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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Play the college loan game

A free game called Payback helps students plan for college costs. Photo: Roger Kisby/New York Times

Which college should I attend? How much can I safely borrow? Should I take a half-time job or an unpaid internship? Join a fraternity or sorority?

In playing Payback, a free web-based game, “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,” writes Ron Lieber in the New York Times.

Tim Ranzetta, who’s been promoting financial literacy collaborated with game designer Jenny Nicholson, who was the first in her family to go to college.

Collegebound students enter their grades, extracurriculars and home state, then get a choice of an in-state public university, out-of-state public university, private university or community college with expected tuition and financial aid.

Paying for college “is not just about debt but also about investment,” writes Lieber.

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? . . . 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.

The game makes it possible to run up debt, yet fail to complete college. That happens all the time in real life.

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