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The comic extremes of student debt

Michael Torpey is the host of TruTV's new

Michael Torpey is the host of TruTV's new game show, "Paid Off. Credit: Jeremy Freeman

‘Welcome to ‘Paid Off,’ the game show that helps pay off your student debt so you can stop hoping to get hit by a well-insured bus,” jokes the host of a new show that, you guessed it, helps students pay their debt.

Contestants begin by introducing themselves by name, alma mater and debt balance. No matter how well intended, the show highlights the absurdity of crippling student loans in this country: Affording an education is a prize, not a necessity.

Forty-four million borrowers ages 20 to 30 owe $1.4 trillion in student debt. This is larger than credit card and auto loan debt combined. About 1 in 10 student borrowers is behind on repayments — the highest delinquency level of any type of borrowing, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

The average cost of private U.S. education is around $34,000 a year, and some of the most expensive college tuitions reach $70,000 a year. Our education-loan system is not present in many other countries: In places like Britain, Canada and Germany, education is much more affordable.

Many private lenders prey on young, vulnerable and often excited-to-go-to-college students, a problem compounded by enormously high loan interest rates. Navient Corp., for example, was accused in ongoing state-government lawsuits of making billions of dollars in risky student loans to borrowers who had little expectation of repaying them.

Even though the cost of undergraduate education is often exorbitantly high in this country, repaying loans is also difficult for students with lower tuition. Students at both private and public schools are saddled with very high-interest debt, for sure. But that can be especially difficult to overcome for students who graduate from non-name-brand schools and start with lower incomes.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is potentially making the situation worse. She plans to eliminate Obama-era regulations that forced colleges to prove they provide “gainful employment” opportunities to students who are likely to take out loans. This is a drastic step backward.

A few U.S. colleges, like Norwich University in Vermont, are trying a different model: It will pay your tuition as a portion of your future salary. This model, similar to the one in Britain, allows students to take advantage of their degrees to find a job first, without worrying about loans hanging over their heads. Public colleges and universities in New York State have worked out a free tuition agreement for students whose families make under a certain amount.

At the forefront of the Democratic socialist movement, including the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, people are advocating for free higher education. That would be a drastic transformation, but it would be a serious investment in the nation’s youth.

While free tuition across the country seems unlikely in the near future, we need a huge shift in higher education to make college more accessible and affordable. The youngest, and often brightest, people in this country are being punished as they try to achieve educational excellence — something modern society dictates we can’t succeed without.

As “Paid Off” host Michael Torpey says in his closing remarks, “Folks, we helped four people pay off their student debt today, but there are 45 million Americans out there struggling with their student loans. It doesn’t have to be this way. Call your representative right now and tell them we need a better solution than this game show.”

Isobel van Hagen is an intern with Newsday Opinion.