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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,, 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.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education web page.

By Jay Mathews  | 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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@Jordan, absolutely you can save huge on your auto insurance by making these simple changes find how much you can save

Posted by: dannyblake20 | August 20, 2010 5:44 AM | Report abuse

Are you looking to file for bankruptcy? Compare your bankruptcy options and information

Posted by: luisjustin20 | August 20, 2010 5:48 AM | Report abuse

Paying for college costs is something that needs to be planned in advance of graduation. Ideally, if you do not have the actual money in advance, you should at least know where the money for the payments is going to come from.

And he's right. There are only two ways to pay your debts: Cut your expenses or grow your income. Neither of these should be postponed for four years, in the hopes that your dream job will be waiting.

If you take steps to deal with paying off student loans from the moment you sign your master promissory note, your debts will be less overwhelming when you graduate.

Posted by: collegeloanconsultant | August 20, 2010 8:51 AM | Report abuse

Loren Pope's books were well researched and based on outcomes data about the 40 colleges, in addition to testimonials from alumni. Great teaching can happen anywhere, but it happens most frequently at colleges like those Pope chose for his book, where faculty are hired for their dedication to teaching undergrads and where critical and creative thinking skills and collaborative learning is the norm, in communities that are small enough to allow this to happen.

Posted by: Eduvox | August 20, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse

Now and in the future, most families will need to approach college from a return on investment (ROI) perspective. Parents shouldn't jeopardize their retirement savings and (ideally) students shouldn't take out loans.

But if loans are a must, then the student’s job prospects following graduation must produce sufficient excess income to pay off the loan balance in a reasonable amount of time (e.g., 5 years).

Expensive colleges and low paying jobs following graduation don’t really compute.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | August 20, 2010 2:39 PM | Report abuse

For Eduvox---I am intrigued by yr message. What kind of outcomes data are you referring too? i am moving from office to home and don't have Pope's books beside me at the moment, but i don't recall any quantitative data applicable to all colleges. As we know from the US News list, there isnt much to measure what he was praising in smaller schools, and the best data we have, like the NSSE numbers, can't be used widely for comparison because not all colleges participate, and most that do decline to release their numbers.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | August 20, 2010 4:51 PM | Report abuse

End debt financed education - there should no more be tuition at public universities and colleges than at public high schools.

That is the solution.

Posted by: AnonymousBE1 | August 21, 2010 8:18 AM | Report abuse

AnonymousBE1 seems to be under the misapprehension that the public pays for public universities and colleges. In this day and age, s/he couldn't be more mistaken. Look at the percentage of your state university's operating budget that is coming from your state legislature. In the vast majority of places it's under 25%. Faculty and staff will not work without being paid. Electricity and heat are not charitable contributions. The public decided quite some time ago not to support its public institutions of higher education through its tax dollars. It's no great surprise that tuition is rising everywhere.

Posted by: mom22 | August 21, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

I absolutely love this kid. He has "Millionaire Next Door" written all over his future. Somewhere Ayn Rand is smiling right now.

As both a college educator and parent, I confess to never really understanding the logic of seemingly intelligent parents who voluntarily raided their personal retirement accounts in order to send Junior to some pseudo-exclusive private school when a competent state university was just down the road.

Even more baffling were the parents and kids who willfully chose to take on extraordinary levels of personal debt that would require servicing for many years to come.

On the plus side, it is reassuring to see that stupidity is not limited to only those with low IQs. It gives the rest of us hope.

And so it goes...

Posted by: pgould1 | August 21, 2010 11:39 AM | Report abuse

In regards to colleges, people are still in a "keeping up with the Joneses" dream world. I see so many kids going to expensive private colleges on loans, to study for careers that won't allow them to repay those loans. Parents must look at what the kid wants to do as a career and weigh the average salary for that career against the cost of the school. And if the kid doesn't know what he or she wants to do, then go to an in-state public university! If only common sense could be learned.

Posted by: AllieR1 | August 21, 2010 3:55 PM | Report abuse

FWIW, my DH feels that turning down a full ride at his local state college to attend Stanford was the best decision he ever made. He did have to spend 5 years in the Army in order to pay for Stanford but he was able to leverage the leadership experience gained to win acceptance to an ultra-selective Ivy League MBA program. And the contacts he had from his undergrad at Stanford helped him land a great job after business school.

I agree about not going into huge amounts of debt for college- but that doesn't mean settling for a mediocre state school.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | August 21, 2010 5:40 PM | Report abuse

I certainly agree with some of the arguments made by the writer (don't go into major debt for school) but in some cases he is definitely out in left field. An Art History major without the writer's investing/work background will never get an interview in a business field.

Posted by: Daytonian | August 21, 2010 8:46 PM | Report abuse

Mom22: the problem is that public universities should be publicly funded. Other rich countries do it - all of their students who attend state universities graduate debt free. Is there money for it? Of course. It is about priorities. The U.S. government spent $780 BILLION on the Iraq war. That would have paid for every students' education for many, many years.

Posted by: AnonymousBE1 | August 21, 2010 9:10 PM | Report abuse

"End debt financed education - there should no more be tuition at public universities and colleges than at public high schools. That is the solution." Posted by: AnonymousBE1
And finance it further with public debt and putting the burden on everyone? How is this any different, except to further separate the cost from the hoped-for-benefit, making it even more difficult to make sound spending decisions.

Posted by: JDunning | August 22, 2010 8:23 AM | Report abuse

So, JDunning, by your argument, there should be no public spending on education? The poor should be illiterate and innumerate? And if not, why stop at grade 12? There are lots of things that we choose to spend tax revenue on. It seems to me that education, along with health care, are two of the best ways. As for cost and benefit, if there are progressive income taxes, those who benefit greatly will later pay it back in taxes.

Posted by: AnonymousBE1 | August 22, 2010 10:51 AM | Report abuse

"Mom22: the problem is that public universities should be publicly funded. Other rich countries do it - all of their students who attend state universities graduate debt free. Is there money for it? Of course. It is about priorities."

States are free to fund public colleges and universities within their borders at whatever level they decide. State funding of public higher education was a lot higher in the past - e.g., 50%+ of student costs

Now, with rising Medicad and public employee retirement costs, states have gradually reduced their contributions to higher education. This has forces tuition costs to rise at higher rates than inflation.

California is a prime example of a state that has a high (and progressive) income tax (one of the highest rates among the states), but has recently reduced its contribution to higher education due to Medicad, prisons, public employee pensions, etc.

In the distant past, the cost to attend a California college or university was quite minimal. But those days are long past. California, the Golden State, is out of gold.

So using your argument, California should either raise income taxes even further, or cut back on a lot of other spending so as to favor higher education above all other spending priorities. If you are California income tax payer, increasing these taxes even further is a non-starter even if the system is "progressive".

An income tax system that is "progressive" doesn't mean that its pain-free if the rates are so high that they take too much from individual taxpayers.

Something tells me that you don't pay much in either state or federal income taxes.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | August 22, 2010 6:08 PM | Report abuse

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