'Unlikely': Film Review

Three Frame Media, Inc.
Optimistic doc focuses more on solutions than complaints about America's higher-ed landscape.

LeBron James and Howard Schultz join more expected champions of higher-ed reform in Jaye and Adam Fenderson's documentary.

Though hardly the first documentary to look at America's higher-education system and find cause for alarm, Unlikely takes panic and indignation as a given — from One Percenters' schemes to get their kids into the Ivy League to the exploitive business of for-profit trade schools — and moves on quickly from there. Devoting most of their attention to those who aren't waiting on Washington to fix America's colleges, Adam and Jaye Fenderson deliver a film whose optimism hardly reflects its title. Its stories of individual students and public/private partnerships may inspire viewers, assuming it can cut through a crowded doc marketplace to reach them.

Setting the stage in an unpolished voiceover, co-director Jaye Fenderson says she wasn't surprised at this year's much-publicized admission scandal: She had worked in Columbia University's admission office herself, and knew how unfair the process could be. Still, her film argues that this episode pales in comparison to "the real scandal" — a "dropout crisis" that leaves millions of adults worse off than they'd be if they hadn't even tried to go to school.

Introducing several students from minority populations who entered college, some with very impressive academic backgrounds, only to leave saddled with debts and no degree, the film plays for some time like other recent docs that examine how government policies thwart the ideals college should embody. A useful sequence looks at the tyranny of college ranking systems, in which institutions are rewarded with prestige for avoiding the risks that would help those who need college the most.

The Fendersons find one hero in Nancy Cantor, the former Syracuse University chancellor whose work to make the school more inclusive and community-involved led, paradoxically, to a falling ranking and her eventual departure. But it praises several others who come from outside the system — a corporate leader who set up a program allowing his workers to get degrees; a basketball star who funded scholarships in his hometown.

Several of the students who've shared their stories of frustration find second chances here, in programs like YearUp or College for America — hybrid efforts aimed at getting disadvantaged kids moving upward on the economic ladder. The doc doesn't dig into any one program enough to give us a strong sense of it, but does convey the seeming opinion that partnerships with corporate interests are, if not the only way forward, the most likely to work in the near term.

Some viewers will lament the film's dollars-and-cents focus on higher learning, in which education's value is tied, seemingly exclusively, to its effect on one's lifetime earnings. Interviewees here talk a lot about how America's competitiveness in business depends on an educated workforce, but nobody speaks up for the kinds of education that make democracy work, or that create a culture worth making a living in.

Viewers from other spots on the political spectrum may, listening to some of these personal stories, think the doc wants colleges to hold students' hands as they move into the big, bad world. We hear about one program in which a school tracked student behavior, reaching out to kids if they were skipping classes and trying to get them back on track. Let the sneering nanny-state talk commence. But clearly, the sink-or-swim model is not working for many students, and over time, those failures drag a whole country down. Whether you want America's corporations to benefit from an endless supply of crackerjack new employees or just wish people could expand their minds without incurring financial ruin, the woes of our higher-ed ecosystem affect us all.

Distributor: Three Frames Media
Directors-screenwriters-producers: Jaye Fenderson, Adam Fenderson
Executive producers: Christopher Gebhardt
Director of photography: John Gardiner
Editor: Edgar Burcksen
Composer: Nathan Matthew David

81 minutes