Wednesday, September 19, 2018
Education

If they win this game show, young people can have their student debt paid off

NEW YORK - Student debt afflicts as many as 44 million Americans, with the average student now carrying $37,000 in loans. The total amount owed in the United States exceeds $1.3 trillion.

Of all the ideas to solve this crisis, a game show might not be at the top of the list. But the actor-comedian Michael Torpey figures what the heck?

Torpey and the cable network TruTV have devised "Paid Off," a show that offers the elements of a classic trivia game show with a Freddie Mac twist.

"One of the mantras is ‘an absurd show to match an absurd crisis,’" Torpey, who also hosts the program, said in an interview. "A game show feels really apt because this is the state of things right now."

The series will kick off the first of 16 episodes on Tuesday, hoping to raise consciousness about the many students and graduates saddled with debt and provide a few of them some relief. No Whammies. Phone a Friend. Forgive your sophomore year loan?

"Paid Off," which counts as its showrunner "Millionaire" veteran Leigh Hampton, follows the format of a traditional game show. Three contestants square off to answer a range of trivia questions. Categories often come with an education-related twist, such as questions on "ology" or surveys about the best job you could have in college.

Contestants - most are in their late 20s or early 30s - must be carrying college debt to appear on the show. (Some of their loads run as high as $50,000.) Depending on how many questions the winner answers in a speed round, the show will pay up to 100 percent of their loans, with TruTV footing the bill.

(The money is awarded by checks given directly to contestants; producers sought ways to pay it directly to the debt-holder, but the logistics and tax implications got too complicated.)

Though the meat of the show is still comedic, Torpey makes sure the serious student-debt themes are never far from viewers’ minds. He slips in a "super depressing fact of the week" in every episode and sometimes offers a bleakly political edge. "If you’re just tuning in, ya, this is real life in America," he says before the commercial break in one episode.

The host also finds ways of working in the student-debt crisis in player banter. "Anthropology, that’s the study of humans," he says to one contestant after she names her major. "So why do humans charge so much for college?"

The idea for the show took root when Torpey, a New York-based actor best known for playing the Season 4 antagonist Thomas Humphrey on "Orange Is The New Black," met the woman who would become his wife and learned that she carried a heavy amount of debt from her time as an undergrad at Barnard College and a graduate student at New York University. The couple struggled with the debt for years, until Torpey happened to book an underwear ad. They were able to pay down the debt and finally begin planning to buy a house and start a family.

Shortly after, he conceived of a game show that centered on the debt problem, enlisting the help of a nonprofit called Student Debt Crisis.

"I know what we are doing is a little ridiculous," Torpey said. "But in a way the show matched my family’s story. The only way we could pay off student loans was because I booked an underpants ad? That’s insane." He said he doesn’t see the high cost of college as a left-right issue but just something that needs to be on the political agenda.

TruTV got involved after Torpey and the production company Cowboy Bear Ninja pitched the idea. Though executives acknowledge that the issue of student debt isn’t necessarily must-see TV - in fact the idea of a game-show devoted to the subject comes with an element of the surreal - they hope the combination of trivia fun and social relevance will attract viewers.

"We’re a comedy channel first and foremost," said Lesley Goldman, senior vice president of development and original programming at TruTV, which often targets viewers younger than age 35. "But we fell in love with this idea because of the unique hook of a game show taking the bite out of a student debt crisis. It seemed so incredibly innovative, relatable and timely."

The numbers are stark: The average cost of annual tuition at a private college in the United States - $21,000 - is astronomically higher than in any other country, three times higher than the next-closest country, Chile, where tuition is barely $7,000 a year. That’s in part why the average amount that Americans owe on their student debts ($37,000) is higher than in the United Kingdom ($30,000), Canada ($20,000) and Germany ($2,400).

And the problem is worsening: Outstanding balances of those holding the loans have risen more than 60 percent just over the last 10 years.

