Documentary reveals human impact of trillion dollar student loan crisis

Watching Default: The Student Loan Documentary, movie viewers feel the emotion when a borrower chokes up talking about how he can’t ask the woman he loves to marry him because he wouldn’t want her to share the burden of his debt.

“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,” said one of the filmmakers, Aurora Meneghello. “That resonates with a lot with people — basic human rights are taken away from you.”

Default is a 27-minute documentary that has been shown on PBS, Link TV and at screenings around the country. The majority of the stories come from students-turned-activists who talk about how their debt ballooned. Many went into “forebearance,” meaning they were charged for suspending payment on their loans. Student loans differ from other loans — they aren’t forgiven when one declares bankruptcy, borrowers have no legal recourse, and there is no cap on fees.

“We’re constantly fed this story of ‘Do what you love and the money will follow,’” Meneghello says. “But this is really an economic issue. People’s sense of self-esteem just crumbles sometimes and there’s this idea that ‘I failed myself and I failed in my life.’”

Student loan debt is now more than a trillion dollars and has surpassed credit card debt. To address this climbing debt, delegates to this summer’s AFT Convention in Detroit, passed resolutions to work with students on college affordability and to support reform of private student loans. “The student debt crisis is not just an issue of a few students borrowing too much,” says AFT Higher Education Director Craig Smith about the AFT’s commitment to the issue. “It is a systemic result of a lack of commitment to fund higher education.”

Bob Samuels, a lecturer in Writing at UCLA, and leader of the CFT University Council, agrees. He just finished a book, Why Public Higher Education Should Be Free, and he’s made a presentation at the White House on students’ costs.

Default looks at how students often don’t go into the fields that most interest them. Samuels sees this with his students.

“It really does affect people’s choices,” he said. “The only way to pay off debts is to generate a lot of income quickly. That’s why we have so few students taking humanities classes and so many in business.”

Austin Smith, a graduate student in creative writing at Stanford, wonders how he will ever pay back the $30,000 he owes for undergraduate studies. At a rally in San Francisco marking the first anniversary of the Occupy movement, Smith said he was ashamed of his debt and feels paralyzed. Like many of the people interviewed in Default, he didn’t know what he was getting into. “I was 18 years old,” he said. “I literally thought I was getting financial aid.”

Smith agrees with Robert Applebaum, the founder of Forgive Student Loan Debt, who appears in Default. Applebaum wrote a widely circulated essay suggesting student loan debt be forgiven to stimulate the economy.

“We need that spark to get the economy back on track,” Smith said. “This generation has a lot of ideas and energy, but we feel like we can’t do anything because of this burden of debt.”

— By Emily Wilson, CFT Reporter

On the Web
>Learn more and watch the 27-minute film Default: the Student Loan Documentary made by filmmakers Aurora Meneghello and Serge Bakalian at defaultmovie.org.

Occupy one year later: Can debt spark revolution?
>>The following is excerpted from an article written by anthropologist David Graeber, author of Debt: The First 5000 Years, and published in The Nation on September 24.

Occupy Wall Street allowed us to see the system for what it is: an enormous engine of debt extraction. Three out of four Americans are in debt and one in seven is being pursued by debt collectors. Between 15 and 20 percent of the average household’s income is now directly expropriated by the financial services industry in the form of interest payments, fees and penalties.

The overwhelming majority of Occupiers are refugees of the American debt system, saying “I worked hard and played by the rules, and now I can’t find a job to pay my student loans — while the financial criminals who trashed the economy got themselves bailed out.”

If Occupy was to frame a demand today, it would be for as broad a cancellation of debt as possible. It is only by breaking the power of the engines of extraction that we can think on a scale and grandeur appropriate to the times.