Best (and most unsettling) college admissions book ever
My relationship with journalist Zac Bissonnette began on the wrong foot. He told me a high school from his part of Massachusetts was misrepresenting itself on my annual high schools list for Newsweek. I checked and decided he was wrong, which he found hard to accept. I assumed someone so certain of his conclusions had to be an experienced reporter. In fact, he was only 18.
That was just the first of the surprises he had in store for me. He turned out to be an entrepreneurial prodigy who had grown up in a family that did not have much money. He started his first business in the second grade, built his brokerage account to five figures by the ninth grade, and moved on to help run a personal finance site, WalletPop.com, for AOL.
Having developed a sharp sense of the real world unusual for his age, Bissonnette commenced the college admissions process. If the National Association for College Admissions Counseling had anticipated the dire consequences of one of the smartest teenagers in America encountering the ill-examined assumptions of their profession, they might have found some way to buy him off, maybe a full ride scholarship to Harvard.
Too late. Bissonnette is 21 now, a senior at the University of Massachusetts. He has written the best and most troubling book ever about the college admissions process, "Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching Off My Parents."
It is the perfect antidote for those seeing the unattainable top schools on the new U.S. News & World Report list and wondering how they will ever be a success going to No-Name University. It is thoroughly researched and taps the experiences of a student who investigated the odd and often-indefensible ways college is sold to families while he was going through the experience himself.
Beware if you are a high school guidance counselor, a college admissions officer, a college financial aid adviser, a college loan officer or just a self-appointed admissions expert like me or someone who likes to advise friends. Bissonnette considers many of us to be incompetent, unethical, or both, and I think he has a point.
There are far too many assaults on conventional wisdom in this book to summarize it properly. His grasp of the financial issues, from the flaws of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form to the benefits of investing in college-town real estate, is deep. His patience with the usual ways of doing admissions is thin.
He argues that families assume far more college debt than they have to, and students would have better educations and better lives if they took advantage of the many underutilized resources of affordable state universities, instead of spending a fortune at one of the private schools at the top of the U.S. News list.
Bissonnette fears nothing and nobody, including such revered sages of the admissions process as the late Loren Pope, best-selling author of books such as "Colleges That Change Lives." Pope extolled the virtues of small, lesser-known but relatively expensive private schools. Pope said "it is nonsense to think that bigger is better, especially in education. The good small liberal arts college will give you the best and most challenging education."
"I think this argument is absurd," says the 21-year-old Bissonnette about the assertion from Pope, the former New York Times education editor who died in 2008 at age 98. "I believe the quality of education is almost entirely up to the student, so it's ridiculous to paint with such a broad brush. One of the problems with Pope's arguments is that they rely too heavily on anecdotal evidence and interviews with students who had great experiences at certain colleges. … There are over four thousand degree-granting institutions in the United States, and according to the 2000 United States Census, there were 14.4 million Americans enrolled in undergraduate education, and many times that many alumni floating around in the workforce. Given that, you can find anecdotes and student interviews to say that any college is great or horrible."
College admissions and financial aid officers, Bissonnette argues, are in the business of promoting the success of their own colleges, not the financial security of their admittees' families. Using a Warren Buffett metaphor, Bissonnette says "looking to the financial aid office for financial advice is like asking a barber if you need a haircut." The only university to surprise him in this regard recently, Bissonnette says, was NYU, which he says has the nation's highest average student debt load of $33,600. NYU officials called the families of 1,822 admitted students and suggested that they think twice about the financial burden they were assuming. The university "deserves a gold star for it," Bissonnette says.
I have heard counselors telling parents that they are going to have to dig into their resources to get their child through school, but I have never heard anyone advise, as Bissonnette does, that "every dollar that you contribute must come as a result of cost-cutting in some other aspect of your life, not from a reduction in savings." Among his practical suggestions: quit smoking, stay home during vacations, drive the car an extra year, cut back on lattes or energy drinks, get a second job.
He says his book is useless for those who can afford to pay for college with no impact on their lifestyle, or those with a child so gifted that full room and board scholarships are guaranteed. (He adds that most parents put far too much faith in scholarships.)
For the other 90 percent of us, some unfamiliar solutions, like working the cash register at Walmart a few nights a month, "is a great alternative to being stupid and taking out loans," Bissonnette says.
He appears to have taken his own advice in many cases. He suggests that students interested in business, as he clearly is, should not pick that as a major because it is too common and will turn off recruiters. He is majoring in art history. He denounces parents who let students pick a college because "of the way the light filters through the trees." Despite his big state university's many practical virtues, he admits it does not have the most beautiful campus.
With the appearance of this short book, 280 pages for $16, those of us who have been handing out advice on this subject are in trouble. Some of his advice goes too far, like suggesting the savings from avoiding loans could be used for plastic surgery to beautify students and raise their chances of good jobs. But Bissonnette has our number. In a new age of financial restraint, we have not done enough to save college families from bankruptcy. Many of our advisees will be reading "Debt-Free U," and have questions for us.
| August 20, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories: Trends | Tags: best college admissions book ever, author Zac Bissonnette only 21, new book, still in college, suggests students make better use of state schools, warns against taking out loans
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