Opinion: Netflix’s ‘Squid Game’ is a hit among college students suffering under student debt

The Netflix series “Squid Game” starts a conversation on the debt that college students cannot afford to disregard.

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Squid Game, the popular South Korean survival drama, investigates the destruction done by debt behind its violence and gore. As millions of students struggle to pay off student debt, the series presents a visually exaggerated but ideologically effective parallel. (Image courtesy of Netflix)

By Sade Collier, Staff Writer

In the seventh episode of the dystopian psychological thriller “Squid Game,” contestants are instructed to cross a bridge constructed with glass panels of varying durability. The fate of the players, ordered one to 16, depends on whether the glass in front of them can hold up their weight ― if anyone were to fall, they would suffer death and incineration. That didn’t stop the series’ anti-hero, Cho Sang-woo, portrayed by Park Hae-soo, from pushing another player into a faulty panel. Sang-woo opted to use the other player’s body as collateral damage to ensure his own success. The premise of the South Korean drama: 456 players engage in a six-day trial of children’s games conducted by anonymous soldiers cloaked in masks and pink boiler suits, all for the enjoyment of a wealthy elite. The titular game has a straightforward design: The fewer players that are left at the end of all the trials, the larger the portion of the exorbitant $38 billion prize the remaining players could win. Players are selected because of their economic plight and willingness to do anything to erase debilitating debt.

The glass bridge game served as the epitome of the underlying social commentary within the show and reflected our own lives — whether or not we have access to wealth often determines the quality and value of our life. With federal inaction and a lack of resources aimed at curtailing the expansive impact of student debt, student loans have increasingly become the bulk of Americans’ debt, predominantly among historically disadvantaged communities. College students empathize with “Squid Game” as our own student debt dilemma exposes a relationship between agency, class and worth. “Squid Game” is a new fixation among younger viewers for a variety of reasons, from the appeal of colorful tracksuits to the whimsical set design that distinguish the island-based game facility from the bleak outside world. On a thematic level, the show resonates with college students because it exemplifies the inequitable systems that arise from debt. 

While NYU has a growing endowment that currently stands at $4.7 billion, data also shows that students who took out private loans leave NYU with an average debt of $60,431. Students are often left with the decision to either decline a college education altogether or pursue it despite the threat of crushing debt. There is an implicit violence in forcing college students to decide between the two, and we must reconsider the relationship between student debt in America and institutional negligence. As college costs balloon and wages stagnate, debt-to-income ratio is the main cause of mental health struggles for college students repaying their loans. Sadly, one in 14 student loan borrowers experienced suicidal ideation during their repayment journey. With collective U.S. student debt rising to $1.7 trillion and 44.7 million borrowers nationwide, we need President Joe Biden to cancel and forgive student debt — which he could do with a mere stroke of his pen. 

We can’t watch “Squid Game” without noticing parallels between the onscreen violence and our own lived reality. College has become increasingly correlated with status, cultivating cutthroat competition between students rather than ensuring education and financial wellbeing for all. The wealth that ostensibly will be attained through higher education is an empty promise, used to bait applicants as institutions implement rising and harmful tuition rates that often push students away from the prospect of an undergraduate education. 

College students resonate with “Squid Game” because we are conscious of our own lack of agency when swimming in a pool of debt. There is an evident divide between us and the opulent administrations above us. It is necessary to take the message of “Squid Game” at its face value: we, too, are oppressed by debt and lack the societal infrastructure to escape it. If we truly believe that “Squid Game” is horrific in design, we should look no further than our own society and demand those in power end the dangerous game of student debt. 

Contact Sade Collier at [email protected]