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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.

Photo Credit: ARENA Creative via


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, 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. 

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