By Katie Letellier, USM ’20
In July truTV aired a new game show called “Paid Off.” The show consists of three contestants competing to win prize money. The catch is that each contestant has a crippling amount of debt, student loan debt, that they are hoping to pay off or at least lower a bit by answering questions similar to that of “Family Feud.” Sure, it is somewhat insulting that the show resorts to asking survey-type questions to college-educated people, but it is also an easy cash giveaway that is necessary due to the prevalence of the student loan scheme.
There have been op-eds criticizing the show, writing it off as exploitative. But those people are missing the mark. The sad truth is it is not easy to pay off your student loans, the interest rates that you signed off to at 18 are apparent as trickery by the time you’re 21, and the situation is only getting worse with more students having to take out bigger loans.
If you’re enraged by the show, be enraged not only that it exists but that it has to exist. By no means am I saying that “Paid Off” isn’t exploitative. Of course it’s exploitative, but it is also a way to get out of what could very well be lifelong debt. Don’t forget that the contestants willingly appear on the show, probably because they feel the potential gain is worth the loss of dignity. The dystopian nature of a TV show like this is reflective of the doomed reality many American college-bound students face.
Forbes estimated that 68 percent of undergraduates will take out student loans to get a bachelor’s degree in the United States. The average debt for a college graduate is around $30,000. If you find yourself in the same situation as millions of other Americans you probably know that there are three ways out of student loan debt: paying off, moving out (of the country), and death. Bankruptcy, while a viable solution in many other forms of debt, is not an option when facing crippling student loans.
Many people, if they are lucky, take ten to twenty years to pay back their student loans in full. Others however, resort to extreme ways to escape the debt. Before you apply for a visa in another country or take out a hit on yourself, you should know that letting your student loans default is an option. This means not making your payments. This will likely garnish your wages and prevent you from getting any other type of loan (or maybe even a job), but defaulting on loans may be the right option for you. And allow me to add that it is also good for your lender. Yes, according to Alan Collinge in The Student Loan Scam, your lender will profit off your defaulted student loans.
I choose option one. I’d like to pay off my loans. I have a reasonable amount of debt. Even though I have accumulated debt well into the tens of thousands, it could have been a lot worse for me. My freshman year I attended a pricey private college that gave me almost no financial aid. Valuing the typical college experience more than anything, I bit the bullet and took out a private loan that would allow me to attend my dream school. Had I not transferred out after one year, had I taken that loan out three more times, I would have been close to $100,000 in debt by graduation and only had a liberal arts degree to show for it. I consider that a life sentence.
Though the problem did not start with the Trump Administration they are not doing much to help. In fact it feels like the opposite. Some of their policies appear to hurt borrowers. In July, Trump-appointed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos began efforts to roll back measures that prevented for-profit institutions and loan servicers from taking advantage of student borrowers. She went as far as to sue states that did not participate in the deregulations. And just this past month, DeVos was ordered by a federal judge to initiate Obama Era student loan forgiveness. Key word “ordered,” because despite it being her job, she was stalling the program that would help millions of struggling college graduates.
We can’t let this continue. Whether or not you have stake in the issue, you don’t want an entire generation to be deterred from seeking higher education. And going to college shouldn’t feel like gambling on your future success.
While the people in charge of fixing the student loan crisis are sleeping, truTV is offering support in the form of “Paid Off.” The show is not perfect, but it is not the enemy nor the problem. So if your dignity costs less than your student loans, put on your fool’s cap and pray you get on “Paid Off.”