College on the Cheap

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Debt-Free U

By Zac Bissonnette
Portfolio Trade
304 pages

If American higher education is about to get its comeuppance, as many experts are predicting, author Zac Bissonnette’s snarky new book – Debt-Free U – will certainly have played a role in making it happen.

Debt-Free U is written as a how-to guide for prospective students and their parents who cannot afford the huge tuition payments necessary to finance an education at an elite college or university. But in the course of explaining how to get the best education for the lowest cost, Bissonnette manages to dispute or disprove all of the ideas about education that are held sacred on the nation’s most prestigious campuses.

Among the many notions about higher education that Bissonnette challenges are these:

  • Paying to go to an expensive, elite college is a good investment because its reputation will bring a higher salary.
  • College graduates can easily pay off student loans with the increased income their diploma will get them.
  • The higher the price, the more money a college spends on teaching.
  • The best colleges have a low student-teacher ratio.
  • It’s important to pick a college that excels in the prospective student’s chosen field.

Bissonnette insists that the smartest economic decision prospective students can make is to start their post-secondary education at a good community college, where they can get all of their general education credits for pennies, compared with what these courses cost at four-year schools. After that, he suggests, they should transfer into a four-year state university, preferably as a student in the honors program.

Quoting a comment he found on Daily Beast, Bissonnette adds: “The truth is that a motivated student can get a better education at a junior college than an unmotivated student can at the most prestigious Ivy League school. Parents need to realize that no college can remake your slacker child into a motivated successful adult. … If parents want to waste money sending their precious mush-brain to Yale or Harvard, then there is little we can do to stop them. Stupid runs in families, unfortunately.”

There was a time, not long ago, when such comments would have been greeted by the educated class as heresy. But the skyrocketing costs of a college education, combined with the inability of many graduates to find jobs during the current recession, have emboldened skeptics to speak up. There also has been a groundswell of complaints that the current system of higher education prevents low-income kids from joining the middle class.

Although Bissonnette is only a senior at the University of Massachusetts, he knows his subject. The book, based on his personal experience, is subtitled “How I Paid for an Outstanding Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching Off My Parents.” A resident of Massachusetts, he started his college career at Cape Cod Community College and then transferred to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He also writes regularly for the website DailyFinance.

Most of the nation’s wealthiest and most successful business leaders, Bissonnette notes, did not go to prestigious colleges. He counsels students to delay their applications to big-name schools at least until they have an undergraduate degree from a lesser school. He cites the story of Brittany Blackburn, who attended community college before transferring to Ohio State University as an upperclassman. After graduating debt-free from Ohio State, she was admitted to Yale Medical School, “where she also has a scholarship that actually pays her $50,000 per year to take classes.”

Blackburn “interviewed at many top medical colleges and was never even asked about the community college credits for science classes that appeared on her transcript,” the author writes. “In fact, she told me all of her recommendations for medical school came from professors at community colleges.”

Still, Bissonnette admits that one powerful deterrent causes parents to resist sending their children to community colleges: social pressure. Whenever one parent meets another parent who has sent his kid to Harvard, he notes, it is hard for the first parent to admit his child is enrolled in the local community college.

Bissonnette says the widely held notion that four-year colleges do not want to accept kids from community colleges is, in his words, “bull crap.” At the University of Virginia, where a majority of transfer students come from community colleges, a policy is in place that provides for  acceptance of any in-state community college graduate with a GPA or 3.4 or higher. “Get an MBA from Harvard, and no one will much care that you did your undergrad at Budget State,” he writes.

 While the book plows some well-worn territory by criticizing books and magazines that purport to rank colleges and universities and by doing some hand wringing about the high price of textbooks, it takes an unusually harsh view of college loans, even the low-interest government loans that are normally seen as being good. It notes that 67 percent of 2008 graduates had loans to repay, and their average debt load was $23,200. Bissonnette urges readers to go to StudentLoanJustice.org to find stories of people whose lives were ruined by student debt that far exceeded their ability to pay. Similar stories can be found at Projectonstudentdebt.org.

Like many commentators, the author sees the prevalence of heavy debt among students at for-profit colleges as a reason to avoid them entirely. “For students interested in pursuing career-oriented education with a very specific goal in mind,” he writes, “there may be a role for for-profit colleges – although I’m still skeptical of how they could possibly provide anything so much better than community college options that they’re worth the extra money.” He apparently does not realize that many community colleges have been turning away students for lack of space and funding.

He makes a good case that it is foolish to select a school that specializes in a particular major. He notes that 80 percent of students change their majors at least once, and many do it three or four times as they discover new interests.

There is no question in Bissonnette’s mind that students ought to work their way through college, especially if the only alternative is to borrow money. He is skeptical of those who caution students against working more than 10 hours a week, but he also admits that a full-time job can prevent a student from getting good grades.

Mediocre students will find that the book is geared primarily to the highly motivated students who could get a good education anywhere. Yet Debt-Free U has the makings of a best seller, and that will likely enable the author to bank enough money to attend a high-priced graduate school, if he wants.