College Doesn't Have to Involve Debt

Earning a college degree shouldn't involve sinking into debt, an author and UMass student writes in his new book.

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Should you borrow for college?

Zac Bissonnette, the author of Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching Off My Parents, doesn't think so.

In his provocative new book, Bissonnette believes that earning a college degree shouldn't involved sinking into debt. He not only cautions students, but parents as well, about the hazards of borrowing.

Whether or not you believe that college debt is toxic, the book contains lots of advice that can help students select schools and put their years at college to better use.

Here are some of Bissonnette's more interesting insights:

1. State universities are a great educational bargain. The best way to achieve a pay-as-you-go education is to attend state schools, which are priced most reasonably, says Bissonnette, who is a senior at University of Massachusetts—Amherst. Bissonnette is a huge booster of state universities, in part, because they offer a wider array of courses and majors, students can live among a more diverse student body, states subsidize the tuition and college towns are fun.

[See which schools have a diverse student body.]

Even at a huge state university, there are ways to make an education more rewarding by reaching out to professors, enrolling in honors classes and pursuing independent study opportunities.

2. Pick your major carefully. Too many students are business majors, complains Bissonnette, who is majoring in art history. According to the latest U.S. Department of Education statistics, 21 percent of 2008 graduates earned a business degree making it the most popular major.

[See which schools have the best undergraduate business programs.]

"The best argument against majoring in business," Bissonnette writes, "is that it is such a common major—the most common major in the world. The only thing a business major really says about someone is that they entered college with the goal of earning a lot of money. This can make it very difficult for graduates to differentiate themselves from their classmates when they enter the job market..."

Bissonnette suggests that students pick a major that they will excel at academically. According to one employer survey, 70 percent of hiring managers say they screen applicants based on their GPA and the largest number say a 3.0 GPA is the cut off. Labor studies have shown that students with lower GPAs have more difficulty finding jobs and earn less money.

3. Stop thinking that you need an Ivy League degree to succeed in life. Bissonnette laments that the Ivy League mystique has such a chokehold on some families that they believe that a 19-year-old's career aspirations are dead at this young age if he or she doesn't get into one of these eight schools—or other highly elite institutions.

Thankfully Bissonnette drives a stake through that irrational fear. Bissonnette cites a famous study by a Princeton University economics professor, who examined the earnings power of Ivy League graduates, as well as bright students who were accepted into Ivy League schools but attended less selective schools such as Rutgers. Twenty years later, the two groups were earning the same level of salaries.

In his book, Bissonnette also includes a chart of the chief executive officers of the 20 top Fortune 200 companies for 2010. Only three of these CEOs attended Ivy League schools as undergraduates. The other CEOs, including those heading up Walmart, Exxon Mobil, AT&T, and Ford, graduated from such institutions as Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Kansas, University of Central Oklahoma, Gannon University, and St. Cloud State University.