How to graduate “debt free.”

By Melanie Muller

University of Massachusetts senior Zac Bissonnette has published a book, “Debt Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching off My Parents,” and was interviewed in August about his work by Ann Curry on NBC’s “Today Show.”

As of this fall, Bissonnette is a first semester senior here at UMass majoring in art history. He writes for AOL’s WalletPop.com, and his work has appeared in the Daily Beast and the Boston Globe.

In his book, Bissonnette argues that taking out loans to pay for college, which many currently believe to be a necessary evil of the college experience, can and must be avoided. Not only does he believe that students can get an equally good education without going into debt, but feels it is absolutely necessary for them to do this to ensure future success.

He describes in detail in “Debt-Free U” how difficult it can be to discharge the debt once a borrower goes into default, as well as how the necessity of servicing the debt even when not in default can cause students to make detrimental career decisions like staying in a job they hate. Moreover, the interest payments on the debt can keep students from saving for retirement and other important expenses.

One expert quoted in “Debt-Free U” estimates that the long-term default rate on student loans is nearly 33 percent. Given the risks associated with student loans, Bissonnette argues that taking them out simply does not make sense. Speaking about stories he has heard, Bissonnette said, “If you borrow $55,000 to go to Emerson, you’re an idiot.”

Instead, Bissonnette argues that students should choose less expensive options, such as in-state public colleges, universities, and community colleges.

He attacks the two main beliefs he believes cause students to make bad decisions: That students will not be successful unless they go to a prestigious college, and that students will not be successful unless they find the right college “fit.”

Bissonnette told the Collegian that there is “absolutely no evidence” to suggest that elite colleges provide a better education than public universities. According to Bissonnette, graduates of elite schools don’t report greater satisfaction with their education, either.

In the book, Bissonnette says that studies indicate that more public school students report satisfaction with their education than their counterparts at private schools, with 59 percent of community college graduates satisfied as opposed to 53 percent of those at four-year public universities and 52 percent of those at four-year private institutions.

“Some people will still insist that the private schools are better, but at that point, you might as well be talking about God,” he quipped.

As for the idea that it is essential to find the right “fit” to be successful in college, he argues that the factors causing students to make decisions about whether or not college is a good fit do not justify taking out loans and possibly jeopardizing one’s future.

In “Debt-Free U,” Bissonnette quotes a section from a book that promotes the idea of “fit,” “Acceptance,” where a student makes a college decision based on “the way the light filtered through the trees.”

“College is too big an investment to make emotional decisions like that,” Bissonnette said.

When Bissonnette made an appearance on the Today Show, Ann Curry said a study conducted by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, or “the voice of America’s private colleges and universities” as it is described on the association’s website, found that students at private schools show more satisfaction with their education than those at public schools. Bissonnette said that the majority of studies showed the opposite, and in an interview with the Collegian, he said that study is the only one that he has seen which indicates that private school students are happier with their education.

At times, Bissonnette said that he has been “screamed at” when he suggests that student loans are not necessary.

“I think that a lot of it is sour grapes,” he said. When asked what he thought it would take to change people’s opinions, Bissonnette replied that he thought most people who had not already invested in loans were smart enough when presented with the evidence to come to what he sees as the right decision.

He believes that it is also very important for students to choose a major that truly interests them, and said that he found in doing research for “Debt-Free U” that choice of major is much less important than many believe. This discovery influenced him to change his major from legal studies to art history.

In a 2008 interview with CNN, Bissonnette argued that it would be a mistake for students to radically change their majors in response to the recession.

Although Bissonnette believes that the social experience that residential colleges provide can be very valuable, he believes that students should have a choice whether or not to pay for this experience, and envisions possible future institutions that, like community colleges, would only contain academic facilities. He thinks that students should have more power in choosing what services to pay for.

“It’s stupid for students to be taking out loans to pay for a new gym,” Bissonnette said.

Bissonnette says that he has plans to write a new book which he recently made a deal for. That book will be a guide to help recent graduates manage their finances.

“Debt-Free U” can be found on Amazon.com, and is also in stock at the University of Massachusetts U-store in the student center.

Melanie Muller can be reached at [email protected]