The Game of College

There’s a new web-based, free game out there called Payback. It’s an interactive way for players to learn about college costs before embarking on the real deal, which we know from news accounts can rack up large debts for some people. Debts that can’t be repaid with Monopoly money. College costs are a real and growing concern for Americans, so much so that it seems to be changing college-going behavior or at least perceptions about the value of college.

Frightening news accounts imply that runaway college debt is pervasive and unavoidable. In fact, major tallies of debt are found among students at predatory for-profits, professional degree seekers, and non-completers. Sandy Baum writes thoughtfully about this topic and what we should do about it. The average amount of student loan debt among graduates is less than the cost of a new car, something few people would dispute as a necessity in our car-dependent communities.

To be sure, college debt is an important topic and we should be having more discussions about it—particularly with low income and first generation students who are faring the worst with unmanageable debt and incomplete degrees.

Payback is an effort to inform students about college costs and how they might add up through a medium that is surely more appealing than a banking seminar.


I jumped onto the website and began playing to see how it worked. It reminded me of The Game of Life, except that you don’t have to deal with a bad wheel spin to determine your future fate. Still, the game forces choices that may be more black and white than in real life. For instance, if you choose a bike for your campus transportation, the game promptly tacks on $500 in debt. No Craigslist purchase option or the fact that many of these students (and all the ones I know personally) already own bikes by age 18. The game also diplomatically avoids asking players about college savings or family income. As Ron Lieber’s New York Times article reported, the game developers wanted to avoid sensitive scenarios that might deter teachers from using the game in their classrooms.

Knowledge is power and information is better than ignorance. Payback’s purpose is to map out the cost-related decisions that students need to make in college. That is an important and worthy purpose. However, what information are they providing, and what message might students gain from that information? For example, in the sophomore year of the game, students need to declare a major (just like they must in real college). The game provides unemployment rates for majors that might as well redirect the player to the barista job application. A 15.5% unemployment rate for education majors and 13.3% unemployment rate for nursing? In what state and in what year are they talking about? Short-staffed schools and hospitals would be shocked to see those figures.

Youth need to make smart, informed choices about their adult futures. If they are scared away from the college degree option, they are shutting off a majority of the jobs of the future, as the voluminous studies from Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce point out. College provides a better footing for income potential. College also develops the intangibles that we need in our lives: relationships, pastimes, memory-making fodder. To their credit, Payback’s developers have tried to incorporate these subjective elements into the overall lesson of investment: money, but also time and effort go into college.

The thing is, college costs are not so black and white. This is what makes them difficult for students and families to grasp and can also make the whole distasteful topic seem like something to avoid or get upset about, like the arbitrariness of airline seat prices. I can commiserate personally, having gone through this college cost journey recently with two of my children. But like most big investments in life, researching and planning do pay off. You have the link for the game; give it a go and let the developers know what should be in version 2.0.

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