The pitch sounds a bit like a Hunger Games for the modern age: A new game show in which student loan borrowers compete against each other for the chance to wipe out burdensome debts.
But comedian Michael Torpey says a comedy trivia show is actually a perfect way to highlight the the absurdity of the student loan problem, which now impacts about 44 million Americans—or 18% of all U.S. adults.
“I’m hoping this show puts faces to the debt, and puts pressure on politicians and universities,” Torpey, an actor and writer who has appeared on VEEP and Orange Is The New Black, told Fortune, adding rather self-effacingly: “With my skills base, a stupid game show was all I could do.”
Premiering July 10 on TruTV, Torpey’s brainchild, Paid Off, will feature three contestants per episode—all of whom are saddled with college debts. The borrowers compete in three rounds of trivia for a cash prize, or the chance to wipe out their debts in their entirety. In the process, the borrowers also have the opportunity to tell their stories, whether they be teachers, first in the family to pursue a degree, or individuals that didn’t finish college.
But unlike the Hunger Games—or even regular game shows, where some players walk away empty handed—Paid Off is no zero sum game.
Every contestant will win at least some cash. Borrowers who come in last receive at minimum $1,000, while second place receives $2,000. And in each episode, one lucky audience member with debt will also receive some cash. Over the course of 16 episodes, the show will give away a total of roughly half a million in cash, distributed among more than 60 people.
The game show comes at a time when higher education has increasingly become a prerequisite for finding a job. Yet the cost of a degree has continued to soar, up 26% in the past decade for a private four-year degree. As a result, student debts have ballooned 139% in the same period, to $1.5 trillion during the first quarter of 2018. Even more worryingly, student debt appears to be one of the hardest debts to pay off. About one in 10 people fail to pay within 90 days of their repayment date—a higher rate of delinquency than mortgages, credit card debts, and auto loans, according to the New York Fed.
As a result, it can be a lifelong specter haunting borrowers. And it’s not just a financial millstone— student debt can also be an enormous emotional burden: Torpey says his wife broke down in tears immediately after finally paid off her own student loans.
“I didn’t realize what it was like to carry around that burden, wondering whether you are going to get that second cup of coffee in the afternoon,” says Torpey, who never had student debt of his own. “I was really ashamed I didn’t understand what that meant.”
There may be more stressful times to come for those still carrying student loans. Advocates say they are increasingly worried that the new administration may strip away more protections for college borrowers, in favor of laxer regulations on businesses and lenders.
“There’s been definitely more to be afraid of since President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos took office,” says Natalia Abrams, executive director of Student Debt Crisis, a non-profit seeking to reform the country’s student loans policies.
Abrams points for example to DeVos‘ 2019 fiscal year budget, which seeks to end public-service loan forgiveness. The program forgives student loans after 10 years, as long as the worker is in a government or nonprofit position. Alongside other changes in that proposal, it could add $200 billion in costs to those seeking a higher education degree, according to The Institute for College Access & Success.
In a sign of just how widespread and deeply emotional the topic has become, Torpey isn’t the only one in the industry centering—or at least trying to center—a show on issue.
About four months ago, Abrams of Student Debt Crisis says that she was asked to play a role in a different game show highlighting how crippling such loans could be. A large Los Angeles-based production company asked if she’d be willing in participating in a kind of Fear Factor for those with student loans. In the scenario she was given, the borrower would be covered in leeches and then quiz Abrams. Though Abrams had no interest in the part, she responded—only to learn that the position had been filled.
While Abrams declined to reveal the name of the production company, she did note that its unclear whether that show would actually make it to air.
Separately, famed thriller writer John Grisham penned a student debt-themed novel in 2017. Titled The Rooster Bar, the book tells the story of three students with severe debts who discover their for-profit school is a scam. The trio then turns to crime.
While the fact that the topic has trickled into popular media does give it a wider audience, Torpey acknowledges that his show in not “an ideal solution.” But he does hope that it will tug at heartstrings or induce of sense of justice in his viewers—pushing more people to reach out to Congress and find a solution to the problem.
“Online of course there are people who say this is the Hunger Game, capitalism. I apologize to people who think this is offensive,” said Torpey. “But my hope is that this show doesn’t not exist very long.”