Gleeful Approach to Debt

With one kid about to enter college—and me trying to figure out how to pay for it—and another recently graduated—and me still trying to figure out how to pay for her—the New York Public Interest Research Group didn’t need to dangle a one-on-one celebrity interview in front of me, and a fun house-style installation, to persuade me of the wisdom of a website they launched last week. The goal of the site—collegefinancecenter.org—is to provide information to help students afford college without amassing crippling debt.

I was more than happy to attend their rollout—and perhaps pick up pointers about avoiding personal bankruptcy—which included a tête-à-tête with Jane Lynch, a star of TV’s “Glee.” Among her other credits is “Best in Show,” in which she plays Christy Cummings, the lesbian dog handler and butch better half to Jennifer Coolidge’s Sherri Ann Cabot, and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” in which she plays Steve Carell’s sexually candid electronics-store boss.

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Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal

‘Glee’ star Jane Lynch, center, at a press appearance to promote a new website designed to help students preparing for the cost of college.

If I’d been asked to come up with subjects to address with Ms. Lynch, college debt probably wouldn’t have been at the top of my list. And I’d be less than truthful if I said I arrived with prepared questions. The actress and comedian told me she’d gone to college in the ’70s—Illinois State University as an undergraduate, and then graduate school at Cornell, where she got an MFA in theater. “That was basically paid for,” she remembered, referring to her graduate-school years and the scholarships that paid for them.

She figured she acquired $60,000 in debt, paid off by the time she was 30, even though her father was a banker. “My dad was a mid-level banker,” she said, lest I assume he was in the Jamie Dimon/Lloyd Blankfein too-big-to-fail category. “He made maybe $60,000. We were solidly middle-class.” Ms. Lynch also had siblings. “My parents paid some of it; my student loans picked up the rest.”

More applicable, she said, are the phone calls currently hounding one of her college-age nieces. “I have a niece going into her senior year,” she said. “She’s got a loan she’s required to pay back now.”

The actress thought she’d been asked to be the face of NYPIRG’s National College Finance Center’s “Don’t Major in Debt” public-service campaign because of her appeal to a certain age group. I assumed she meant males with off-color senses of humor between the ages of 6 and 60. But she contends her fan base is teenage females, followers of her Sue Sylvester character in “Glee.” “Most of the people who stop me on the street are 14-, 15-, and 16-year-old girls,” she said. “If I have a demographic that would be it. I’m the older person they listen to.”

The admirable purpose of the website is to help those entering college avoid being haunted by student loans for the rest of their adult lives. “The website is intended to be a safe place to explore options—what you can and cannot afford,” explained Rebecca Weber, NYPIRG’s executive director. “The most important mantra is free money first—grants and scholarships.”

While waiting for the press conference to start—I, apparently, wasn’t the only journalist to be granted a one-on-one with Ms. Lynch—I was introduced to Michael Porte, the owner and creative director of the Field, the ad agency that produced 30-second TV spots to accompany the campaign. They feature Ms. Lynch gently lecturing a little girl who is clipping coupons to pay for her college education.

I broached a subject that I suspected wasn’t addressed anywhere on the NCFC’s website: Forget about kids, what do you tell parents who overextend themselves by paying full fare at prestigious colleges because they’ve been told that in a depressed economy, and with the colleges themselves scrambling for funds, their children stand a better chance of getting accepted if they don’t apply for financial aid.

“That is a rumor everyone is hearing,” Mr. Porte acknowledged. “College is too expensive. They’re trying to make sure they can get the full fare.”

Beyond that he had little advice. Then again, persuading children, and especially their parents, that their kids can get just as good, and a lot cheaper, education at a state school as at Princeton, Stanford or Swarthmore, and that everything is vanity, is probably asking a bit much of a website.

Ms. Lynch eventually addressed the press conference, saying pretty much what she told me in private (and here I thought we’d enjoyed a special, albeit all too brief, chemistry). And then she led us out a door and up an elevator to the “Don’t Major in Debt” installation.

It actually began in the elevator where the operator, who I thought was just your typically overqualified hipster, but who turned out to be an actor/volunteer, started lecturing us on—you guessed it—debt. It felt slightly odd because his audience consisted of Ms. Lynch and a bunch of reporters in a very confined space.

It only got weirder. We wandered from room to elaborately contrived room, Ms. Lynch in the lead, where we interacted with volunteers working off a script. One was a young woman in a bathtub filled with leaflets. They said things like, “The interest rate on a loan can be fixed—a rate that stays the same over the life of a loan—or variable—a rate than can fluctuate over the life of the loan.” In that regard, perhaps the morning’s best and most succinct advice came from the comedian herself. “My father is a banker,” she had told the crowded press conference. “He said always go for the fixed rate.”

In the next room were blue, mood-lighted shelves filled with nothing but alabaster piggy banks and an actor in a lab coat and goggles. He instructed one of us to pick out a piggy bank, don a pair of protective glasses, and smash the bank. Inside wasn’t money to pay off student loans, alas, but a helpful message.

“Always apply and get all the free money available before taking out student loans,” the fortune read.

Our adventure ended with each of us being awarded a party-favor balloon in a room filled floor-to-ceiling with them. As soon as I got outdoors I gave mine to a little girl, so I can’t say for sure what the message written on the balloon’s side was. I suspect it was a warning against amassing college debt. Unless she let the balloon float away—which I was planning to do—maybe she’ll still remember its message when she’s applying to college. She may even want to consider a couple of years of community college. That was another hint somebody gave me.