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College, Inc. (Frontline) (DVD Review)

26 Jul, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$24.99 DVD.
Not rated.

Though there’s definitely nothing funny about the financial catastrophes that have befallen some of the interviewees in this typically somber “Frontline” presentation, you can almost imagine a first-rate movie satirist dealing with the subjects here: colleges for stockholders’ profit, bankrupt colleges and individuals buying bankrupt colleges and turning them profitable. If not the Marx Brothers in the’30s, the material might have at least served a Connie Francis in the early ’60s.

But dashed dreams and mounting student loan debt leaves a taste of ashes, even though colleges like the University of Phoenix — whose ads and buildings aren’t just ubiquitous in Phoenix — serve a definite need where aren’t any alternatives. President Obama has made advanced education a priority of his administration, but who’s going to provide it? Not regular colleges and not community colleges, given the prodigious number of work-by-day, school-by-night participants in the pool, many taking their courses online.

The Phoenix model, which has sprung many imitators, began in 1976 and was brainstormed by John Sperling, an American with a Cambridge Ph.D. in economics. It was immediately successful, but not all such colleges are without intensive behind-the-scenes labors. And the tuition dragon (which ingests a lot of taxpayer dollars has well) has to be fed. “Money, Management and Marketing” are the “3-M’s” it takes to turn a failing college around says Michael Clifford — a non-college graduate who left the music business (and the drugs that went with it) to begin getting bankrupt colleges back on their feet and attracting investors. Clifford may or may not be a charlatan, but the documentary doesn’t kneejerk treat him as one. He comes off as soft-spoken and not unreasonable, though is something pretty icky about what he does.

Like most muckraking documentaries, this one deals with “excesses” — which means the volume of them is either several instances of simple bad apple-dom or the kind of numbers you get when an entire system whose potential for abuse is endemic.  Frequent “Frontline” correspondent Martin Smith does, however, show us a former Phoenix exec (the oiliest of all who are interviewed) who all but bites his tongue from divulging how much money he made in the job; an unearthed page of instructions from the recruiting department of one college that instructs its telemarketing recruiters how to play hardball with potential enrollees; nursing hopefuls who got their degrees from a college that turned out to be non-accredited; and a single mother in her mid-30s facing pernicious debt from student loans. And, as someone points out, student loan debt is, more than any other, the kind from which one can least find a hiding place. The government will not let go. Ever.

Early on here, one senses that perhaps some of these students aren’t necessarily college material in the first place, and that their aggressive recruitment has echoes of the sub-prime mortgage trap that led to the current meltdown of the economy. Later, this very point is specifically made — and when, near the end, we hear mention of short-sellers sniffing around stocks of these for-profit entities, one flashes to Michael Lewis’s current bestseller The Big Short.

When Obama Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is asked about regulation, he sports a kind of blindsided look, almost as if he has never previously been asked the question. It will be interesting to track this story as years go on, and the students who owe so much loan money are some of the same ones trying to find jobs in a tough economy. Meanwhile, “Frontline” continues to do what it does so well: Telling a story that other documentaries are not inclined to cover, even though the subject is one that effects huge numbers and probably someone on your block.

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