Paying for College

Interview with Author Zac Bissonnette

December 27, 2011

Zac Bissonnette is an Associate Producer at CNBC. He is also a writer and author of the book Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching off My Parents.

There are a lot of books about college on the market, but Zac’s is unique.

For starters, Zac wrote the book while he was still a student at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

Secondly — as you’ll soon see — Zac’s take on college educations and how to pay for them differs greatly from the conventional wisdom that prevails today.

Zac’s book resonated with me because it includes so many of the conclusions that our family came to while going through the college search process for the first time.

In fact, I am such a fan of Zac’s book, that’s it’s one of only two books I’ve put in the Recommended Reading section of my Resources page here at The Family CEO.

Here is my two sentence review of Zac’s book:

Before reading this book I thought that the key to a debt-free education — assuming you didn’t already have a ton saved — was applying for multiple scholarships. Zac’s way is better.

Zac was gracious enough to agree to a Q&A at The Family CEO. Here is our conversation:

Julie: What is your background? Where did you go to college? What did you study?

Zac: I went to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and graduated with a degree in Art History.

Julie: Student loans are seen by many as “good debt.” Why did you decide to avoid them while getting your education?

Zac: Well when you look at all the data on this, you realize a few things: 1.) Student loans are not nearly as low-risk as most people think. Look at the default rates on them. 2.) People who graduate with a lot of debt are significantly less likely to pursue the careers they’re passionate about (or pursue grad school, or be stay at home parents). Student loans chain people to life plans that are often not good for their overally happiness, and that’s really sad.

Julie: How important is going to the right school (i.e. a highly regarded school)?

Zac: It’s nowhere near as important as the conventional wisdom says it is. All the research, which I cite at length in the book, suggests that your student’s success in his career will be determined by who he or she is, work ethic, social skills, etc., not the name of the school on a diploma.

Julie: What about students who are pursing high earning careers (medicine, engineering, law)? Are student loans more advisable for them?

Zac: Theoretically, yes. But the problem is that most people’s career goals change, and predicting what you’ll be doing in ten years is not as easy as the people who say “Never borrow more than your expected starting salary” seem to think. Less debt always gives you more options.

Julie: I was surprised by some recent statistics that showed that students at the Ivy leagues schools and others like them don’t accumulate a lot of debt. That’s completely counter-intuitive. What’s up with that?

Zac: Those top schools have huge endowments and very generous financial aid so as a practical matter–as I’ve said many times before–students smart enough to get into truly elite schools will likely not have to borrow money. Where people get into trouble with debt is at that second- and third-tier below Harvard, Yale, Stanford, etc. The problems are with New York University, Fordham Notheastern, etc.–those are the schools that families should be terrified of.

Julie: Many people (myself included) have been under the impression that working your way through college isn’t practical for today’s students, because tuitions have risen so dramatically. Yet you worked your way through without loans, scholarships, or help from your parents. Do you consider that do-able for anyone?

Zac: Especially with starting at a community college, it is doable. It’s not easy, but it’s definitely worth it and the resume that you’ll have and the narrative you’ll have when you do job interviews will be insanely valuable. The top stereotypes about young people in the workplace today are that we’re entitled, lazy, and expect instant gratification. What better way to counter that than to say “I worked 40 hours a week during college so I could graduate debt-free because I knew that long-term, it would be worth it?”

Julie: The title of your book references not “mooching” off your parents. What’s wrong with parents helping their kids go to college?

Zac: It’s funny. The original title that I had included the phrase “or looting my parents’ retirement,” but we ended up shortening it to mooching.

When I say mooching, what I mean is this: Too many parents are making financial sacrifices for their kids’ educational costs that put them at great risk. According to, 13.5 percent of parents are using PLUS loans to pay for college, borrowing an average of $23,298 — and then there are many more parents who are taking out home equity loans or withdrawing money from retirement accounts or depleting their emergency funds.

Middle-aged parents of college students are — and there’s no nice way of saying this — simply too old to be accumulating consumer debt. I don’t think parents should ever use PLUS loans and frankly, it’s a product that I wish didn’t exist.

