Getting out of college debt-free

Zac Bissonnette, author of “Debt-Free U," hopes to change the way that you think about college.

Before he even collected his college dipoloma, Zac Bissonnette became a published author and financial columnist.

At the top of the list of "impossible financial dreams," somewhere near paying off your home before you’re 50, is this – graduating from college debt-free.

Stratospheric tuition costs and plummeting endowments and aid have made the already-daunting process of paying for college overwhelming.

Zac Bissonnette has made the impossible exceedingly possible. Not only is this senior art history major at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, set to graduate in 2011 debt-free, without taking a cent from scholarships or his parents – he’s also written a book about how you can do it, too.

Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships or Mooching off My Parents” grew out of research Bissonnette started in high school, trying to find a way to get a solid college education without going into a lot of debt.

After keeping a blog on the same topic for years, Bissonnette found himself seated next to a literary agent and pitched his idea. Now, before he’s even collected his college dipoloma, Bissonnette is a published author, columnist with Daily Finance, and contributor to Huffington Post.

Here’s our conversation about his journey to financial journalism and publishing, and what he’s learned along the way.

Q: You published “Debt-Free U” in 2010, as a senior in college. When did you get the idea to write a book and what inspired it?

A: When I was in high school looking at my college options, my situation was the same as the vast majority of people: My family didn't have anything close to enough money to pay cash for me to go the dream private college of my choice, but we also weren't low income enough that I was going to get massive amounts of financial aid.

So I was faced with the same choice most people face: go to an affordable, in-state public college or borrow a bunch of money to go to a "better" private college.

There was a ton of social pressure to go to a "better" school, but I decided to do research into what the right decision was: If I look at this from a cost-benefit perspective, is it better to borrow the money and go to a better school or is it better to go to a "lesser" school? The research into that – that I did while I was in high school – was the basis for “Debt-Free U.”

Q: How were you able to publish it with few connections in the industry?

A: I started my own financial blog when I was in high school, and eventually it got picked up by AOL, so I benefited from that "brand" and the traffic it brought, and started to see some of my ideas get picked up on other sites. My favorite financial writer of all-time was (and is!) Andrew Tobias, the author of “The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need,” and we actually became friends, believe it or not, after I e-mailed him some questions about one of his books. I ended up meeting him at a fundraiser in New York City – and was seated next to a literary agent, David Kuhn. I told David about this idea that I had – a book that would change the way people thought about college – and we went from there.

Q: How do you pay for college? Did you get any scholarships? Are your parents helping you?

A: I worked obsessively during high school – at a candy store, a grocery store, a theater, and I bought stuff at yard sales and sold it on eBay – and continued working and earning money during college. My parents are not helping me and I did not receive any outside scholarships, which, as I say in the book, are a very overrated and oversold source of college funding. Very few people will ever be able to win anything close to enough scholarships to be able to pay for college.

Q: How did your parents, and especially your father, inspire you to develop financial savvy early on?

A: My dad was a hippie: he drove a VW bus during the early 1970s, and actually lived in a tree house in a state park for a little while (until park rangers gave him the boot!). He's one of the smartest, most wonderful people I've ever met, but he's just not focused on money at all, and has had problems with it his whole life.

A few years ago, my dad's house was actually going through foreclosure, and he was staying at a friend's house, and I was sitting on the couch with him watching a baseball game. And I asked him, just off the top of my head: “Who do you think thinks about money more? You or Bill Gates?” And I’ll never forget his response: “Without a doubt, me. I spent my whole life thinking I was above money and that it didn’t matter and now it dominates my life and is all I think about. It’s like money is exacting its cruel revenge on me.”

Everyone needs to be on top of their financial lives, and the less motivated you are by money, the more you need to worry about it. We're seeing a generation of debt-loaded college grads whose life choices are constrained by decisions they made when they were 17 years old. We know from surveys that students who graduate with significant debt are less likely to pursue service-oriented careers – and more likely to take high-paying jobs that don't inspire them. That's a national tragedy and one I'm committed to fighting.

Q: What's the biggest mistake people make when planning which college to go to and how to pay?

A: The biggest mistake can summed up like this: People worry far too much about where they're going to go and not nearly enough about how they're going to pay for it. Recognize that your student's college experience will be determined primarily by what she puts into it – not the college she goes to. A good student can thrive anywhere, and if your kid isn't motivated and ambitious, he can go to the most prestigious school and get nothing out of it.

Q: What did you learn about paying for college as you were writing this book? How about the publishing world?

A: Most of the research for the book was really done when I was in high school sorting through this decision and trying to figure it out. I didn't approach this as an academic trying to figure out what other people should do. As for the publishing world? It's exciting!

Q: You take on some sacred cows in this book – you call college rankings “sales tools for magazines and college guides” and call student loans evil. Have you gotten some flak for this? Have you swayed doubters?

A: I've actually gotten less flak than I was hoping to. I think anyone who reads the book will see that this is not something you need to believe my opinion about. I tried to make it fun and conversational, but it's all backed up by research and data. People can go look up the footnotes!

As for winning people over, I've gotten tons of Facebook messages from readers who tell me I've changed the way they think about college – which is awesome because that was the goal from the beginning.

Q: What lessons do you want people to take away from Debt-Free U?

Relax, know that your kid can get a great education if he wants to (and that if he doesn't, no amount of money will change that), and commit to not ruining your financial lives in the pursuit of a sweatshirt with a prestigious logo on it.

Husna Haq is a frequent Monitor contributor.

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