News & Politics

The Human Face of Student Debt: A Conversation With the Filmmakers of 'Default'

A documentary on the student loan crisis lends a much needed perspective on the cost of educational debt.

Photo Credit: ARENA Creative via Shutterstock.com

If you want to experience the real impact of student loan debt on human lives, look no further than Default: The Student Loan Documentary. Though this powerful 27-minute documentary includes interviews with experts like Anya Kamenetz, author of Generation Debt, and Alan Collinge, the founder of StudentLoanJustice.org, the bulk of this story is told by everyday borrowers, some of them turned activists in an effort to change the dysfunctional student lending system that now holds them captive. 

And captive they are. Unlike other types of debt (like gambling debts, for instance), student loan debt cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, leaving many former students chained for life to loans they have little hope of paying off. Default offers a rare inside look at these emotional stories, detailing how loans can balloon into multiples of what students originally borrow to go to college and the troubling impact of that debt over time. One man in the film chokes up as he shares his decision not to ask his girlfriend to marry him because he doesn’t want her to have to share the burden of his debt. Another interviewee bursts into tears when she explains why she works with the United States Students Association: so that others won’t have to suffer as she did after leaving school with health problems, tens of thousands of dollars in debt. 

The filmmakers of Default, Aurora Meneghello and Serge Bakalian knew it was important to put a human face on America’s student loan debt crisis – which, at more than a trillion dollars, has now surpassed credit card debt as the nation’s largest debt burden. But when the two started working on the movie in 2007, it was difficult for them to find much information about the issue, much less borrowers who would talk about their debt. Now, with the average borrower owing more than $20,000 and the number of unique borrowers on the rise, the hunger to discuss the issue has grown -- and even Congress is paying attention. in April, the Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012 was introduced in the House; the bill would forgive outstanding student loan debt after 10 years of on-time, income-contingent payments, and would cap student loan interest rates at 3.4 percent. 

But that bill is far from being law, and recently, lawmakers in the Senate defeated legislation that would have extended low-interest rates for federal student loans.  

In this context, the stories Default tells are all the more necessary. The documentary, which has aired on PBS and is screening on college campuses and at national conferences around the country, sheds crucial light on the fear, depression and shame an entire generation of borrowers and their families feel – and how their debt affects the economy as a whole.

Recently, San Francisco-based filmmakers Meneghello and Bakalian sat down to talk about the importance of speaking out, how student loan debt affects individuals and the economy, and the need for consumer protection.

Emily Wilson: What first sparked your interest in doing a film on student debt? 

Aurora Meneghello: When I graduated from college I had federal and private student loans, and I noticed that information I’d gotten from my financial aid office was very accurate and to the point with federal loans but not accurate for private loans. I started doing research to understand the loans I had taken out and it became clearer to me that these loans were not good for students. I think it took me seven months to find out how my loans actually worked. I was talking to Serge about this and he said, “This is crazy.” So he had the idea of making the movie and I thought, “Why not?” People should really know about this. 

Serge Bakalian: I was really shocked by how little information there was about the issue. And no one really was speaking out. We met with Alan Collinge, who started StudentLoanJustice.org, and he was the first person to wave the flag and say there’s a problem here. But no attention at the time was being paid to this in the media. So what we envisioned for the film was just to bring the attention of the public. That’s why it works really well that it’s 30 minutes -- it’s an awareness piece to let people know there’s a problem out there and we need to do something about it.  

EW: In the movie, there’s some shocking information about how much people owe, and about forbearance (being charged to suspend payment on a loan as the interest rates continue to mount). What was most surprising thing you learned in the process of making the film? 

AM: What we noticed in the research, pretty much [everyone] at the time, except Student Loan Justice, was [saying], “Take out student loans -- they’re good for you.” There was very little information on what happens if you cannot make these payments. The more we researched we saw people were having problems paying the interest on what they had borrowed, so we wanted to explain that people weren’t able to pay back their loans not because they weren’t able to pay back what they borrowed, but because they’re trying to pay multiples of what they borrowed. Essentially if you make a mistake and go into default, for whatever reason – maybe you didn’t stay on top of it, something happened in your life, whatever reason – it’s very hard to dig yourself out of that situation. There is no safety net for people who can’t pay.

SB: One of the surprising things was the effect this has on individuals in this country. It makes people not act. It makes people not go into the professions they want to go into. We saw people not starting businesses and [not] having families because they’re worried about the debt – so it was a much larger issue than the amount of money they borrowed for college. The ripple effect was very eye-opening. 

EW: When you show the movie, what do audiences react to most?

