Release date: TBC
Running time: 26:42 minutes
Director: Aurora Meneghello
Writers: Aurora Meneghello, Serge Bakalian
I can remember signing the forms for the Student Loans Company when I was 18 years old and paying the implications of that contract little mind. Ultimately, I wanted to go to university, I’d been offered a place, and neither I nor my family were in a financial position to shoulder the costs.
With tuition fees, rent and the daily bread to pay for, a part-time job was never going to cut it. Thus I signed up for a student loan and scraped by as every other student does on minimal food and significantly more drink.
When I look at the possible costs of fees nowadays I would undoubtedly have to look very seriously at whether or not university was really for me as with fees now allowed to rise up to £9,000 and the cost of living estimated at over £12,000 you could be looking at a bill of £60,000 at the end of it all. That sounds horrific to anyone’s ears except that this, and worse, is already the case in the United States.
The US Federal Government do provide Student Loans for American students but they’re not the sole provider of loans for potential students. There are various options including multiple private loans companies and as Aurora Meneghello’s short documentary points out, students are not always given the full picture.
Loans to US students are really big business and student loan debt is due to surpass $1 trillion for the first time in history meaning it’s the largest consumer debt bar none, exceeding that of outstanding credit card balances. What makes this worse is that student loans are subject to none of the consumer protections that all other types of loan are: there are no limitations on fines; there’s no respite even if someone is declared bankrupt.
This means someone might have their mortgage debt scratched, credit card debt scratched, even gambling debt scratched, but not their student loan debt.
Meneghello’s short is part exposé and part personal story where a cross-section of individuals have been chosen to tell their stories. Matt is graduate who desperately wanted to go to film school and who had only one way to do so. Now, due to defaulting on his loan repayments – which were astronomical – he finds himself in over $200,000 of debt and it’s not getting any better. He can barely hold back tears as he speaks of his current partner and his fear that he must end their relationship as he will never be in a position to have children or own a house and he doesn’t want that life for her.
There are similar tales from others, where people’s debt has doubled since leaving college and they have to work multiple jobs just to keep up the repayments. Carmen fell terribly ill during her degree and had to undergo major surgery, but there was no protection from having to repay her loans as well as hefty medical bills. One person explains that anything can be seized in recompense for defaulting on such repayments – even disaster relief aid money from the government.
Although the documentary ends with a promising speech from President Obama, whether this will lead to changes for students it remains to be seen.
The film does a good job of highlighting the issue of private student loans and how these and the accumulated debt affect the life choices of those graduates and the Forgive Student Loan Debt, lead by Robert Applebaum, features in the film.
There’s, naturally, a lot more that could be mined within this subject with regards to the roles of colleges, the federal government, congress and the private loans companies themselves and it’s difficult to judge whether that would translate well to the screen or not.
Coming in at just over 25 minutes, Default: The Student Loan Documentary does serve the purpose of raising awareness which is clearly its primary goal; you hear heartfelt testimonies from those affected and can go on to investigate further if you wish. Part of me wanted more from it though – a little more rigour, more meat on its relatively bare bones – although having said that, it’s a very dry documentary and may begin to feel more strained if stretched to a considerably longer runtime.
Still, despite working in the Higher Education sector in an office that has dealings with US Federal Loans, I was unaware just how bad things were for some American students and how completely unprotected they are. I may have thought that attending university nowadays could be bad in the UK but I can at least be thankful not to be in the same sort of situation as Matt.
Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.
His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.