How College TV Shows Finally Describe Student Loan Debt
The writers behind shows like ‘The Sex Lives of College Girls’ tell TheWrap they describe a very real problem on TV, sometimes because of their networks’ pushback
So why do you rarely see the issue of student debt addressed among college students and recent grads depicted on dozens of TV and streaming shows?
According to several high-profile writers and producers on shows like Freeform’s “Grown-ish,” The CW’s “All American,” and HBO Max’s “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” it’s hard to portray the socioeconomic issues in shows that tend to focus more on the personal and romantic exploits of its college-aged characters. Network bosses often tell them that the public doesn’t want to see these stories at all.
“It’s abysmal, the amount of money that some of these people have to pledge to these financial institutions just so they can start life on equal footing with some of their peers,” co-creator Justin Noble from “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” TheWrap said. It’s one of the few shows (past or current) that centers on the college experience.
“We did a lot of research and went to a few schools and spoke with students to see what issues they were really facing,” Noble said. “One of the things that kept coming up in our meetings with current students was the sometimes extreme socio-economic disconnects between people who have been randomly assigned to live together and how awkward it can be when two people get together. share the cost of a sofa but one of them has a huge amount of money at their disposal and the other is struggling to make ends meet and goes into debt and has to work just to pay to be home school.
It’s also personal for Noble. He also continues to pay off his own student loan debt, which he says has added to his desire to air such stories on television. “It was something I had been through and felt like I could dramatize as a result,” he said.
It’s not like student loans have never been mentioned on the small screen, but it’s rare for a TV show to explore the real consequences of agreeing to take on tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars before even entering the job market.
Noble’s series chose to tread these waters, alongside The CW’s “All American” and Freeform’s “Grown-ish.” The trio of shows each tackled student loan debt in their own way, some more pervasive than others. For a show like “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” the socioeconomic disparities of the characters are embedded in the show’s plot. “Grown-ish” devoted an entire episode to the topic of student loans, but it’s not something that’s explored throughout an entire season. “All American” falls somewhere in the middle.
“Sex Lives” follows four girls from different socio-economic backgrounds at an elite private university. The series tackles student finances in a number of ways, but none more bluntly than when Kimberly (Pauline Chalamet) loses her scholarship and her job after becoming embroiled in a cheating scandal – the ramifications of which are to be explored in Season 2.
The writers could ask Kimberly to take out loans to continue her studies. But Noble understands the weight of such a decision and explained that the authors would not do so without also exploring how this type of debt could cripple an 18-year-old who does not come from a wealthy background.
“It’s a lot for a student to have to bite on their own,” he said. “They are young people of 18 and 19 years old. We so easily forget that sometimes, but like two years ago, they were begging their parents to pick them up from an AMC theater. Now they have to figure out their financial situation to stay in a school to support their own future. Maturity is imposed on them so quickly.
The producers behind “Grown-ish” and “All American” also made a conscious decision to not only portray the college experience, but also to weave their characters’ socioeconomic challenges into the story.
Des Moran, a writer on “Grown-ish,” told TheWrap he saw the perfect opportunity to explore the student debt crisis during a Season 3 episode in which Aaron (Trevor Jackson) learns how much debt he has incurred. Despite his best efforts, Aaron cannot land a job after graduation with a loan forgiveness program. Instead, he accepts an offer as a teaching assistant at Cal U that will allow him to take classes toward a master’s degree for free and defer paying his debt a little longer.
“When I was going to college, when I was constantly getting these loans, I didn’t understand the effect it was going to have on my future,” Moran said. “It wasn’t really explained to me either. I come from a very working-class family and I was one of the first people in my family to go to university. So going to college for me felt like such a win, and it wasn’t until a few months away from graduating that I had to go to that meeting to start paying off my six month student loans. after graduating. I really realized, ‘Oh, no, what did I do? I can barely pay the rent, how am I gonna pay this? »
He added: “I think it’s a crisis that so many people felt, and we really had an opportunity with Aaron dealing with his senior year.”
The urge to follow the characters of “All American” through their college experience — and even create a full spin-off show with “All American: Homecoming” — was similar for showrunner Nkechi Okoro Carroll. The students of both Carroll shows worked hard to be able to attend their institutions, obtaining athletic scholarships and other financial means. They are constantly aware of what it could mean to lose access to that money.
“Talk to a good chunk of college grads today, and they talk about how much debt they’re still paying off in their 40s,” Carroll said. “It’s crazy to think that four years you spent between 18 and 22, you’re still paying in your 40s. It’s not free money. It’s real insofar as it’s things that students are worried about… To me, I feel like this generation is much more aware of the fallout of all that student loan money than maybe we were when I was in college. is something we wanted to bring into the conversation and get in tune with the times.”
And it’s not just a matter of rich kids versus poor kids. There are layers to who needs loans to pay for their college education. While some of the characters on “All American” come from underprivileged backgrounds, others have parents who have the financial means to support them but choose not to. Exploring all of these nuances was especially important to Carroll, who added that the story was often “simplified” for people of color.
In the series premiere “Homecoming”, Simone (Geffri Maya) discovers that her parents are refusing to pay for her housing, because she has chosen to attend HBCU rather than Ivy League. Although her tuition is still covered, Simone is candid about the fact that she cannot afford her accommodation without financial assistance. Student loans aren’t entirely irrelevant, but, like in “Sex Lives,” the characters are much more aware of the impact it could have on them in the future.
“There’s a school of thought that the stakes go down a bit in college. I would say that’s really not the case and especially for kids in the black community who are often seen as disadvantaged – wrongly – but seen as disadvantaged if they need financial help or whatever to get into college or they’re on the athletic scholarship,” Carroll said. “These university years are essential in making or breaking their future. There was never any question of ignoring it during those years. These will be some of the best and most exciting stories we tell.
It’s not just about whether the issue is important or not. There’s also the question of whether or not audiences want to watch stories like this on TV. According to former NBC Studios and UPN president Tom Nunan, the networks don’t believe these types of stories are the most desirable to tell.
“A lot of people are turning to streaming and cable as an escape,” he explained, noting that the serious issues facing college students can be off-putting, especially for younger audiences looking for content. more ambitious.
“When ‘Friends’ was really at its peak [in] the first two seasons, where the numbers were just huge, the general age of these characters was in their mid to late twenties,” he continued. “Guess who was the biggest demographic for this show? 14-year-old girls. Not twenty-somethings. Not late teens. [It was] Girls. So the college experience is interesting, because it’s like, who are [these shows] going to be attractive? »
Of course, the showrunners who managed to bring these stories to the small screen are bound to disagree. In their minds, helping a few people feel seen is more than enough validation.
“It’s lower stakes on paper, but what has never felt true to me is that the stakes, in my mind as a writer, are only relative to the character feeling them,” said Noble. “And a student who is 18 and has been uprooted all his life and moved to a new place, and they think every decision they make has a direct impact on their entire future. They feel the stakes at 100. So the stakes are huge for them. And if the stakes are high for a character, they will feel high for an audience.
He also hopes that someone finds comfort in these stories. They may not lose their scholarship due to a cheating scandal like Kimberly, but they could “find themselves in a financial situation that they have to deal with.”
“It feels like a roadmap for people who might be going through similar things,” he said.