AM: There’s a part in the movie where one of the borrowers we interviewed says he’s not sure he can ever have kids or marry the person he’s in love with because of his debt, and I think that resonates with people a lot. So the human consequences – the amount of debt that never goes away, that destroys people’s credit and makes it impossible sometimes to have a family – that resonates a lot with people. This idea that basic human rights are taken away from you because you cannot pay back money you borrowed. 

SB: A lot of times, our audiences, they do get angry because they didn’t know this crisis is happening. But what I like to see is that, particularly after the panel discussions, they really get engaged. They come up to us and ask, “What can we do?” That’s such an important step to take. One of the things we really wanted to do with the film besides presenting a human face to the issue, was we didn’t want people to watch this film and get depressed. We wanted them to leave the theater engaged and wanting to act, in whatever capacity. 

EW: Why do you think the student loan industry has so much power? 

AM: That’s the million-dollar question. I think it’s very similar to the mortgage crisis: deregulation, lobbying, money in politics, and particularly for student loans, it’s budget cuts for higher education. The more budgets are cut, the more tuition rises, the more people borrow, then the more tuition rises. It’s a catch-22. So I think it’s been a convergence of all these forces, but I would say taking away consumer protections, taking away this idea that you cannot sign a contract that is so unfair to you, [has been key].  

SB: I would add that basic consumer protections don’t exist for student loans, which is a sign of how powerful the student lending industry is in Washington. As one of our interviewees mentions in the film, you can discharge your gambling debts in bankruptcy, for example, but you can’t your student loan debt. 

EW: Does student loan debt have a different effect on people than other types of debt?

AM: What we learned by talking to many people is that student loan debt is so intertwined in sense of self. Essentially you borrow money to invest in yourself, to invest in the career of your dreams. We’re constantly fed this story that if we just follow what we want to do, the money will come – if we just believe in ourselves and work hard, we’ll make it. The reality is this is just an economic issue, but people’s sense of self-esteem just crumbles sometimes, and depression sets in, and this idea that I failed myself and I failed in my life. I think that is particular to student debt, and we wanted to show its effect. 

SB: From a filmmaking perspective it was far more important to have dynamic stories in the film. We didn’t want to make a film that was heavy with talking heads. It was more about borrowers turned activist, who are now tacking the issue and the industry.

EW: Are there any great solutions on the horizon to address the crisis?  

SB: The landscape in the country has drastically changed. There’s a bill in Congress, HR 4170, now proposed by Congressman Hansen Clark from Michigan, which is such a leap forward in terms of the movement, in actually coming close to a solution to the problem. 

Ultimately, you just have to be very careful when you sign those promissory notes. And don’t be afraid to speak up. One thing I feel proud of… is that we’ve encouraged Americans to speak up, and that’s such a huge step. It was so hard for us to find borrowers to speak four or five years ago, and now we are constantly bombarded with emails from student borrowers. That’s a very promising sign of where we are heading. 

AM: One thing we’ve noticed when we show our film, is that when one person says, “Yes, I have student debt,” then sure enough, one, two, three people say, “Yes, I’m struggling with my student debt as well.” So it’s this hidden problem that so many people have, but [they think], “Oh, it’s just me.” It’s important to realize it’s not just you; it’s the whole community that’s affected. 

As far as what people can do, it depends what stage of their life they’re in. if they haven’t borrowed money, the most important thing is to be extremely careful. If they have borrowed money, the most important is to stay on top of it, especially with the federal government. There’s a program called IBR, Income Based Repayment, where they help you pay a little bit at a time, based on your income. So stay on top of your loans, open those bills, call your lenders. Then as far as activism, there are groups to join: Occupy Student Debt, Forgive Student Loan Debt and Student Loan Justice

And of course, when elections come, support politicians who actually vote for students’ rights.

EW: What else do people need to know about student loans and the future of debt in this country? 

AM: You’re not alone if you have student debt and there’s power in numbers so get out there and connect with people. Don’t feel ashamed if anything happened or you made a mistake. We need to live in a society where we can have a second chance. It’s important that we all our responsible, but the lenders need to be responsible as well. 

SB: This is about something much larger than student debt. It’s about the state of our economy and the state of our education. One of the things I find egregious about this is that we strap young people who go to college to better themselves and be active participants in our economy with so much debt that it limits their purchasing power. In this economic crisis we’re in, we want our 20- and 30-year-olds with the income to go and invest and start businesses and make purchases. Instead, we cripple them with debt. That needs to change. 

  

Emily Wilson is a freelance writer and teaches basic skills at City College of San Francisco.