Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Debt-Free U

College!!! With a 15 and soon-to-be 17 year old, college (or alternatives to college) is always on my mind. Especially the staggering cost of a four-year degree. So, when I saw Zac Bissonnette's book, Debt Free U, I figured it was worth reading.

First, a little background on OUR decision making process. I work at a branch of a private college whose main campus is about 4 hours from our home. My kids, as a benefit of my job, get free tuition at that school. Assuming they would be admitted, it would still cost me (at today's rates) over $20,000 for the three years of mandatory on-campus housing and a final year either in campus or off-campus housing. That's a chunk!

So--realistically--what are the options? For one child (I won't name names here!) there's the 2+/2 program--last two years of high school = dual enrollment for college credit. Huge savings, but....(there's always a "but," isn't there?) we live in a different state than the main campus. So, investigation # 1 is to find out if these credits will transfer.

If they won't? Well, the closest community college is a bike-ride away. Their standards are very low and people tend to drift in and out, not really serious about graduating. Still you could say the same about our Big State U, a two-hour drive upstate. There are three decent state universities (one in another state, but we have a reciprocal tuition plan) within an hour of our home. This could work, but part of college, to me, is going away. Still, economic reality has to figure in let's see what Debt Free U offers as possible solutions:

He, understandably, talks a lot about the value of a college education and if the uber-selective schools are really worth a life-time of student loan debt. Since neither of my kids are in any danger of heading to Harvard, I pretty much skimmed this. Sports or Academic Honors scholarships are pretty much not going to happen either. Nor are they very likely to head to graduate school. Instead, I took a look at a couple of the kids' stated career goals and applied what the book said to schools with those majors.

First--my plans:

  1. I want to avoid student loans of more than a do-able $5,000 total for four years.
  2. Both kids are expected to work and apply their earning to their housing or tuition, gas etc.
  3. Both understand about CLEP tests and will use them to save a little money on tuition.
  4. I want them to be able to go away to school, but living at home is a valid, and perhaps necessary, option.

What I learned from the book:

  1. He's RIGHT!! Housing at school IS a HUGE rip-off!! $600 a month for housing + meals that DO cost as much as eating out. Wow! Just plain Wow! In the small town where "our" college is located rents for apartments or (gulp!) trailers are far less than that. But, you can't live off campus for the first 3 years. Built-in money maker or part of the college experience? I'd say both.
  2. Community College is a very worth while option. You get what you put into it and then some. You do have to be motivated to get what you are seeking though and that can be a problem for kids raised with hovering parents. Happily it's been sink or swim for mine!
  3. Invest in college town real estate. Nice idea, but not possible for us.
  4. Check your assigned version of the textbook against the older ones--probably not much difference (if any, aside from design or type face, maybe a few newer references) that can save you hundreds of dollars. As a librarian I can tell you this is EXCELLENT advice. The cost savings, especially when buying used online, can be staggering. He also does the math to show a great comparison (that is perfectly legal, ethical) on renting versus buying and reselling textbooks.
  5. Skip work-study jobs unless they're heavily weighted to study time or provide a real stepping stone to your career. Excellent advice, although at a small college in Nowhereville, the college may be the main employer. (I did work study, but only because I could study all but 2 days per semester. Otherwise I wouldn't have.)
  6. Selling on Ebay--I know a lot of folks do this as a 2nd income. This looks like a good possibility for some extra income.
  7. Take Independent Study to enhance your career goals by working on projects that can actually turn into something to help your career. (I did this and he's right.)
  8. Become a bartender or sales person: Bar tending is out since they will be too young and since they'd get thrown out of "our" college. At a state u this isn't a bad choice if you can stay sober. The author likes commission sales jobs. I wonder if this is really practical for a student. With the economy in the tank I wonder what LEGALLY sold products would bring in real money right now?? (Happily he warns students off Multi-level Marketing deals like Quixtar/Amway or "make $$$ in your dorm room" scam deals.)
  9. Temping. This is only as good as the economy in the area of your college, but he's right, it can be an excellent deal.
What he missed:

Unless I'm blind, he missed two of the best ways to get a degree, get experience and graduate with a job: Co-op and ROTC.

  1. Cooperative education (co-op) is a program that lets students work for an employer in their chosen field part of the year and study part of the year. The student often then works for the same employer after graduation. May not cover all expenses, but it's a huge help.
  2. ROTC. True, the military is not for everyone. And, also true, the military is scaling back. But ROTC is still a great program. Leadership training is valuable in any field. A guaranteed job for a few years after graduation with housing and benefits thrown is a good thing, too. You do have to qualify with decent grades and meet the physical requirements. You also have to pick a school with an ROTC program. Not hard if you are going to a state school. And, many private colleges have ROTC thru a local state school as well.
UPDATED to reflect an excellent comment from a reader: Work as a Resident Assistant in the dorms and get all or some of your housing/meal bill paid. GREAT suggestion!!

