Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” a movie about one young girl growing up in Sacramento, California in 2002, won the award for Best Motion Picture: Comedy or Musical at the Golden Globes on Sunday. This award, along with its status as the highest-rated movie of all time on Rotten Tomatoes and a New York Times review calling it “Big-Screen Perfection,” has made the film a phenomenon. Reviewers have been quick to point out that “Lady Bird” is “not too quick to soothe the abrasions of class and family,” which is certainly is not. But they haven’t yet unpacked the film’s deepest engagement with issues of class: Christine, or Lady Bird’s, college application and selection process.
It is clear from the start that Lady Bird wants to get out of Sacramento, and out of California to boot. She dreams of going to college in New York or somewhere else on the East Coast “where writers live in the woods,” and she absolutely dreads the possibility of attending the nearby institution: UC Davis. She isn’t a particularly committed student, but she is confident, and when her guidance counselor mentions that she isn’t strong in math, her retort is: “that we know of. Yet.” So, her dreams about college have much more to do with being among people that she imagines she can relate to, rather than being about any particular institution or learning about any particular subject. The film implies that Lady Bird, having stealthily submitted financial aid forms with her father, is able to piece together funding school in New York, and (spoiler!) the film ends shortly after she arrives in her college dorm, liberated and released from some of her resentment towards California and the family that kept her there. As viewers, we are happy to see Lady Bird a little wiser and a lot happier as the film ends in New York City. Yet our research tells us that many college graduates with debt are unhappy, financially-speaking, with their decision to attend schools far away from home.
So, from our perspective, Lady Bird’s choice isn’t unambiguously liberating or positive. After over a year spent interviewing students about Lady Bird’s age (as the graduating class of 2003 would now be in their early thirties), we can confidently say that Lady Bird’s dreams will have come at a great cost. In part due to the penalty of out-of-state tuition, a student like Lady Bird would likely have taken on significant student loans in addition to receiving some federal financial aid such as the Pell Grant, and would likely have graduated with around $22,000 in debt (the average amount for a student of her age–and that number continues to rise).
This type of loan burden carries with it monthly payments well into adulthood. Individuals that we spoke with almost unanimously agreed that a low-cost institution would have been the best choice, even when weighing cost concerns against prestige and distance from home. These students, who have about fifteen years on Lady Bird (though many graduated from high school in the same year), caution against this type of decision-making. One student, in thinking back on the college application process, said that “I was super ignorant. I had no idea what thousands of dollars in loans meant. I had no idea of how much it cost. I had, kind of, zero awareness and knowledge of that.” This was a common feeling among our interview participants but, of course, hindsight is always 20/20. So, maybe UC Davis would have gotten Lady Bird the life she wanted, too. And it could have freed her of an eventual, ever-present debt burden. The school is, after all, ranked as one of the best public colleges in the nation. But Lady Bird, in an epic mother-daughter disagreement, refuses to even consider the school because of its agricultural program.
Alas, Lady Bird is about a girl “cursed with that familiar, often painful, gift of youth—absolute certainty,” and she equates distance with liberation, as many teenagers do. If the cost of this liberation is so high, then we need to develop a better way to talk to teens about how to think about what they want for themselves, both in the short-term and in the long-term. Maybe hearing from former students themselves would help and, if so, our research has been building up a significant archive of interviews from students dealing with debt after graduation. Be on the lookout for a series we’ll be publishing in the coming year about their experiences.
Julia is a Research Associate at the UNC Center for Community Capital. Her research focuses on economic mobility, student debt, and the role of housing as a platform for social services.
In a forthcoming report written in collaboration with UnidosUS, the CCC explores the issue of student loan debt for Latino students in the U.S. You can read more about this report here. We are continuing this work with the MetLife Foundation and conducting interviews around the country. Please be in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are willing to be interviewed about your own experience with student loan debt.