Go to College on Your Own Dime, or Else!

Cheeky and blunt, reading Zac Bissonnette’s new book, Debt-free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching Off My Parents, is like having a bucket of ice water poured over your head. He makes the case that getting an excellent college education is not about how much money you’re willing to expend, but how much you’re willing to sacrifice and be rational for it. His strictly economic approach to college costs will have you thinking twice about the assumptions families make as they consider paying for college. He’s a no-nonsense young man with a Depression-era soul: You pay for what you want, cash on the barrel; debt is not an option.

It’s an article of faith that most families will rely on substantial loans to help pay for four years of college; it’s practically the parents’ obligation, the way they tell their kids they love them. Parents (and students) end up taking on significant debt that will last many years after college is over. Right off the bat, Zac tells parents, “Do not risk your own financial well-being to help your kids go to college.” He advocates a hard way to prepare financially for college: The first rule is “Every dollar that you contribute [to your kid’s educational expenses] must come as a result of cost cutting in some other aspect of your life, not from a reduction in savings.” Or to put it even more bluntly, “parents contribute to college by downsizing their lifestyles, not their emergency funds, home equity, or retirement accounts.”

I’ve heard financial aid officers talk about parents who complain about college costs because they’ve just bought a yacht, so this kind of common sense has a bracing zing to it. Zac’s suggestions for downsizing can seem simplistic (quit smoking, go on cheaper vacations, keep your car for an extra year, etc.), but, well, what makes more sense for most middle class parents in the long run, sacrificing a few lattes now and putting the money in a college fund, or digging into the IRA? Put that way, it seems like a no-brainer.(“Get a second job,” however, seems a bit iffy in the current economic climate.) There are more ideas, but the basic one is: Love is never having to say you’re needy.

Zac spends a good portion of the book “demystifying” financial aid, analyzing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and other devices that seem to make going into debt for college a logical and even commendable thing. He’s particularly unsparing of colleges’ financial aid officers: “These people work for the college, not for you. Don’t be confused by their innocent-sounding titles: their job is to help students come up with the money to attend their institutions through whatever means necessary….[T]hink of financial aid people as mortgage salesmen who are happy if and only if you find a way to send your kid to their school.” Ouch. Even if it’s hyperbolic, a statement like this makes you stop and think about the transaction you’re about to get into.

He also looks at the various ways parents can be seduced into taking on more debt than is wise to pursue a “dream” college. Zac debunks the ideas that there is a “good fit” college worth going into debt for and that student debt is “good” debt because it enhances the individual and his or her future earnings, especially when the intangibles of college are involved. In strict economic terms, student debt is extremely dangerous. For one thing, “You can’t cash in your education to pay off your loans.” Additionally, student debt is the only kind that cannot be discharged through bankruptcy, so if the worst happens, you’re still on the hook. He shears away the romance of going into debt for college.

The rest of Debt-Free U builds on the idea of being economically rational, emphasizing the financial and academic advantages of public higher education and community colleges. Zac makes no bones about his prejudices. Forget about the idyllic images of expensive private colleges worth going into debt for; he demonstrates how students can get an “Ivy League” education at public institutions. (Zac’s alma mater is the University of Massachusetts–Amherst, down the street from my own institution of the same name. Did I mention he was still in school when he wrote this book?) He writes about college attendance as an issue of “marginal return:” “That is, what would your child do without a degree from a certain college? Most likely get a degree from a different college…When you’re looking at a college’s return on investment, you need to compare it to other colleges that your child could also attend.” And if you can get an equally good education at a less expensive college, why wouldn’t you?

That’s where expensive viewbooks, elaborate tours and “prospective student weekends” come in, of course. Colleges are trying to sell the sizzle, as Don Draper might say, and distinguish themselves from other institutions. But Zac insists there’s relatively little difference in colleges from an economic point of view. “When college people talk about the ‘investment’ you are making in your child’s education, there is an overwhelming probability that they are spewing crap.” QED!

Debt-Free U‘s total emphasis on the economics of the college transaction focuses on the economic value of education to the exclusion of anything else. Why take any of those “unnecessary” core courses or irrelevant philosophy or history courses that aren’t going to help you get a job? That’s a much larger discussion, of course, but we do need to understand how compelling the image (and reality) of the lovely, secluded temple of learning can be, even if it’s economically irrational to pursue it. Applying Zac’s advice to buying a car, we’d all simply buy the most stripped down, no-frills car there is since we only need it to get from point A to point B. But that’s not what we want. College choice is much more than a simple economic transaction even if it can be seen as such.

Even with this reservation, Debt-Free U is worth reading to balance out the emotional/status-driven side of the college equation. Parents who feel they shouldn’t hock the house to pay for their child’s college will have some ammunition for an argument; parents in thrall to rankings may come out of their trances. They may still feel like Scrooges, but in the end, drawing down their own resources when their children will have plenty in the future does seem nutty. With all his emphasis on paying one’s own way in college, it’s surprising Zac doesn’t spend more time exhorting families to start early (like when a child is born) to save and invest for college, but he seems to accept that most people don’t think that far ahead.

Reading Debt-Free U is a little like seeing a flame of the Protestant work ethic in the wreckage of a consumerized society that considers debt a mark of distinction. (Think of all those who overbought in real estate and you’ll get the picture.) It’s doubtful you’ll agree with everything Zac says and you may be put off by his brashness, but parents and soon-to-be collegians may recalibrate their assumptions after reading the book, and that will be a giant step toward clarity in the complex social interaction that is “college.”