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Think You Know How Much College Costs? This Game Has High Schoolers Thinking Twice

Liz Schlemmer
Hillside High seniors Tahja Jordan and Jasir Haynes play Payback, an online game about the true cost of college.

Paying for college comes with a lot of choices, like choosing a meal plan. High school senior Jasir Haynes weighs his options about how much each plan will affect his eventual student debt.“So, we eat like a bird, the standard, or the extra hungry. So the “extra hungry’s” an extra thousand dollars, and the “eat like a bird’s” minus a thousand dollars,” says Haynes.

Haynes sits next to Tahja Jordan, also a senior, in their classroom at the Business and Finance Academy at Hillside High School in Durham. They’re navigating through the new online financial literacy game called Payback. It’s an interactive choose-your-own-adventure of personal finance meant to simulate paying for college.

Durham-based McKinney advertising agency created the game for the financial literacy nonprofit Next Gen Personal Finance. Jordan and Haynes were among a class at Hillside High who recently got the opportunity to try out the game, which was recently launched. First, the two applied for and chose a college.

Credit / McKinney
This screenshot from the game Payback shows the player's options after applying to several colleges.

“I guess we’ll do in-state public. So it says we’re $7,772 in debt already,” Haynes reads, just before beginning fall enrollment at the fictional in-state university.

“And it looks like our happiness and everything else is at a medium, like 50 percent,” Jordan notes.

Jordan and Haynes are business-minded students. They start off frugal. At their virtual graduation party, they get a windfall of $750 in cash.

“Do we treat ourselves, or save for school?” Haynes asks Jordan. “We gonna ball out? We’ll save -- that’s probably smarter.”

But they’re not too frugal.

“Okay, after six months, eating at a dining hall is not so fun, your friends want to go out for dinner every Friday night ... you want to go out every Friday night?” Haynes asks Jordan. The two decide to compromise and only go out to eat once a month.

Around the room, Haynes and Jordan’s classmates are having their own troubles.

“We about broke! We in debt,” says senior Jasmyne Crews.

“Yep, I dropped out, unfortunately, you know, just working, less focus on school,” explains Jalen Lea.

“My focus is terrible, $30,000 in debt, so, it’s not going too good,” said Robert Garrison.

Thankfully, they’re just playing a game.

Paying for college is hard. This is the time of year when high school seniors are beginning to fill out financial aid applications and get their first college acceptance letters. Many will take out their very first loan next year, but have never had a lesson in personal finance. Creators of the online game hope to change that.

That’s part of the game: balancing finances with friends, focus and overall happiness. There’s a meter to track your levels of each, as you face unexpected opportunities and pitfalls. If one of your meters drops too low… you drop out of school.

After a few minutes, Haynes and Jordan hit a pitfall after they decide to become resident assistants in their dorm, to save money on housing. While patrolling a hall one Saturday night, they find underage residents drinking and decide not to report it. They get busted for not doing their job, lose their position and have to return their housing stipend, and then, they hit the biggest obstacle.

“You didn’t keep up with your GPA and you lost your scholarship!” Haynes reads from a notice on the screen. “ ‘You’ll have to drop out. Unfortunately, you’ll still have to pay back the money.’ Oh, we lost, dang. $11,000 back! Oh my gosh.”

It quickly becomes clear that there are lots of ways to lose the game. Some students get behind in their classes, or run out of money. Others drop out because they’re unhappy and can’t cope. You can even finish school, with almost no connections, and then not be able to get a job.

So how do you win?

“The way to “win” at Payback is to graduate with a student loan debt that’s less than your first year starting salary,” explains the game’s creative director Jenny Nicholson.

That surprises most of the high schoolers who want to pay a lot less.


Credit Liz Schlemmer / WUNC
Payback's creative director Jenny Nicholson leads a demonstration of the interactive game.

When Nicholson leads demonstrations like this one, sometimes she has to console students for results they don’t seem too proud of.

“That’s not bad though, congratulations! You only have to pay 10% of your income every month to your student loan. That’s a win!” Nicholson tells one student.

College graduates in North Carolina on average had about $25,000 in debt when they collected their bachelor’s degrees. And that’s lower than the national average.

“Really the objective of the game is simple, to get students to think about picking a college based on more than just what name they want on their tee shirt,” Nicholson says.

The game’s creators want students to learn not to nickel-and-dime themselves into deep debt, but also to start thinking of all college expenses as financial investments. Did it work?

Haynes and Jordan played the game twice. They say that the first time they “went with all the cheap stuff,” to save as much as possible. The gamers figured players would do that, but that kind of behavior isn’t realistic. So they built in consequences, to show that there are drawbacks to treating college like a bargain store. For example, when buying textbooks, players can buy either a new book, a used book or a rent their book.

“We went with renting because it was cheaper, but the thing is you can’t take notes in the book and if you lose it you have to pay an extra hundred dollars,” Haynes explains.

Payback has a lot of those catches. There are also no instructions and no button to go back a step. Like life, you have to figure it out and deal with the consequences. The hope is that these students will learn from their virtual mistakes when they head to college next year.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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