Ethical College Admissions: The Game Show on Student Debt

Jim Jump isn't sure this is evidence of a golden age in television.

July 16, 2018

Is this a golden age for television? Last week Netflix received more Emmy nominations than any other network, cable provider or streaming service, ending HBO’s 17-year streak. The addition of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon to HBO, Showtime and other cable networks as producers of quality original programming has led to the view (not to be confused with The View) that television has never been better.

But is that the case, and if so, why? Is television today better because of the presence of series like The Americans, Orange Is the New Black and Westworld, or the absence of shows like Joanie Loves Chachi, Manimal and any of the variety shows featuring members of the cast of The Brady Bunch?

That raises the question about where Paid Off belongs in the pantheon of quality television programming. Paid Off is the new TruTV game show that had its debut Tuesday. The premise is that contestants can earn prize money to pay off student loan debt, and The Atlantic Monthly has called it “The Most American Television Show of 2018.”

Paid Off was created and is hosted by actor/comedian Michael Torpey, best known for his portrayal of corrections officer Thomas Humphrey on Orange Is the New Black. Torpey graduated from Colgate University without any student-loan debt but discovered the magnitude of the issue when he got married and his wife had $40,000 in loans from Barnard College and New York University. They were ultimately paid off with money Torpey made from landing a role in an underwear commercial.

I must confess, in the interest of full disclosure, that I did not watch the inaugural episode, and as a result my impressions are based on what I’ve heard and read. According to the reviews, Paid Off is part quiz show, part advocacy. That’s an interesting and unprecedented combination.

Three contestants, each identified by college attended and amount of student-loan debt accrued, answer questions consisting of a combination of pop trivia and things you might have learned in college. The material is not as rigorous as you might find on Jeopardy! but more so than the 1970s game show Gambit, where good-looking but shallow young couples had to answer questions like “Which of these wasn’t a president of the United States -- Abraham Lincoln, George Washington or Mr. Magoo?”

In the Paid Off equivalent of Final Jeopardy, the contestant with the highest amount earned during the game gets to answer a series of eight trivia questions, with each correct answer removing some of their debt. That’s certainly a more practical prize than the product placements offered in traditional game shows, although hearing Don Pardo or Johnny Gilbert exclaim, “A new car!” is Americana at its best.

So is Paid Off a novelty, the next Family Feud or Joker’s Wild featuring host Snoop Dogg, or a political statement? It’s too early to tell. Torpey has gotten good marks as a host, walking the fine line between entertainment, empathy and education, but do game show audiences want to hear on a weekly basis just how bad the student-loan crisis is?

It’s a crisis that’s uniquely American, at least when compared with other Western democracies, and it’s one that has flown under the radar. Student-loan debt has doubled in the past decade to near $1.5 trillion, and a recent Brookings Institution study predicts that by 2023, 40 percent of borrowers may default on student loans. The student debt burden may be impacting the way that young people delay milestones of adulthood such as home ownership and having children, and it also pushes saving for retirement down the road. But can a TV game show humanize and draw attention to a societal economic issue of that magnitude, and will the novelty wear off before the end of this season’s 16-episode run?

The question I find even more interesting is whether there are other kinds of television programming that could be vehicles to educate the public about the college admissions process.

That is not a new fascination. When I started my career as a rookie admission officer 40 years ago, I thought that a college admissions office might be a perfect setting for a Cheers-like workplace situation comedy. My admission dean boss liked the idea enough that he occasionally daydreamed about the two of us becoming comedy writers, although I came to realize that was driven by his midlife crisis more than my comic genius.

The main characters would be young admissions staffers and a bedraggled admission dean, with recurring characters including an obsequious development officer and a pompous college president who wears a suit even to rake leaves. The pilot episode would have been based on the late Ed Wall’s legendary true story about Princess Grace coming to his house for dinner when Prince Albert came to Amherst College for a campus visit, leading his children to run through the neighborhood shouting, “There’s a queen in my house!”

As a college counselor, I don’t find television depictions of the college admissions process to be particularly realistic. Television teenagers applying to college only go to prestigious national colleges and universities, and they get admitted more often than not by walking into the admissions office off the street to plead their case to the dean of admissions, who is moved by the fact that they “believe in themselves.” In Gossip Girl a prospective student open house included a cocktail party hosted by the admission dean.

The depiction of the profession is no better. In Friday Night Lights, a critically acclaimed network drama, Connie Britton played the wife of a Texas high school football coach. Despite the fact that she hasn’t worked in 15 years, she gets hired as a school counselor after the previous counselor died from an opioid overdose. A year later she is promoted to high school principal and turns the school into a blue-ribbon school despite the fact that it doesn’t have enough textbooks. After returning to being a counselor, she attends an “admissions directors' conference,” where based on a single comment against testing, she is hired as dean of admission at a prestigious national liberal-arts college located outside Philadelphia. Now there’s a career arc.

Will Paid Off pay off? The entertainment business is anything but original, with one hit spawning multiple copycats, so are there other ways to incorporate college counseling into television programming? One review of Paid Off finds its origins in the 1950s show Queen for a Day, where the contestant with the most compelling story of hardship won prizes. Could we rebrand that as Dean for a Day, with real admission deans explaining why they didn’t make the class, the diversity goal or the financial-aid budget?

How about a college admission-based reality show along the lines of The Apprentice or Survivor, where each week the contestants engage in an activity like community service or testing or essay writing but it is never clear what the rules to advance are? Or maybe a corporate drama where the business in jeopardy isn’t advertising or oil but rather standardized testing?

I know where we can find a script for a sitcom set in an admissions office. If this is truly the golden age of television, there’s no reason some of the gold shouldn’t come our way.


Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher’s since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women’s basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


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