Debt-Free U: Paying For College Without Going Broke

Last Updated Aug 31, 2010 4:50 PM EDT

"I'm a 21-year-old student at a large public university, what do I know?"
-- Zac Bissonnette

Are you worried about how you're going to pay for college? Are you contemplating taking out loans to cover the tab?

If you are, spend a few dollars on a great new book entitled, Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships or Mooching Off My Parents.

The author of this provocative book is Zac Bissonnette, who is an art history major at the University of Massachusetts. Okay, go ahead and think it: "What the heck does this kid know?"

Bissonnette, a financial wunderkind, knows far more about paying for college than the vast majority of high school counselors, parents and teenagers. Bissonnette is a writer and editor with AOL Money & Finance and he is earning his college degree without relying on student loans. Just as impressive, even though he's paying for college on his own, he's still managed to squirrel money away in a stock portfolio and he owns some rental property.

Bissonnette, by the way, is not some pampered rich kid. When he was writing this book, his dad was in the midst of losing his house to foreclosure and his mom's finances are so precarious that she has to share a condo with her mother.

I was pleased to see someone in the trenches tackle the challenging issues that stress out families, who are intimidated and confused by the runaway higher-ed juggernaut.

Debt-Free U: College Advice

Here is a snapshot of just some of Bissonnette's advice:
  • For most students going to a state university will be the best and cheapest choice.
  • Ivy League schools and other elitist universities are overrated (hear, hear on that point) and he explores the stubborn myth that you need a degree from these schools to succeed.
  • Don't borrow for college. He doesn't believe parents should go into debt when they have their own retirement to worry about.
  • If students need college loans they should wait until their senior year in college to borrow.
  • Students should work while they are in college to pay the bills. He offers some interesting suggestions on college jobs.
Bissonnette also devotes part of his book to a subject that I think gets short shrift -- choosing majors and making the most of a student's time on campus. And that includes excellent advice about how to deal with professors.

Avoiding Student Loans

I don't agree with everything Bissonnette advocates including his aversion to student loans. (I suspect that his tough-love position emanates from his parents' financial messes.) I think loans are appropriate if they are used judiciously. I believe that students should only borrow through the federal college loan program. Bissonnette is dead on, however, when he states that private student loans are dangerous and should always be avoided.

I can completely understand his affinity to state universities. I happen to be a graduate of a land grant university (University of Missouri) and I received an excellent education there. In many cases, the state university will be the cheapest alternative. In Florida, for instance, the tuition and room and board is less than $12,700, which is hard to beat. But state schools, especially those with disgracefully low graduation rates, won't always be more economical than a $50,000 college that provides great financial aid.

One of the more interesting parts of Debt-Free U focuses on Bissonnette's advice to college students on how they can make the most of their college years so they can find good jobs when they graduate. In fact, the advice is so good that I'm going to devote my next post to Bissonnette's tips.

Lynn O'Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also writes for TheCollegeSolutionBlog.