Scared Straight Approach to Student Debt: A Documentary Playlist

Oct 14, 2014
Paying for College, Lesson Idea, Student Loans, Video Resource

This recent article about a community college in Florida caught my attention:

To get a student loan at Broward College, one of Florida’s largest community colleges, you first have to sit through a two-hour financial lesson with Kent Dunston.  It’s a little like Scared Straight, the 1978 documentary designed to keep kids from ending up in prison.  Dunston’s lesson, though, is about scaring students into making good financial choices. Nationwide, student loans total more than $1.2 trillion. And schools now face punishment — even closure — by the federal government if the rate is too high.

The article goes on to describe the experiment at Broward also includes limiting student access to subsidized federal loans, thereby eliminating unsubsidized federal loans and private loans as options.  They have not seen an impact on student enrollment and have seen declines in student defaults in the six years since they have implemented these programs.  After the call that I had a few weeks back with a student on the road to a $100K+ student loan balance, I started thinking we need to expose students to the downsides of student debt BEFORE they choose a college.

So, what would a video playlist look like to show students the downsides of student debt:

The cost of college is skyrocketing. Student debt has exceeded One Billion Dollars. Student have borrowed more to pay for their college eduction than they can reasonably expect to payback. “Voices of Debt” documentary is their voice. A warning, and a call for action about this crisis on the verge of national disaster. Don’t Major in Debt.

Default: the Student Loan Documentary chronicles the stories of borrowers from different backgrounds affected by the student lending industry and their struggles to change the system. No matter when their loans were taken, many borrowers find themselves in a paralyzing predicament of repaying two, three or multiple times the original amount borrowed, with no bankruptcy protection, no cap on fees and penalties and no recourse to the law. The consequences are dire, with stories of borrowers in financial and emotional ruin.

Student debt has now surpassed 1 trillion dollars in the US. The high cost of education coupled with a rocky job market means that most students need to defer payments after graduation. How bad is defaulting on student loans? What happens when you just can’t pay them?

Americans owe $1 trillion in student loan debt. How did that happen, and what’s the impact on the nation’s economy? Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports as part of his Making Sen$e of financial news series.

The rise in U.S. college tuition is unsustainable. That’s the argument of a new television documentary, “Ivory Tower,” which tackles growing worries and critique over college costs and student debt. Jeffrey Brown talks to filmmaker Andrew Rossi about the origins of rising costs and financial competition among institutions, plus ideas about how to turn around the trend.

Determined to speak up about America’s crumbling higher education system, three students at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism rallied the voices of an indebted generation. The trio of aspiring journalists—Alex Lancial, Tara Molina and Jake Stein— produced a documentary entitled “Scholarslip”. The 26-minute production examines the student debt crisis in the United States and delves into issues local to Arizona. Illustrated through the voices of student debtors as well as university and government policymakers, “Scholarslip” explores five critical issues: increasing costs of tuition; deteriorating quality of higher education; diminishing value of a college degree in the job market; student dependence on state and federal financial assistance; and the effects on personal lives and aspirations. Lancial, Molina and Stein entered and documented the lives of three university students, each experiencing different personal and financial struggles yet sharing a common desire to pursue a college degree.


As students watch these videos, have them reflect on what they can learn from these student’s experiences.  Maybe, you can split the class in groups and have them each watch a video and report back to the class on the lessons they learned.

Be sure they are aware about the commitment that they are making when they take out a student loan and the consequences of not paying back (or defaulting) on their loans.  The three minute video (What Happens If You Don’t Pay Off Your Student Loan) can be particularly effective in showing them.  OK, so I admit this is not these documentaries/news stories are not the most uplifting, however, they are necessary so students see how a decision they make as an 18-year old can impact the rest of their life.

About the Author

Tim Ranzetta

Tim's saving habits started at seven when a neighbor with a broken hip gave him a dog walking job. Her recovery, which took almost a year, resulted in Tim getting to know the bank tellers quite well (and accumulating a savings account balance of over $300!). His recent entrepreneurial adventures have included driving a shredding truck, analyzing executive compensation packages for Fortune 500 companies and helping families make better college financing decisions. After volunteering in 2010 to create and teach a personal finance program at Eastside College Prep in East Palo Alto, Tim saw firsthand the impact of an engaging and activity-based curriculum, which inspired him to start a new non-profit, Next Gen Personal Finance.