Fantastic article on the film and what we’re trying to do. Thanks Maureen for the coverage.
J. Maureen Henderson, Contributor
Meet The Filmmakers Who Are Fighting The Student Loan System
For anyone still paying for their education years after graduating, you could be forgiven for believing that Default resembles a horror movie more than a documentary. Produced by Serge Bakalian and directed by Aurora Meneghello, Default: the Student Loan Documentary takes a frank and frightening look at the student loan industry through interviews with borrowers, academics and student loan reform advocates.
“Pretty much our intention from the start was to educate people on student loans: how they work, what happens when you cannot pay them back, etc. and to open a dialogue about debt, so that future students could find an alternative source of information, apart from their school’s financial aid office. We also wanted to break the taboo that one doesn’t talk about debt,” says Meneghello.
And indeed, many of the borrowers featured in the film become emotional when they finally reveal on-camera the true extent of their debt. In, particular, Matt, a New York-based film school grad tears up as he admits that this is the first time he has actually uttered the six-digit number aloud. Meneghello says that ending the stigma and silence around loan debt is a key ingredient in creating a public dialogue on potential reform.
“We need to shift our thinking from blaming single individuals to finding solutions that can help our communities. Our film is about real people who cannot get married, cannot retire, experience depression and hopelessness because of their desire to get an education and better their future. As we show in the film, some of them actually are repaying what they borrowed, but because of the interest accumulated, cannot in fact pay off their loan balance. Their very self-worth is shattered, self- esteem and confidence decrease and depression can set in, with tragic consequences. So we hope to show people who feel alone and hopeless that they are not alone and that they can connect with other borrowers.”
The statistics around loan debt and the cost of post-secondary education in America are sobering:
Average debt per borrower has risen 18%, from $19 300 to $22 700 since 2000. (The College Board, Trends in Student Aid, 2008)
In 2007–2008, private lenders provided about $17 billion in educational loans. This represents a 592% increase over the last decade. (The College Board, Trends in Student Aid, 2008)
Borrowers who drop out of college are twice as likely to be unemployed as borrowers who receive a degree and ten times as likely to default on their student loans.
As of June 2010, student loan debt currently exceeds consumer credit card debt.
Federal student loan debt outstanding reached approximately $665 billion and private student loan debt reached approximately $168 billion in June 2010. Total student loan debt is increasing at a rate of about $2,853.88 per second.
This month, Rep. Eric Cantor proposed that students begin paying interest on their student loans while they’re still enrolled in school.
While they strongly believe that system change must come at the legislative level, Bakalian and Meneghello cite a lack of financial literacy among borrowers and their families as one of the factors that leads students to assume debt burdens that may take them decades to make a dent in repaying. “At a fundamental level, it starts with the level of financial education in this country. It’s quite frightening how little young people are taught about finance, about debt, about the basics of monetized system they are raised into and ultimately have to participate in,” says Bakalian.
Making Default has been an unpaid labor of love for the filmmakers. They started the project four years ago at a time when discussions of rising tuition and loan debt were confined primarily to student advocacy groups. Aside from a grant from the Fleischhacker Foundation, all of the funding for the production has been crowdsourced from individuals, with most donations under $20. Their overarching distribution goal is twofold – get the film in front of as many eyes as possible and position it as a springboard for discussion and advocacy around loan reform.
“We are currently in post-production to finalize a copy for PBS and taking steps to ensure a national public broadcast of the film. The short has been screened at over 50 campuses and cities across the country during the past two years, from California and Arizona to Maine and Wisconsin. It’s also been screened in Canada and in Europe. One of the tremendous aspects has been that most of these screenings have been in conjunction with panel discussions and forums in the larger context of a growing grassroots movement. We want to continue to offer it to organizations around the country to organize around,” says Bakalian.
As for borrowing advice for the freshman class of 2011, Meneghello says that it’s all about doing your homework before you sign on the dotted line and starting the process of managing your educational expectations early.
”Research and plan for the worst, while doing your best to succeed. Graduating with unmanageable debt might prevent you from taking the chances you need at the beginning of your career. Being realistic doesn’t mean giving up your dreams. If you stare reality in the face, you will be better able to find ways to achieve your goals.”