You Need to Watch “Default: The Student Debt Documentary”

Katrina’s Team Pick:

Whether you agree or disagree with Occupy Wall Street, whether you feel disenfranchised or empowered by it, whether you feel passionate or indifferent or anywhere in between, it is impossible to ignore the fact that, despite “The 99%” mantra, OWS is coming disproportionately from a voice of the youth.

Many of the protesters are college students or recent graduates, whose disaffection has been inspired by the simultaneous rising tuition costs and plummeting job opportunities. Higher education today is being perceived as more valuable than ever, while its tangible benefits and advantages are possibly less valuable than ever. President Obama set the lofty goal of attaining the world’s highest graduation rate by the year 2020, but unless he also establishes a plan for making college more affordable – not to mention more accessible – then his goal is also a promise to put more students than ever into debt, a completely horrifying concept for us both as individuals and as a country.

“Default” is a short documentary about the student loan industry and the stories of individuals who have been critically affected by it. And while the trailer maybe not be perfect (an outdated shoutout to the class of 2008, one person of color in the background of one frame), the conversation that it’s trying to have is one that’s worth noting. How do low-income students experience the higher education system differently than students of means? And what does their subsequent debt say about the true possibilities of social mobility in America? It’s a reminder that student debt isn’t just about young people, it’s about their families as well — families that were under the impression that, if they gave it all to give their children an education, that the benefits would come back.

Education, especially higher education, has been painted for us as the best opportunity for advancement and success in our country and in our world. We have come to understand that, without it, there is little room for mobility, and there is little hope for one’s future. If this is true, then the message is clear that hope for one’s future is not for everyone. The future is promised to only a few. Those whose families were better able to fund an education (and those whose families were willing to fund their children’s education at all), most of whom could afford to spend their time at unpaid internships or who could study without having to balance should with one or more part times jobs. The rest of us – low-income, the working, the non-traditional – it seems, are screwed.

students protesting tuition hikes at uc berkeley courtesy of sf gate

The conversation about student debt is a conversation that everyone who’s in school should be having. It should reach beyond the point of acknowledging that our prospects totally suck, and it should recognize that collectively having these problems and feeling this way about our future just isn’t right. It should consider whether or not we have the power to affect change, and it should consider not only what those options might be, but what the result could look like for us if we choose not to take them.

Click here to organize a screening of “Default” near you.

phoenix has written 65 articles for us.


  1. I went to law school(and grad school and undergrad) so my students loans are pretty high. Pretty freaking high. I’m currently doing IBR(the public interest loan forgiveness program through the federal government) does anyone have thoughts about this particular program?

    an overview of ibr – if your loans are consolidated through direct lending and were not originally private loans, you make a payment based on your income AND if you are in qualifying public interest employment for ten years(the equivalent of 120 qualifying payments) your loans are forgiven, without negative income tax consequences.

    the problems with ibr as i see them are:
    1) the qualifying payments may not even cover interest(mine don’t) so if i am not in public interest work, i’m screwed and having started down this path become more and more potentially screwed as time goes on(the government does pay some of the interest for some of the time though)
    2) this is not an option for everyone because there are no jobs.
    3) the program would be better if you received yearly forgiveness, rather than requiring the entire ten years.

    however, i do think its interesting that there is a program under which the federal government forgives your loans, but i feel like it is rarely mentioned in the discussion of whether the federal government should forgive loans. its not a perfect program, but we should acknowledge it exists.

    overly long post. apologies.

    • Yeah, I had $15k in student debt and I felt like I got away pretty well. I have friends who left school with closer to $200k in debt!

      Australian higher ed prices aren’t that great either, but when I tell people over here that I got away lucky with what I did, they’re shocked.

      (Also, I’m pretty sure the only reason I have my student loan debt paid off now is that I live in Australia. The job situation here is SO MUCH BETTER.)

    • My grad school loans will be coming due within the next year or so, which I was feeling a little anxious about — but then one night I sat down, added ’em all up, looked at what my full monthly payment would be, and instantly felt much better. Not because it was less than I expected — but because now I know, and can stop vaguely guessing and being afraid. I recommend looking at these things straight on.

  2. Being in school is really my only option. I get a disability check and student loans and that is it. My family isn’t rich enough to help me out. (especially after everything going to shit and them losing a big chunk of what they’d accumulated over years of hard work) Without those student loans I don’t know what I would do, and while I know it’s likely I won’t ever pay them off I already feel disenfranchised enough that I can’t even bring myself to care. I have an awful credit score, have been unemployed for the better part of four years, and pretty much got told to my face that they were firing me from my last job for being blind. (yes I tried to get them in trouble. no, it didn’t go anywhere.) If they want to take blood from this stone whatever. They can squeeze as hard as they want. So I figure at least I can learn something. I love learning and I’ve chosen subjects that have the ability to give back to society. (forensic psychology, Middle Eastern languages) But I think one of the biggest problems is the same problem we have with jails…we can’t decide what we want the institution to do. Are we preparing people to work? To be scholars? Something else? That keeps a lot of students from knowing what they’re there for, too. I was lucky. I knew what I wanted out of undergrad. So many people around me didn’t, and I think they got taken advantage of because they were sold the idea that college was the Thing That Was Done.

  3. I’m not sure how it works in your countries, but in mine we have no interest on our student loans. The way I figure it, i’m just going to let it sit there (they take a little out of your wage if you earn over a certain amount), and never intend to pay it all back. The reality is, it is all just numbers on a computer or on a piece of paper. Its not really real. I resent paying for over priced education, and have no intention of doing so.

  4. I fully agree that college and university is overpriced, especially in the US (I’m in Canada). I worked every summer but not during the school year for most of my college/university career and definitely did not budget well and came away with about 25 grand in debt. I regret this debt and wish it was less but will pay it back eventually.

    My questions is – who should pay for your education?

  5. I go to a school where tuition alone is $8000 a semester. It is a crime what they are charging us and I have friends who are up to their neck in debt. The government keeps cutting down need grants and work study which is a crime!
    Luckily I have been able to stay out of debt, I have no student loans what so ever but that is because I work full time even though I go to school full time. But even I hate this because who has time for sleep when you work 40-50 hrs a week, go to class for 10 hrs a week and then there is homework. Sometimes I wonder if the price for staying out of debt is worth it.

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