How A Filmmaker Found His Voice in Community College
By Alexander Shebanow, a documentary filmmaker and director of Fail State, an expansive documentary exposé on predatory for-profit colleges and worsening inequality in American higher education
In 2009, I graduated high school with mediocre grades, mediocre SAT scores, a too-good-for-college-stubbornness, and a half-hatched plan to move to Los Angeles and become the next Paul Thomas Anderson or the next Steven Spielberg—both had dropped out of college.
Fortunately, I chose to enroll at my local community college, Foothill College, nestled in the San Francisco Bay Area. Some of my high school friends had enrolled there and I thought I’d take a few classes for a quarter or two to prolong high school fun before loading my car and heading to Southern California for the lights and action. Looking back now, I’m glad I didn’t listen to that know-it-all kid. It was at Foothill where two professors would have a profound impact on me as a filmmaker and journalist. They would help me find my voice.
Dr. Konnilyn Feig, a history professor, and Dr. Scott Lankford, an English professor, were my most influential instructors at Foothill. Dr. Feig taught me how to investigate the world’s problems through an historical lens and prompted me to find real-world solutions to those problems. Dr. Lankford, or “Scott” as my classmates and I lovingly addressed him, taught me how to write thesis-driven essays that featured my voice and opinion. I began to write with a newfound confidence, clearly presenting my arguments on issues big and small. I found my voice in both of their classes and they instilled in me a resolve to document and find solutions to the social and economic problems in the world around me—and there were many.
I attended Foothill College during the height of the Great Recession at a time when community colleges were going through dramatic state budget cuts. At Foothill, the consequences were immediate: waiting lists four times as long as the number of seats in the class; ever-rising college costs; and a student frenzy on registration day that crashed the already-overloaded school computer system.
I saw firsthand the injustice of these cuts and the impact rising educational costs would have on my classmates. My fellow students came from all walks of life—some were just out of high school; some were Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans; and some had returned to college in their later years, having lost their jobs and hoping to gain skills to make themselves more marketable in the depressed economy.
Yet, the ballooning costs of college meant many were unable to afford their education. Multiple times I’d befriend classmates early in the quarter who wouldn’t be there by the end. I’d find out later that they had dropped out halfway through because they could no longer afford to be in school. I came to understand that worsening college affordability was pricing out the people who needed college the most. And worse, it was keeping them from finding their own voices.
I began writing on student loan debt and the economy in Scott’s writing class. I grew deeply passionate about the topic and continued writing about it well after I had transferred from Foothill College to the University of Southern California to pursue my Bachelor’s degree. By the end of my college career, I decided to make a film on American higher education and answer why it had become so unaffordable. And thus, my film was born.
For the past five years, I’ve been writing, producing, and directing Fail State. It’s a documentary exposé on the predatory for-profit college industry and an investigation into the state and federal disinvestment in our public college system. My idol, news legend Dan Rather, is the film’s executive producer. The film recently premiered at the Austin Film Festival, DOC NYC, and Big Sky, and will be screened in front of a large education audience at SXSW EDU tonight.
I can trace back much of the documentary’s development to my days at Foothill and the voice I found there, especially to the experiences of my classmates who were unable to finish their college journey. I was fortunate that I came from a family that could afford my tuition and could give me an opportunity to go to school and find my voice. Unfortunately, many others are not as lucky.
No one should be denied an education because he or she can’t afford it. That’s why I support the College Promise Campaign, a national nonpartisan effort encouraging states and localities to make the first two years of community college free. College Promise programs are proliferating across the country and their growth in recent years has been extraordinary. When I started this film in 2013, there were only a handful of Promise programs in the country. Now, there are more than 200 programs in 43 states, stretching from Hawaii to Rhode Island, from West Sacramento to Jacksonville to Dallas to Los Angeles.
I encourage all lawmakers to make this promise so that a high-quality higher education is accessible and affordable for everyone. I know firsthand that community colleges are the best-kept secret American higher education has to offer. It’s why I like to tell people that my film is a big love letter to our community colleges. My remarkable professors at Foothill College helped me find my voice and gave me the foundation to build my future. Our country needs more people to find their voice and more people to finish college so they can have a fair shot at the American Dream.
Fail State is dedicated to Dr. Konnilyn Feig. www.failstatemovie.com
Find out more about the College Promise movement and how to start a program in your community at collegepromise.org/start.