3 films that just aired at SXSWedu—and what they mean for colleges

Kathleen Escarcha, staff writerKathleen Escarcha, staff writer

In March, the South by Southwest education (SXSWedu) conference hosted thousands of teachers, industry leaders, and administrators in Austin, Texas to discuss the top issues facing educators.

Among SXSWedu's roughly 400 sessions, the conference screened 12 films that capture snapshots of today's education landscape. We pared down their film schedule to three documentaries that have implications for colleges.

Trend 1: HBCUs take center stage in higher ed's push for equity

Tell Them We are Rising spans more than 150 years to explore the pivotal role historic black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have played in shaping American history, culture, and the Civil Rights movement. Rising captures the United States' struggle to "provide an equitable education to African-Americans," writes Andre Perry for the Hechinger Report. The film delves deep into the challenges that face HBCUs today like inequitable state funding, writes Perry. 

The topic of equity emerged as a frontrunner for this year's SXSWedu conference. Equity saw the biggest year-over-year jump in number of proposals submitted, climbing from 97 proposals in 2017 to 150 in 2018, writes Tony Wan for EdSurge. Talks about equity center on supporting diverse and underrepresented populations, he adds.

Keep reading: Underserved students' greatest barriers to equitable outcomes

Trend 2: For-profit universities continue to face scrutiny—and declining enrollment

Fail State investigates the rise of the for-profit college industry. Featuring commentary from policy makers and college leaders at Louisiana State University and LaGuardia Community College, the film examines for-profit institutions' effect on college affordability and student debt—particularly for low-income and minority students, according to State's website.

For-profit universities have experienced the most dramatic decline in enrollment in fall 2017, compared to nonprofit colleges and universities. In the last two academic years, roughly 900,000 students dropped out of a for-profit college with debt. And when students at for-profit colleges drop out, or the school is shut down—many turn to community colleges, Autumn Arnett wrote for Education Dive in 2017.

Related: 3 enrollment pressures to prepare for in 2018

According to Arnett, community colleges offer these students many of the qualities they sought at for-profit schools, such as affordability, flexible scheduling, and workforce training. In fact, community colleges bucked the overall declining enrollment trend of fall 2017; they actually saw an increase in the number of students enrolled in associate degree programs.

Trend 3: Student activism is alive and well

Show Me Democracy follows seven college students in St. Louis, Missouri as they participate in the Scholarship Foundation's education policy internship program. The program teaches students to research and advocate for education policy issues that affect them and their peers, according to Democracy's website. The film follows the students as they push to improve higher ed access for low-income, underrepresented groups in Missouri.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen numerous headlines about protests, sit-ins, and demands on college and university campuses, writes Liz Brown, a student affairs expert at EAB. Nearly 10% of students expect to protest while in college, and activity around controversial topics like race relations, sexual violation, and tuition is expected to continue—and even intensify, she adds (Fail State site, accessed 3/2; Perry, Hechinger Report, 3/9; Show Me Democracy site, accessed 3/2; SXSWedu site, accessed 3/9; Tell Them We are Rising site, accessed 3/9).

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