The issue ebbs and flows among politicians but remains a priority for many millennial voters, with tweets on the subject regularly going viral, including one on July 5 in which the poster noted paying off $33,00 but finding their initial debt load dropping only from $50,000 to $48,000 due to interest. As of Friday afternoon, the tweet had more than 200,000 likes, with many in the thread imploring lawmakers to do something about the crisis.

No politicians are scheduled to come on for the game show’s first season. Goldman said that could change in potential future seasons. In the meantime, that hasn’t stopped Torpey from urging his audience to get politically active.

"Call your representatives right now," he says at the end of each episode, "and tell them you need a better solution than this game show."

Comments
Employee pay dominates Pasco schools budget debate

Employee pay dominates Pasco schools budget debate

LAND O' LAKES — The Pasco County School Board unanimously adopted a $1.26 billion budget Tuesday with a slightly lowered tax rate and funding for new school construction in both east and west Pasco.But the spending item that grabbed most of th...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Ernest Hooper: HCC helps light the way for those on life's winding paths

Ernest Hooper: HCC helps light the way for those on life's winding paths

After he graduated from a Maryland high school, Rickey Murray had a number of opportunities awaiting him at a number of four-year institutions.He eyed the University of South Florida, applied to Florida International University and considered Virgini...
Published: 09/18/18
School buses, technology updates and teacher recruitment on Hernando schools legislative agenda

School buses, technology updates and teacher recruitment on Hernando schools legislative agenda

BROOKSVILLE — Busing concerns, security technology updates and teacher recruitment efforts could headline the Hernando County School District’s concerns in Tallahassee next year. As the district’s legislative picture for 2019 sha...
Published: 09/18/18
Pasco-Hernando State College leader Robert Judson dies at age 77

Pasco-Hernando State College leader Robert Judson dies at age 77

Robert Judson, who spent a decade as a community college president, died Monday afternoon. He was 77.In 1994 Judson took the helm at Pasco-Hernando State College, then called Pasco-Hernando Community College. He became the college’s second president ...
Published: 09/17/18

Pasco Letters to the Editor for Sept. 21

Re: Pasco deal for teachers another 'slap on the face' | Sept. 7 letterKenny Blankenship’s recent letter to the editor confirms why he is a social studies teacher and not a math teacher. Like the Tampa Bay Times, Pasco County Schools has a fac...
Published: 09/17/18

Pasco Schools employees union seeks tax referendum to support pay raises

The president of Pasco County's school employees union is calling for a referendum in which voters can decide whether to increase local property taxes so teachers and staff can get raises."USEP feels that the burden for coming up with additional...
Published: 09/17/18
Betty Castor would head up spending oversight if voters approve school sales-tax hike

Betty Castor would head up spending oversight if voters approve school sales-tax hike

TAMPA — Betty Castor, long-time educator and former president of the University of South Florida, will head up a committee charged with ensuring responsible spending of a sales-tax hike for Hillsborough public schools improvements if voters approve t...
Published: 09/17/18
Palm Beach County mayor charges sexism, says school body-shamed her daughter over ripped jeans

Palm Beach County mayor charges sexism, says school body-shamed her daughter over ripped jeans

A West Palm Beach teen’s slightly exposed knee was too much for her male classmate’s hormones to handle, according to Palm Beach County Mayor Melissa McKinlay.In a Facebook post Thursday, McKinlay went on a self-styled "mom rant." She said her teenag...
Published: 09/14/18
Pinellas Technical School welcomes students

Pinellas Technical School welcomes students

SEMINOLE — The county’s first full-time technical high school recently opened its doors to students.Pinellas Technical High School, 12611 86th Ave. N., welcomed nearly 200 incoming freshmen, as well as 150 returning upperclassmen. These older student...
Published: 09/13/18
After graduates were forced offstage, UF changed commencement. Nearly 10,000 signed a petition to protest.

After graduates were forced offstage, UF changed commencement. Nearly 10,000 signed a petition to protest.

GAINESVILLE —The controversy started in May. During commencement at the University of Florida, family members and friends booed as an usher used physical force to rush more than 20 dancing graduates across the stage. It didn’t take long for the video...
Published: 09/13/18