get better jobs and improve their lives, only to wind up walking away with unemployable credentials and tens of thousands of dollars of debt. One particularly heartbreaking case was a military veteran who used up his GI Bill benefits at a for-profit that didn’t help him; when he wised up and tried to transfer to a community college, he didn’t have any aid left.
Alex somehow got some former for-profit recruiters to talk to him about the “pain funnel” method of recruitment, in which they were specifically trained in ways to exploit people’s personal pain and disappointment in order to prepare them to convert to what Tressie McMillan Cottom calls “the education gospel” and enroll at a for-profit. And these students had real pain. He interviewed a woman whose daughter had been killed at age 20 and who was desperate to turn her own life around. She enrolled in, and eventually graduated from, a for-profit, largely on the basis of rapport with a recruiter who acted like something between a therapist and a friend. She showed her graduation photo, and identified it as the last time in her life that she was happy. She discovered that her degree was worthless in her field only after she finished it. She’s still at the same job as when she started, only now with $50,000 in debt, and blaming herself.
The entire system works on self-blame. That’s part of the power of the education gospel. Students who drop out blame themselves for not finishing; students who finish blame themselves for not spotting the scam sooner. That self-blame makes political mobilization incredibly difficult. Meanwhile, the ample profits the for-profits made allowed them to wield substantial political influence for a long time. It waned a bit, but with the former owner of Trump University as President of the United States, the sector once again has political wind at its back.
Community colleges show up in the movie as the good guys. Gail Mellow, the president of LaGuardia, is the voice of reason throughout, and I make a couple of appearances to talk about some of the realities facing community colleges and their students. The movie follows a LaGuardia student through her difficult path to graduation, only her story winds up being happy. She was present at the panel discussion afterward, where she mentioned that part of what helped her succeed was getting a work-study job on campus, where she could pick up some of the inside info that many students never do.
The movie concluded by drawing parallels between the financialized for-profit boom of the 90’s and 00’s and the emergence of “coding bootcamps” now. Each cycle brings a new variation, but the underlying dynamics are largely the same.
Thanks to Alex for letting me participate, both in the movie itself and in the premiere. It’s a story well told, on an important subject. Here’s hoping it finds its way to Netflix or something similar in the near future.