Book review: Debt-Free U

Want to pay for an outstanding college education without loans, scholarships, or mooching off your parents?

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    'Debt-Free U' by Zac Bissonnette suggests that many people's college selection process is way off base: what makes or breaks success in life is the person and the opportunities available to them.
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Every Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance book or other book of interest.

When I went to college back in the late 1990s, my school was pretty much selected for me due to the scholarships I received. I didn’t have any financial resources of my own to help me get into college, nor was the internet widely available and full of easy resources to learn more how to acquire them. In short, I was left with a decision that seemed pretty much made for me.

Looking back, I realize that the decision was not as clear-cut as I originally thought. With my academic qualifications and financial state, I could have chosen from a lot of different schools, and the choice among schools was actually quite a bit different than I thought.

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In short, when my children choose a college, the process will be a lot different than my own process was – more open ended, more thorough, and with more ideas out there on the table.

This, of course, brings us to this week’s book review, Debt-Free U by Zac Bissonnette. The idea behind this book is that many of the standards and reasoning people use to select a school and pay for it are way off base. Instead, what makes or breaks success in life is the person and the opportunities they have available to them. Because of that (and some research to back it up), the book comes up with some interesting conclusions on the entire college selection process.

1 – How Much Can You Afford, and Where Will You Get The Money?
Bissonnette focuses this chapter on the idea that scholarships are overrated and loans are dangerous. So, how should one pay for college? The old fashioned way – by saving for it and paying for it out of pocket. Work a second job. Don’t fall into the trap that you have to go to the most expensive school you can find in order to get a “good” education. Most of the rest of the book focuses on these latter points.

2 – Student Loans and Stagnant Wages: A Dangerous Cocktail for Future Graduates
So, why no student loans? Anyone under the age of about 40 probably knows the answer: they can be a punishing load after you’re out of school. Not only have you sacrificed years of income in order to get that degree, you’ve also got huge debts to pay back. Often, even with a much increased earnings potential, it’s a zero sum game – or worse. The better approach is to pay as much out of pocket as you possibly can.

3 – Does It Really Matter Where You Go to College? The Solution to the College Funding Nightmare
That’s great, but great colleges aren’t cheap. Bissonnette’s argument against that is that the idea of a “great” college is overrated. Most people who are successful in their field don’t come from “great” colleges – they come from all over the place. What makes a success story isn’t the school the person goes to, it’s the person. Instead, you should seek out the schools that leave students with the lowest debt burdens after college, which are mostly large state schools.

4 – How to Make Any College an Ivy League College
But how do you get the “ivy” experience at Big State U? It’s all about how you approach it. A great college experience that you can base a career on comes from connecting with people and building your skill set at every opportunity. Networking, acquiring unique experiences, and building specific skills are the trademark of success, not the name on the degree that you get.

5 – Why Large Public Universities Are Better Than Private Colleges
Most of the time, big state schools offer the best opportunities to do those very things, given the large number of people there. There are countless opportunities at a large school that just can’t be found elsewhere. Simply due to the sheer numbers, you’re much more likely to find experiences that really click with you and enable you to build skills that match your talents and interests at big state schools – and that’s what draws attention in the workplace.

6 – The Community College Solution
Another advantage of a big state school is that it’s often easy to transfer community college credits. That means that while you’re in high school, during the college summers, and perhaps even during a year or two between high school and a four year college, you can get general education requirements out of the way at a very inexpensive rate at your local community college, drastically reducing the cost of a four year school.

7 – Make Money, Prepare for a Career
This was my favorite chapter because it so directly matches my own college experience. As established earlier in the book, the best way to maximize the value of college is to earn money while there to reduce your tuition bill. Also mentioned earlier, college is the time to have great experiences and build skills that translate to the post-college life. Why not do both at the same time? Seek out paid internships or work-study positions. See if you can find a job with a professor who is engaged in a field that interests you. Ask, ask, ask – it never hurts.

8 – How Your Child Can Save Money While He’s in College
The stuff here is basically personal finance 101 – avoid credit cards while in college, read your college bill carefully and ask about any and all fees you don’t understand, and so on. It’s valuable, though, because these types of tips can make an enormous difference on how much you have to take out in student loans and how much debt you’ll have after college. The lower both numbers are, the better.

9 – Invest in College-Town Real Estate
This chapter felt really out of place, because the rest of the book talks about great ways to minimize expenses and thus reduce any debt you have to incur after college. This chapter really speaks to people who already have a lot of money and are looking for someplace to sink it. Why not buy your child a condo as a gift as they leave for college? They can live there while in college, then rent it or sell it after school is over? Good idea, but it speaks to people with a lot more money than I ever dreamed of having in college.

10 – It’s Not Just a Personal Finance Issue: How to Solve the College Crisis
Bissonnette has a lot of good, if overly grand, ideas here. There’s just one that I really, really wish would take hold in society – I wish society would stop stigmatizing financial prudence. I understand why it won’t happen – marketers don’t make money from financial prudence. Still, if everyone were financially sensible, society as a whole would work much better.

Is Debt-Free U Worth Reading?
If you have children and have at least some intent of directing them towards higher education, or if you’re a high schooler or early college student with the ability to read and digest more than one viewpoint, Debt-Free U is a very, very worthwhile read. It’ll provide a ton of food for thought for your college planning process.

As with any book like this, though, couple it with your own homework. When you’re making such a huge choice, get information from lots of different sources – make this book part of your education about college choices, but never make one book the be-all end-all. It’s very solid and has a lot of great ideas on maximizing every dollar from your college education, but it deserves to be coupled with additional reading, as does any book on a major life decision.

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