Madeleine gives an excited little grin. Jay clasps his hands to his heart and tips back his head in a “please, God!” gesture. Nico remains calm. "One of these contestants is 30 minutes away from having their student loans paid off," announces actor Michael Torpey, the winsome host of Paid Off, a game show from TruTV premiering Tuesday.
In each episode, Torpey—perhaps best known for his role on Orange Is The New Black—leads graduates of America’s uniquely expensive education system through three rounds of high-stakes trivia. The ultimate prize? The equivalent, at least for this debt-haunted generation, of a new lease on life: a slice of the roughly half-million dollars to be given away during the show's 16 episodes.
The participants are, of course, just a handful of the over 44 million Americans who hold student loan debt; collectively, they owe about $1.5 trillion. But just like the rest of us, the trio onstage is caught in a broken social contract. Higher education used to be a no-brainer investment in America. Tuition was way lower, and graduates commanded salaries that often enabled them to pay off loans relatively painlessly. But while degree-holders still enjoy higher rates of employment and better wages than non-graduates, going to college has become riskier and more demanding. According to a CNBC report last year, the cost of a four-year education at a public institution had gone up 213 percent since the 1987-88 academic year, and 129 percent at private institutions. To afford ever-climbing fees, students increasingly turned to debt. Meanwhile, employment has become more precarious and wages have stagnated, making the debt much more difficult to wipe out.
In fact, there are a snarl of factors—few of which are discussed on the show—that make student-loan debt such an intractable problem. Rising tuition costs, fueled by declining public investment. The growth of the for-profit college sector, which can leave former students deep in debt for degrees of dubious value. Special rules around student loans, like forbidding most borrowers to discharge debt in bankruptcy. And a sometimes-predatory loan servicing industry.
Behind this complex tangle resides a simple idea: that education is a private good—rather than a public one—and therefore should be paid for by individuals, not society. Paid Off’s approach to the crisis, however timely and well-intentioned, slots neatly into the same neoliberal framework that birthed it.
The borrowers on air are still responsible for their debt, but instead of resolving to work for decades pay it off, they take a crack at answering deliberately dumbed-down trivia questions. Debt is presented as an obstacle to individual accomplishments like embarking on a new career path, not a societal issue impinging on collective prosperity and freedom. The show’s central conceit is to throw money at individual borrowers, frustratingly (though understandably) leaving aside the question of what to do with the approximately 44,000,000 other student debtors out there.
The contestants also tend to come across as especially deserving. They’re young, and by implication financially innocent. They’re attractive and humble, and often have studied something practical, like finance or communications. There’s a whole episode devoted to teachers, powerful symbols of the injustice of a system that requires you to pay for an expensive degree before embarking on a career of public service. Like many of us, they’re delaying major milestones—buying a house, getting married—because of student debt.
Paid Off operates—like most Americans do—in an economy of engineered scarcity. In the three episodes made available for preview, only one contestant advanced far enough to have the entire balance of his loans wiped out: a public-school teacher with two children under the age of two. But, of course, there’s no reason anyone should need a heartwarming personal story to get debt relief. In that sense, the show mirrors the artificial austerity America has imposed on public universities and public education more generally in recent years. Students and parents are told there isn’t enough money for affordable tuition, more professors, and so on. But that’s a result of conscious choices to slash funding to public education, especially during recessions, and trade lower taxes for eroded public service.
Considering who “deserves” an affordable education obscures an important truth: higher education serves of all us. According to a report by the left-leaning think tank Demos earlier this year, “There is a persistent link between public spending on colleges and higher tax revenue, lower public assistance spending, greater health outcomes, and lower crime rates.” The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), for its part, estimated in a 2017 report that each college student contributes between about $150,000 and $300,000 in net public returns—good that accrues to everyone.
Torpey, to his credit, acknowledges the limits of just giving money away to a handful of graduates; he also often calls for audience members and contestants to petition Congress to do something about student debt. But what, exactly, is not specified. At one point, Torpey directs an eliminated contestant to “call Congress” from a red telephone planted in the audience. The conversation begins, “Hey Congress? It’s your boy Nico.” The activism appears to stop there.
In an interview with Metro, Torpey said he wants Congress “to watch this show and be embarrassed that it exists and feel that they have to do something.” But Congress hasn't been totally inactive about student debt. In December, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce passed the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform (PROSPER) Act, which claims to make higher education cheaper and accessible by providing more support to vocational and certificate programs, streamlining loans and work study, and eliminating red tape—a.k.a. regulations. Republicans were reported last month to be gauging whether they had the votes to pass the thing, which comes wrapped in a populist package, but could cost students almost $15 billion in financial aid if passed into law.
This shows why it’s so important to make clear, bold demands about what we want Congress to do about student debt. As we saw in the 2016 presidential campaign, such demands—even those considered to be politically unrealistic—can push politicians to take more meaningful action. In response to Bernie Sanders’s call for free college, Hillary Clinton adopted a similar plan to eventually eliminate public-college tuition for families making less than $125,000 a year. (And remember, Clinton found Bernie's platform so ridiculous she compared it to giving away ponies.)
On Twitter, Torpey explained that one of the motivations behind the show was raising awareness, and he does some of that. Each episode, he broadcasts a “Super Depressing Fact of the Week,” while working to put a face on the issue with his charismatic contestants. But Americans are overwhelmingly already aware of the stakes here. According to a poll commissioned by Demos, 92 percent of people consider student a serious problem. Rather than ignorance, it’s a lack of power or at least political engagement that keeps student borrowers from meaningful relief. After all, we know how decades of indebtedness stack up against campaign donations from student-loan companies: According to Open Secrets, both Republican Congresswoman Virginia Foxx and the PROSPER Act’s other sponsor, Brett Guthrie, are top recipients of contributions from the industry. To that end, Torpey’s stated hope to put pressure on politicians seems slightly more on-target.
He also seems well-aware of the criticisms that might be lobbed at the show’s self-consciously ludicrous approach. It’s “not an ideal solution,” Torpey told Fortune. “But my hope is this show doesn’t exist very long.” The purposeful absurdity seems to me like a hedge, though—a way to acknowledge a problem without going so far as to analyze it or propose a solution, since that could make viewers pissed off, or worse, bored.
I found the show ridiculous in the same way that it’s ridiculous people have to raise money on GoFundMe to cover medical bills. That is, it’s absurd and tragic. If you believe education is a basic right and a public good, there’s no reason that anyone should have student debt—let alone have to compete for the chance to pay it off by identifying famous artists via finger-painted versions of their works. There’s something a little depressing about shifting participants from one system governed by seemingly arbitrary rules and unaccountable authority figures (student loan management) to another (this game show), and telling them they’re being done the favor of a lifetime.
“I wanted to tackle this crisis that is absolutely ridiculous and make a show that is just as ridiculous to match,” Torpey told Yahoo! News in another interview. I believe him, and you could argue anything highlighting the student-loan crisis in America is a positive right now. The problem is, while student debt is ridiculous in a Kafkaesque sense, it’s not ridiculous in the sense that it's nonsensical. Given the structure of American society, in which ordinary people must borrow to afford the elements of a good life—housing, medical care, and often, food and other basics—there is a perverse logic to young people mortgaging their futures. What remains to be seen is how many more generations will put up with it.
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