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Education Reporter

Debt-Free U, Zac Bissonnette, Portfolio/Penguin 2010, 290 pages, $16.

Personal finance writer and college senior Zac Bissonnette provides college-bound students with a smart and amusing guide to paying for college without loans, scholarships, or "mooching off" parents.

This book upends the conventional wisdom about college at every turn with solid research and uncommon sense. For example, Bissonnette explains why the people most students turn to for advice on choosing a college - high-school guidance counselors, admissions officers, and financial aid officers - can't be trusted. The crux of the matter is that these folks get paid to look out for their employers, not for students and parents.

Readers will learn about the dangers of student loans and why college debt isn't the solid investment most people assume it is, especially now that wages are stagnant. Bissonnette has an especially pointed message for well-meaning parents who loot their own retirement savings for their kids: "You're insane. . . . One of the best gifts you can give your children is your own financial independence in your golden years." Actually, much of the book is aimed at parents.

Bissonnette asserts that college rankings are an effective tool to sell magazines and books, but not for selecting a school. The good news is that going to college somewhere is much more important than where. That means schools with lower price tags can propel career prospects just as well as pricey elite institutions.

To back up that claim, the author cites a study that tracked students who were accepted both to top-tier Yale and to lower-tier Rutgers. Twenty years into their careers, those who went to Rutgers (most likely for financial reasons) earned, on average, just as much as the Yale graduates. Need more evidence? Twelve of the top 20 CEOs in the U.S. went to public universities.

One of the biggest cost-saving moves is to attend a community college for the first two years and then transfer to another school. Despite what many people think, some of the most selective four-year colleges in the nation accept students transferring from community colleges; in fact they actively recruit those students.

So how can parents and students pay for college without debt? Ultimately Bissonnette suggests an old-fashioned approach: parents can contribute money they save by cutting back on nonessential luxuries. Students can work, both during the school year and more extensively during school breaks. Overall, great advice from a guy who has lived it himself.

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