So what I want parents to do is help their kids with college expenses by making short-term sacrifices — i.e. driving a car an extra year, selling stuff on eBay, or perhaps eating out less, as trite as that has become. I don’t want them looting retirement funds or taking out loans that will put them in grave danger if they lose jobs or see their assets decline in value.

Julie: Are there any circumstances under which you would recommend taking out debt to go to college? What about graduate degrees?

Zac: For graduate degrees, especially law school and medical school, it’s sometimes unavoidable. But I worry that too many people are going to grad school without giving enough thought to whether it’s really the best way to pursue what they want to do. This is especially true of MBAs. Anyone thinking about getting an MBA absolutely must read Josh Kaufman’s book The Personal MBA first.

Julie: What overall message would you like to leave with students and their parents who are in the process of navigating the college selection process?

Zac: Relax, and don’t think that this college thing needs to be the greatest experience of your life. It’s not terribly important in the grand scheme of things. What is important is not turning it into a debt-fueled orgy that cripples your future.

Julie: I want to thank Zac for taking the time to talk to answer these questions. I reached out to him because I believe his message is an important one, especially in this time of rapidly escalating college costs and exploding student loan debt.

How do your experiences attending or paying for college line compare with Zac’s?


  1. I got a job at a private university that doesn’t pay as much as others, but they have 100% tuition waiver for my kids. Our daughter is a sophmore there and our son is a junior in HS. My daughter has worked PT for a long time and easily pays for books and misc. fees. She chose to live at home and commute because she doesn’t get a waiver for living on-campus and it isn’t worth it to her.

  2. I totally agree with what Zac has to say in this interview. First, there are a lot of ways to cut down on college expenses- I went to college for 6 years and never paid tuition. Also, a college degree does not guarantee a good-paying job- it makes it more likely that you will earn more, but it really depends on your career path.

    I’ve found that he’s right- years into your career, it matters more what your experience, personality, and drive is than where you went to college.

    1. Audrey, I so agree with you. College is important, but it’s just one tool in the toolbox. Did you get scholarships to cover your tuition?

  3. Sounds like a great book. I definitely think it’s not the best choice to get in over your head with debt just to go to college. I worked part time and did tutoring to help pay the bills to minimize student loans while attending college and only ended up with a small student loan that was paid off within a short time.

  4. Love your blog – I have read only parts of it but I think I need to start at the beginning and go through the entire thing!

    I read this book as well and, like you, heartily recommend it. My husband and I were blessed to graduate from college debt-free back in 1988. His father was able to pay for college, and I had a full-ride scholarship. One of our goals is to help our three kids do the same, if they desire to complete college. Our daughter completed two years at the local (extremely affordable) community college before transferring to our alma mater, where she is now a senior. One son has been in and out of college since graduating high school in 1986, and boy am I glad that we haven’t spent any of our college funds on his education so far – he too attended community college. The other son was adamant that he WOULD NOT attend community college – until he found himself working at a dry cleaner this fall after all his friends had left town for school. Suddenly that track looked a lot more appealing. He will start school at the local college in January.

    What has made community college so affordable over the past 5 years are tax breaks such as the American Opportunity Tax Credit. We have essentially received sufficient tax credits (adding to our refund) to reimburse the tuition paid to community college. And we have taken advantage of textbooks for rent as well as used textbooks purchased on Craigslist,, ebay, etc.

    Our family is also fortunate to have access to GI Bill benefits due to my husband’s 23 years of service in the Army. I’ve been strategizing to maximize our use of these benefits across three students. We did save for college for many years, and that, too, has been helpful, but I think it would be very difficult to save enough to pay for an entire university education outright.

    If you ever have a chance to hear Zac speak live, take it – he sounds much older and wiser than his years, and he is a compelling speaker.

    1. Susan, I would most definitely jump at the chance to hear Zac speak. Thanks for the information on the tax credit and the GI bill. Your comment is a good reminder to make use of all the avenues available to pay for college.

  5. This book sounds wonderful! I worked 30 hours per week through college, but I spent it all on my rent, food and entertainment. I wish now that I had lived in the dorms or at home and applied all that cash to my school costs.

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