A Game to Help Students Pay the Right Price for College

Article by Ron Lieber, The New York Times, September 29, 2017


Response by Richard Ohmann.

As an example of how actual high school students might step into the college problematic, take Payback, an interactive simulation game, or, as the designers put it, “an immersive online experience that educates students to make wise decisions on how they’ll pay for college.”  It assumes that players have applied to a number of schools; have been adm itted to four institutions of varying types, from a community college to a private university that costs about $60,000 a year; and want to “understand the real cost of college and the far-reaching financial implications of decisions they’re making at the age of 18.”  Payback is fairly specific about the maze of choices and outcomes they face.  They must choose not only the kind of institution they will attend, but a field of study (based in part on the average starting salaries of majors in that area), how intense or relaxed their academic efforts will be, what level of comfort or elegance they want in their food and living quarters, what kind of computers and furnishings they’ll buy; whether they’ll join fraternities or sororities, how to travel (or commute) between school and home, and so on.  As they click on each choice, they view a running total of the outlay they have committed.  They also note how much they shave off that total when they decide how many hours (if any) they will work at paying jobs while at school and whether they will take summer jobs.  At the end, Payback tells each player how much debt he or she will have assumed.  But it does not ask them how much of the tab their real-life parents would pay.  In fact it asks them nothing about themselves except their high school GPAs, the strength of their “extracurriculars,” what state they live in, and how highly they value “academic focus,” network building, and happiness.  In short, it virtually omits social coordinates from the virtual experience of a pivotal moment in social reproduction.  Its silence about wealth and inequality will, Lieber says (see fn. 3), avoid discomfort in high school classes that use the game.  Exactly.   


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