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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.

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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

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