He doesn't seem to mention much about the "welfare to work" option:
  1. The "welfare to work" option. This is one we are having to seriously look at. No actual government assistance, just public school or Mom paying. By this I mean, going to Career Center the last two years of high school, getting a job and moving up until you have a job with real benefits that include employer paying for your schooling thru tuition reimbursement or a tuition benefit. Say, for example, you get an office tech certificate. Find a job somewhere doing word processing, data entry, call center, copy shop work, etc. See what the employer will pay for--only a business degree? Better than nothing! Or, earn a CMA and then go to work and let them pay you to become an LPN and then a BSN.
Who should read this book?

First-generation college students and their parents. Absolutely. Folks who really haven't been able to save and invest for college. Young adults sick of their no-benefits, 2 or 3 cobbled-together part-time jobs who are now ready to try college (or try it again). Folks who think life is over if their kid has to go to a state U or (gasp!!) community college due to UNDERmotivated (shall we say). Newly divorced or otherwise single parents who need an education to survive. All are going to get something out of this book.

Take away moment for EVERYONE from the book:

The author did it. No debt for college. He did it. You can too.

For another good book on saving time toward college see my post on College Without High School by Blake Boles.


Becky said...

My school had a on-campus requirement but they would very occasionally waive it if you had family in town. You might see if your school has any loopholes like that and look at families through church or something like that who would be willing to board your children. You might be able to make some sort of psychological wellbeing argument with their histories if you worked at it. Also, I was able to start being an RA my junior year and you could sometimes start as early as second semester of your sophmore year. That paid all housing, offered a meal plan stipend and if you stuck with it and became a supervisor the next year, you also got a salary.

Hopewell said...

Thank you for reminding me of the R.A. jobs! EXCELLENT suggestion. It goes well, too, with one career goal.

Leila said...

We spent all our kids' education money on private classical education for them from K-8, then they moved on to the public high school. Starting second semester junior year, they could take classes at the local community college for half price, which they did. Kid#1 isn't sure what he wants to do, so he is working 30 hours a week and taking two classes a semester towards an associates degree. He lives at home, and will have enough money saved for two more years at a nearby college if he chooses. Kid #2 entered community college as a sophomore, then transferred to the state university system and got a 50% tuition scholarship. But she is taking all her classes online, and living at home. She has an excellent job 20 hours a week, and her employer will pick up the cost of some classes if she can justify them as job related. By the time she graduates with a double major, she will have $12,000 in the bank to be applied towards a house or a master's degree. Kid #3, currently entering her junior year, will probably do 2 years at the community college for an associates' degree, then live at home and work for a year, and will then have enough money saved for a 1-year program at NY film school, where she desperately wants to go. Kid #4 - too young to tell yet. We are very very blessed to live 3 miles from one of the nation's top community colleges. None of our kids have felt like they need the "move away to a 4-year college" experience to be complete. ... and NONE of our kids will graduate with debt. It can be done!

Hopewell said...

Leila: GREAT WORK!!! You have some awesome kids!!

Susan said...

Enjoyed this a lot, as well as the comments. This is on my mind as well lately, with kids 10,12 and 14. Thoughts: the dual hs/college credit seems to be a big thing now; I need to check into how that works in my state. Interesting that housing/meals are a rip off, because I remember even when I was in college figuring the cost of each meal. It was a lot! When someone would invite me to eat with them off-campus, it always made me uncomfortable because in my mind I'd be thinking of how much I'd already paid for the dorm meal (yeah, I'm weird like that). I remember, too, the HUGE expense books were. I'm hoping there will soon be cheaper options on those ... maybe e-versions?? The RA job sounds like a good deal - for those with good personalities for it. I remember, one year especially, I lived on a floor with so many bickering girls. They were constantly in the RA's room for "counseling" or whatever. I remember thinking that would drive me nuts! Thanks for alerting me to this book!

Hopewell said...

As a college librarian I can tell you they do everything possible to keep textbooks over-priced. E-books aren't always much cheaper. If you can get the Debt Free U book from the library he does some good calculation on renting textbooks versus buying them. Textbook shopping is an art now. Check with the professor of any class you are interested in for next year--see if he's changing the book assignments. If not, GOOD! Start shopping on Amazon or other used sites. You can save hundreds.

leila said...

There used to be a pretty good secondary market for used text books, but in recent years, at least in my neck of the woods, publishers have put a stop to that. They "revise" textbooks every year, so that, even if the newer version differs by the older version only slightly, the college bookstores and other enterprises which used to by back used books no longer will, because they only want to resell the most recent version.