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Review: Documentary 'Fail State' takes on predatory for-profit universities

Review: Documentary 'Fail State' takes on predatory for-profit universities
U.S. Representative Maxine Waters in the documentary "Fail State." (Fail State)

The documentary “Fail State,” executive produced by Dan Rather, is a clear-eyed, easily digestible account of how the vastly changing economics of public and private colleges led to a proliferation of for-profit universities, a system whose predatory financial practices have devastated countless low-income and minority students. It’s an appalling, infuriating story.

Director Alexander Shebanow, who co-wrote with Nicholas Adams and the film’s editor, Regina Sobel, tracks — via efficient visuals and narration plus input from lawmakers, reporters, academics and policy analysts — America’s complex history of higher education, once considered the singular path to professional success. That is, until useful federal aid and protections (starting with the post-war G.I. Bill) became corrupted by political influence and corporate greed, which paved the way for often fraudulent, worthless colleges: vocational, correspondence-type, online-only and more. The rich (executives, shareholders) got richer and the poor (the students) got poorer.

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Shebanow weaves in stirring profiles of former for-profit college students who share painful stories of the emotional and financial toll caused by submitting to scam recruiters and enrolling in these sham institutions.

Although the material presented here may not be that sexy and the film can get a bit dry at times, it remains a truly eye-opening and crucial exposé of yet another way, not unlike during last decade’s subprime mortgage crisis, that vulnerable Americans get hurt just by trying to better their lives.

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‘Fail State’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills; on VOD in November; on Starz in December.

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