Writers behind shows like The Sex Lives of College Girls tell TheWrap about television’s portrayal of a very real problem, sometimes over opposition from their networks
So why do you rarely see the problem of college student and recent grad student loan debt being addressed on numerous television and streaming shows?
According to several top writers and producers of shows like Freeform’s “Grown-ish,” The CW’s “All American,” and HBO Max’s “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” there are particular challenges in portraying socioeconomic issues in shows, which rather focus on the personal and romantic exploits of its characters in college age. They are often told by network executives that audiences don’t want to see these stories at all.
“It’s disastrous how much money some of these people have to pledge to these financial institutions just so they can start their lives on par with some of their peers,” said Justin Noble, co-creator of HBO Max’s The Sex Lives of College Girls, TheWrap . His is one of the few shows (past or current) centered around the college experience.
“We did a lot of research and actually went to a few schools and talked to students to see what problems they were actually dealing with,” Noble said. “One of the things that kept coming up in our meetings with current college students was the sometimes extreme socioeconomic disparities between people who happened to be moving in together, and how uncomfortable it can be when two people share the cost of a couch, but one has a tremendous amount of cash on her hands and the other is struggling to make ends meet, getting into debt and having to work just to pay for school.”
It’s also personal for Noble. He’s also still paying off his own student loan debt, which he said added to his desire to have such stories on television. “It was something I had experienced and felt I could dramatize appropriately,” he said.
It’s not that student loans have never been mentioned on the small screen, but rarely does a television show explore the real implications of agreeing to borrow tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars before even entering the job market.
Noble’s series has chosen to venture into those waters alongside The CW’s All American and Freeform’s Grown-ish. The trio of shows have each tackled student loan debt in their own unique way, some more pervasive than others. On a show like The Sex Lives of College Girls, the characters’ socioeconomic differences are ingrained in the plot of the show. Grown-ish devoted an entire episode to the subject of student credit, but it’s not something that takes an entire season to cover. “All American” is somewhere in the middle.
“Sex Lives” follows four girls from different socio-economic backgrounds at an elite private university. The series deals with student finances in a variety of ways, but no more bluntly than when Kimberly (Pauline Chalamet) loses her scholarship and student job after becoming involved in a cheating scandal – the ramifications of which will be explored in Season 2.
The authors could have Kimberly take out some loans to continue her education. But Noble understands the weight of such a decision, and explained the authors wouldn’t do so without also examining how this kind of debt could cripple an 18-year-old from a non-affluent background.
“For a college student, having to bite alone is a lot,” he said. “These are 18 and 19 year old kids. We forget that so easily sometimes, but like two years ago, they asked their parents to pick them up at an AMC theater. Now they have to sort out their financial situation in order to stay in school and provide for their own future. Maturity is being imposed on them so quickly.”
The producers of “Grown-ish” and “All American” also made a conscious choice not only to portray the college experience, but also to include the socio-economic challenges of their characters in the story.
Des Moran, a writer for “Grown-ish,” told TheWrap that he saw the perfect opportunity to examine the student debt crisis during a Season 3 episode in which Aaron (Trevor Jackson) learns how much debt he’s racked up . Despite his best efforts, Aaron doesn’t get a postgraduate job with a credit relief program. Instead, he accepts an offer as a teaching assistant at Cal U, which will allow him to take courses for a master’s degree for free and pay off his debts a little longer.
“When I went to college, when I was getting these loans all the time, I didn’t realize how it would affect my future,” Moran said. “It wasn’t really explained to me either. Coming from a working class family and background, I was one of the first in my family to go to college. Going to college felt like a win for me, and it wasn’t really until I was a few months from graduation when I had to go to this meeting to start my student loan repayments six months after graduation I really realized, ‘Oh no, what have I done? I can barely pay rent, how am I going to pay that?’”
He added, “I think this is a crisis that so many people have felt, and we really had an opportunity just as Aaron was approaching his senior year.”
Showrunner Nkechi Okoro’s propensity to follow the characters of All American through their college experience — and even create an entire spinoff show, All American: Homecoming — was similar to Carroll. Students on both of Carroll’s shows worked hard to attend their institutions and secured athletic scholarships and other funding. You are constantly aware of what losing access to that money could mean.
“Talk to a good chunk of college graduates today, and they’re talking about how much debt they’re paying off by their 40s,” Carroll said. “It’s crazy to think that in your 40s you’re still paying for the four years you spent between the ages of 18 and 22. It’s not free money. It’s real that these are things that students worry about… To me, it feels like this generation is far more aware of the implications of all that student loan money than we might have been when I was in college. We wanted to bring that up for discussion and bring it into the zeitgeist.”
And it’s not just about rich kids versus poor kids. There are layers who need loans to pay for college. While some of the characters in All American come from low-income backgrounds, others have parents with the financial means to support them but choose not to. Exploring all of these nuances was particularly important to Carroll, who added that history is often “oversimplified” for people of color.
In the series premiere of “Homecoming,” Simone (Geffri Maya) finds out that her parents are refusing to pay for her housing because she chose to attend HBCU over an Ivy League. Although her tuition fees are still being paid, Simone says openly that she cannot afford her apartment without financial support. Student loans aren’t entirely off the table, but like “Sex Lives,” the characters are far more aware of how this might affect them in the future.
“There’s a school of thought out there that college use is going down a little bit. I would argue that this is not the case and particularly for children in the black community who are often perceived as disadvantaged – imprecisely – but are perceived as disadvantaged whether they need financial help or whatever to get into college or They’re on an athletic scholarship,” Carroll said. “These college years are crucial to make or break their future. There was never a thought of skipping it from those years. These are going to be some of the best and most exciting stories we tell.”
However, it is not just about whether the topic is important or not. There is also the question of whether or not audiences want to see such stories on TV. According to Tom Nunan, former president of NBC Studios and UPN, broadcasters don’t think these types of stories are the most desirable.
“A lot of people are turning to streaming and cable to get away,” he explained, noting that serious issues faced by college students can be off-putting, especially to younger audiences looking for more sophisticated content.
“When ‘Friends’ was really at its peak [in] In the first two seasons, where the numbers were just huge, the general age of these characters was in their mid to late 20s,” he continued. “Guess who was the largest demographic for this show? 14 year old girl. Not in your twenties. No late teens. [It was] young girls. So the college experience is interesting because it’s about who is [these shows] will be appealing?”
Of course, the showrunners who’ve managed to bring these stories to the small screen have to disagree. In her eyes, helping just a few people feel seen is more than enough validation.
“It’s fewer stakes on paper, but what I’ve never really gotten is that my perspective as a writer is that stakes are only relative to the character who feels them,” Noble said. “And a college student who’s 18 and has uprooted his whole life and moved to a new place and he thinks that every decision he makes has a direct impact on his entire future. They feel the stakes at 100. So the stakes are huge for them. And when there’s a lot at stake for a character, they’re going to feel huge to the audience.”
He also hopes that someone might find comfort in these stories. They might not lose their scholarship because of a cheating scandal like Kimberly did, but they “could be in a financial situation that they need to address.”
“It feels like a roadmap for people out there who might be looking at similar things,” he said.