Debt-free U

Debt-free U

How I Paid for An Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching Off My Parents

Book - 2010
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Publisher: New York : Portfolio/Penguin, 2010
ISBN: 9781591842989
Characteristics: xii, 290 p. ; 22 cm
Alternative Title: Debt-free university


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Feb 04, 2018

While still a student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Zac Bissonnette wrote a book about how both students and parents can and should avoid debt at school. His basic advice is that if you cannot afford to take out loans or pay for everything out of pocket- and if you're like most people, you can't- Bissonnette recommends working through school an average of 30 hours per week (more during summers and school breaks than the school year) at a minimum wage job. Further, he recommends that students start at a community college for the first two years and then move onto a state university to complete their Bachelor's degrees. (It is also assumed that parents make contributions of $780 per year, or an average of $15 per week.) This is a lot of work and not as much fun as partying through college, but Bissonnette's argument is that working for the next fifteen to twenty years simply to service your student debt is much less fun.

I like the simplicity of the plan, but I'm not sure how realistic it is during a recession that features 8%+ unemployment and frequent stories about the 18 to 25 age group's inability to find work as they compete with workers middle age and older who can't afford to leave their jobs right now. However, parents might be able to make a larger contribution, particularly if they are willing to work an extra job or shift. Again, not fun, but for parents much less onerous than paying down their share of student debt, particularly when they should be saving for retirement.

That's the can; the majority of the book is about the should. The premise Bissonnette works from is that most people are in bad financial shape as it is, with very little in savings and precious little in retirement. Worsening your current financial condition and jeopardizing your future is bad advice in general. Specifically, doing so for student debt is even worse.

Like many others, Bissonette rejects the idea that student debt is good debt. In fact, by some measures it's very bad debt as it can't be liquidated like a physical asset such as a car, house or bank account. Further, its value is predicated on future earnings, and while he acknowledges that college graduates do earn more over their lifetime than high school graduates, he notes that the "return" is more like $800,000 over a lifetime, not $1 million. Further, if a high school graduate is not a strong student, sending him or her to college is usually going to be a bad investment as underprepared students are likely to dropout. While not in and of itself a tragedy, certainly this can be a huge detriment if they took out loans first. For such students, Bissonnette recommends starting at a community college and getting an Associate's Degree, noting that people with those degrees are likely to earn more than college dropouts.

Bissonnette devotes a great deal of time to illustrating why families want to avoid taking out loans, and why if they must they should wait until the end of their college careers and only take federal loans, never private loans. Borrowers have virtually no protections and in the last few years allegations of collusion between universities and lenders have been reported. It is possible for interest rates on loans to reach well past 18%, and sometimes as high as 29%. The process is confusing for adults, much less students 18 or under. Further, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form measures "affordability" in ways that don't reflect a need for retirement or certain assets. It also penalizes students who have worked to save money for college (it is for this reason that Bissonnette echoes advice that all student savings be put in their parents' names, not their own).


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