Life in ‘Default’

Horror movies have always been sort of funny to me because they’re not based in reality. I mean, my older brother made scared of dolls so anything with toys is creepy, and the movies centered around abduction can cause a fright – but ghosts and goblins, meh. The real horror comes with things that can actually happen. Being taken while walking home, being raped and tortured, the idea of living with an insane amount of student loan debt. Wait, what? It’s been awhile since something on a screen, either big or small, has caused my stomach to twist and turn. Default: the Student Loan Documentary did just that. In under 30 minutes it was able to both scare the shit out of me and make me cry as it explored the stories of men and women who thought a way to a better life was through college.

A young woman named Carmen was right on the money when she asked about an 18-year-old and their knowledge of student loans. Another girl said she didn’t really get it, and noted that the school was the one to point her in a direction. That’s problem number one – the schools aren’t helping students with these things. Just because they’re legally an adult does not mean they are 100% ready to understand interest rates and all the other jargon that comes along with those Sallie Mae papers. It’s like they want you to fail at it. Which is what author of Generation Debt, Anya Kamenetz, said about the people who dish out loans; the more you fail to pay them back, the more they’ll end up getting and there is never an escape. They can even seize the money you’d get if you were in a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina. Did you know that? Imagine having your home taken from you like that then Sallie Mae walking in and taking your disaster relief money. Like they need it at that moment more than you do.

Each person interviewed talked like education was their way to something better. A former law student figured that he’d land a great job after he graduated because hello, law school. That wasn’t the case. He was making under $40,000 a year with his diploma, his rent was about half what he made each month and the student loan people wanted way more than he could afford. With that, he ended up owing more than he ever expected. Why don’t loan people lower the payments? I know if you literally cannot pay and can prove it, you’ll catch a break but what about working even more with those who could afford to pay a little less than they’re expected? One man noted that he was expected to pay $2,000 a month. Imagine that? Could you afford that right now? If so, you go into work tomorrow and thank your boss because you’re one of the very few.

Kamenetz also noted the idea we’re preached all the time. The idea that those with BAs will earn more. She pointed out that, at the time of this taping, it wasn’t that people with four-year degrees were making more, it was that those without were slowly making less – and people with BAs were actually staying pretty much the same in term of pay. Personally, my younger brother with a GED makes more than I do a month, and I was an honors student who went on to be the only one of my siblings to even step on a college campus, let alone finish.

How I feel about me and my brother…

The real horror of all this came when these people were vocal about not only what they owed and the interest, but the idea that their lives are pretty much fucked. One man talked about losing a great girl because he didn’t want her to drown in his debt, another wondered if he’d ever be able to start a family, and Carmen – the girl who questioned why they let 18-year-olds handle loans on their own – said she just took out a loan so they wouldn’t kick her out, and now she’s so much in debt, it’s a constant cause of stress. Ghosts and goblins may spook you, but what scares me is that for some reason we’re led to believe an education will save us from living a lesser life, but then most fall into debt because the cost of said education continues to rise. President Obama said, “No one should go broke because the decided to go to college,” but alas many are.


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