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Is a Debt-Free College Education Possible?

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Congresswoman Virginia Foxx’s recent comments about how she has “little tolerance for people who tell me that they graduate with $200,000 of debt or even $80,000 of debt because there’s no reason for that” added fuel to an already raging fire over the affordability of a higher education, and what—if anything—the government should be doing about the roughly one trillion dollars in outstanding student loan debt.

Putting politics aside, is she completely out of touch with the reality of the cost of a higher education today? Or is it possible to graduate debt-free—even if you (or your parents) haven’t socked away enough, or if you don’t earn a coveted free ride to the school of your choice?

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I put out a query looking for stories from students or (their) parents who have recently—or will soon—graduate without college debt. I only got three responses, but each shared some common advice that may give prospective students (and their parents) hope that it is possible to earn a four year degree and not owe half your paycheck to student loan lenders when you’re done.

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Drink Less, Work More and Don’t Buy Into Hype

Zac Bissonnette, the author of How to Be Richer, Smarter, and Better Looking Than Your Parents was graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2011. He has no student loan debt.

His number one piece of advice? “Don’t fall for all the hype about how it’s so important where you go to school,” he says. “When you look at the real horror stories (about student loan debt) it’s usually people who bought into the scam that one school is better than another.”

“There are two sets of schools you should go to,” he insists. “Either one of the most elite schools in America or your state public school.” The top schools have large endowments and generous financial assistance, he explains, while in-state public schools offer “just about any major you need,” and are affordable. “The average cost is around $250/week including room and board,” he notes.

And stop focusing on the rankings of the “best” schools, which he believes get far too much attention. “Maybe one in five HR people are going to know the rankings of schools. Employers don’t read that. Unless you have kids in college, you don’t read that,” he says.

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Bissonnette also encourages students to work during school. “The average college student is drunk about 15 hours a week,” he says, and he’s not joking. At least some of that time could be spent working. He brushes off the idea that working will hurt a student’s grades. “Students who work more than 40 hours a week graduate on average with the same GPA as those who don’t work at all.”

And there’s another trap he says students should be careful not to fall into. The first year financial aid package may be quite generous, but once a student is enrolled, they’re hooked and each year, costs can go up/financial aid can go down. By the senior year, the student may find himself or herself taking on a lot more debt than planned.

Bissonnette is as blunt as Foxx at times: “There’s a lot of borrowing for college that doesn’t need to be happening,” he insists. But he quickly adds that he does have a lot of sympathy for students with massive student loan balances they have no shot at repaying. He believes it’s a rare 17-year-old student who is prepared to go against the advice of guidance counselors, his or her parents, and everyone else who is saying an education at a particular school is a good investment.

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Image: CUNY Academic Commons, via Flickr

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