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Why a student debt TV game show is a sad sign of our anti-intellectual times


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This week we found out that Michael Torpey, most famously CO Thomas Humphreys from Orange is the New Black, has started a new cash-prize game show.

However, rather than winning tonnes of money for the speedboat you’ve always wanted, being successful simply clears your cripplingly large student debt.

Stressed student in debt

Just for a moment, let’s put this phenomenon in the context of other game shows like PointlessDeal or No Deal, or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire where all the prizes are a tidy sum of at least thousands of pounds, sometimes even a million.

In comparison, on Paid Off you don’t win a million pounds, you win freedom from a gigantic debt.

Put on a number line stretching from minus $40,000 (CNBC’s figure for the average debt of an American when they graduating) to positive $1,000,000 on the other end, the difference is striking; Instead of going from zero to positive you go from negative to zero.

In short, you win the ability to live normally.

Of all the things that could be protecting our ability to live without the stress of debt, accrued as it is for the heinous crime of getting an education, you may expect the government to be top of the list.

However, where the government has sorely failed, it seems now that TV game shows must ride to the rescue.


In Paid Off's defence it does come from a genuine place of charity; Torpey’s wife had $40,000 of student debt herself, and Torpey says he created to a TV show because that was the main medium he had access to ameliorate the issue.

Thankfully, it also isn’t about seeing what lengths of humiliation a student would go to in order to wipe out their gigantic debt, even though it very plausibly could be.

You might remember CBS putting the cat among the pigeons in 2015 with The Briefcase, in which producers got two struggling families to fight over a briefcase of $101,000, and then profited from broadcasting the financial anxiety and tearful arguments.

That’s very easily what this could have been if it had an interest in just to what lengths students would go to rid themselves of their burden.  

Hopefully this gameshow functions as a consciousness-raiser for the issue it seeks to address, unlike shows which serve as reality TV for those with a perverted voyeurism for economic hardship.

However, even if it does raise awareness of the issue, it certainly won’t end the student debt crisis.

The show boasts paying nearly $500,000 dollars of student debt, which sounds like a lot to an individual.

In the grand scheme of the (American) nation, it’s a drop in a $1.5 trillion ocean.

The average student debt in America is $37,000 (£28,000), and although this might not sound like much to UK students who have £27,000 for tuition, plus their maintenance loan, it's still a significant amount of money.

It’s also worth remembering that our debt repayment is always tied to income, so functions more like an arbitrarily-enforced and unfairly-targeted tax than a normal debt.

For Americans, on the other hand, student debt is much more like 'real' debt.

One respondent to the BBC’s Ask America series said they will be "over $50,000 in debt, despite making monthly payments […] this is a crippling investment; we can't invest in our retirement funds, buy a house, start a family, buy a car, or further our education".

So much for the American Dream if you have the temerity to pursue a higher generation, something required by even some minimum-wage positions.

Unfortunately, there’s a sad strain of anti-intellectualism and anti-student sentiment, painting university as a “bad investment” and students as indolent layabouts, which is used to justify the imposition of these punitive charges for something which is to the benefit of everyone in society. 

Ultimately Paid Off is a sad sign of the scale of the student debt crisis, but hopefully, by raising some awareness of the backward iniquity, it can still have a positive influence.

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