A Game to Help Students Pay the Right Price for College

By Ron Lieber

| Photographs By Ammentorp Photography/Ammentorp Photography

In the last big economic downturn, back when Tim Ranzetta was in the student loan analysis and consulting business and working with colleges, borrowers often found their way to him, too.

There would be tears. And he would get off the phone with the same frustration each time over how little the people who actually use them know about student loans.

Starting this week, he has a new tool in what has become a yearslong campaign to fill that gap: a free, interactive, web-based game called Payback. In playing, students see running totals of their debt but can also track academic focus, the connections they’re making that could be useful later and their overall happiness — crucial factors in actually finishing college and graduating with a job that can help them repay their debt.

If you’ve played the you-are-there poverty-simulation game called Spent, the visceral format of Payback will be familiar since the same firm, McKinney, designed both. Payback marches players through a series of decisions, from which school to attend to when and how to accept paid work to whether to join (and pay for) a fraternity or sorority.

In an ideal educational world, experiential games like this would be core elements of a financial-literacy master class that every high school student would take. I’ve often imagined it as a semester-long study of the confounding financing system that defenseless American teenagers must navigate to pay for expensive colleges and universities. “Payback” is one possible name for such a course, albeit an optimistic one. “Protection” might be a more appropriate one, or “Prudence,” at least.

Mr. Ranzetta learned all about the system as a teenager. The fifth of six children, he was so determined to get to college that he was already budgeting for it as a high school student. (I reproduced his handwritten budget, which he still has, in a 2015 column.)

After successful stints in the paper-shredding and executive-compensation industries, Mr. Ranzetta turned to student loan consulting when his older siblings started sending their own children to college and threw up their hands in confusion and despair when trying to borrow to pay for it.

His phone number was on his company website, and every time a tearful call came in, he asked what might have kept the problems from happening in the first place. Inevitably, it came down to people wishing they’d known at the beginning how large their loan payment was going to be relative to their monthly income.

Payback, and the financial-literacy work Mr. Ranzetta has been doing for years (which he pays for out of his own savings), is his attempt to open students’ eyes.

Once he persuaded McKinney to help him, he began working with Jenny Nicholson, one of the creators of Spent. Her work on that project was informed by her own childhood, part of which she spent in Tennessee without running water or electricity.

When she entered the University of California, San Diego, she was the first person in her family to go to college. Nobody told her that when the student loan check lands, it can lead to false feelings of being flush with cash, given that a chunk of the money may be needed for months of living expenses. “I was richer, frankly, than I’d ever been in my life,” she said.

She avoided the temptation to spend it all, quickly paid back her loans and entered the social work field before landing in advertising. After the success of Spent, McKinney received lots of proposals from potential clients wanting them to recreate it for some other area of decision-making.

Payback, however, is the first project the firm has accepted like this. A big part of the reason, Ms. Nicholson said, is that the firm recognized that paying for college is not just about debt but also about investment. Every decision — from where you attend to what jobs and activities and classes and majors you choose while you are there — is about trade-offs. How much paid work is enough? How much socializing and spending on fun?

And so the game asks players to consider graduation gifts of cash, laptop purchases, meal plans, dorm supplies, books, hours of paid work, the Greek system, vacations and more. A rapid-fire class registration challenge has dire consequences if you don’t act fast enough.

All the while, you see a running total of your debt. But one of the cleverest things about the game is the constant, cumulative tabulation of focus (which paid work can reduce), connections (is an unpaid internship worth it?) and happiness. That last one comes from Ms. Nicholson’s personal experience, for she eventually realized that focus and happiness were sometimes counterpoints and she might have received a better return on her investment in college if she’d had more fun and more friends.

Veteran financial-literacy educators and advocates welcome the additional tool, though some of them were underwhelmed by my notion of a grand, master class on paying for college. After all, not every high school student is college material, and many others are aiming for trade training or military service. Sometimes, all of these teenagers are in the same class, so the course work needs to apply to as many of them as possible.

Still, Brian Page, a high school teacher in Reading, Ohio, said he welcomed an additional teaching tool that is highly experiential. He should know, since he’s the educator I wrote about three years ago who takes his students on a yellow school bus tour of pawnshops and payday-lending stores to do math problems using those businesses’ terms and fine print. “It’s not just what you know,” he said. “It’s what you do with what you know.”

Mr. Page has done some consulting work for Mr. Ranzetta but did not work on Payback and reviewed it at my request. He said he especially liked the various ways that players could lose the game and not even complete college, while still accruing debt. That is the worst of all worlds, he noted, since they need to repay the loans but don’t end up with the sheepskin that will make it much easier to get a decent-paying job and thus afford the monthly payments.

There is one other hurdle that teachers may need to clear to be comfortable with using Payback in the classroom. Talking about paying for college inevitably leads to questions about which families have what, how much they’re willing to pay (if anything) and what teenagers even know about their family’s finances. Ms. Nicholson knew from her own experience as the poor kid in class that this could be a source of tension, so the game doesn’t ask for household income. Instead, it assumes a certain level of family contribution plus scholarships. Then, different shortages (that debt can fill) emerge, depending on the colleges a player chooses.

Still, teachers may quite reasonably fear a delicate dance around personal data when teaching about paying for college generally. “The potential teacher reluctance is with the social aspect, not with the topic,” said Laura Levine, the president and chief executive of the nonprofit group JumpStart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy.

With the right planning, however, educators should be able to sidestep revealing too much in front of students’ peers. Students may well have questions for the teacher after class, and Mr. Ranzetta hopes they bring the questions home, too. “My hope is that this is the beginning of a great discussion,” he said.

There is risk that any such game, with its winners and losers, may result in students’ not attending college or not borrowing enough to do so successfully. But Ms. Nicholson said she hoped that the elements of fun and connections baked into the game would have an entirely different effect.

“I’ll never get all the details right, and there is always going to be someone who asks if we thought about this or that or living in a cardboard box to save money,” she said. “But I hope everyone who plays will understand the concept that you don’t have to give up everything to succeed.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times. It was written by Ron Lieber from The New York Times and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.