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How to avoid bursting bubble of college tuition? Don't fill it.

by Michelle Singletary
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 30, 2010; 9:05 PM

Debt-free u

How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching off My Parents

By Zac Bissonnette

Portfolio Trade, 304 p.

$16.00

Let's see, there was the tech bubble in the mid- to late 1990s that eventually busted a lot of people financially.

We're suffering right now because the housing bubble burst.

And what's the next bubble?

Let's call it College at Any Cost.

Bubbles happen when assets - stocks or real estate, for example - have inflated values. The bubble will burst when there is a great discrepancy between the inflated price of the asset and its real worth.

Don't we have that right now with the thousands of college graduates who have paid heavily for their educations with debt and now can't find jobs that pay enough to service the debt without stretching the loans out for decades?

Last year, there was record unemployment of 8.7 percent for college graduates ages 20 to 24, according to a new report from the Project on Student Debt. Students who graduated last year carried an average of $24,000 in student loan debt, up 6 percent from the previous year.

In-state tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities in 2010-11 increased almost 8 percent, according to the newly released Trends in College Pricing report by the College Board. The average increase at private nonprofit colleges and universities was 4.5 percent.

Borrowing for college through federal loan programs increased by 14 percent, the College Board reported. When federal loans aren't enough, students often turn to private loans to finance their educations, and these come at a higher cost.

Generally, a college education does lead to greater employment opportunities, plenty of data show. But there's a point at which the amount of debt accumulated is too much to handle for college graduates starting out.

The answer to this problem isn't to discourage people from attending college but to challenge them to go with no debt or as little as possible, Zac Bissonnette says in his book "Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships or Mooching Off My Parents" (Portfolio, $16).

I've chosen "Debt-Free U" as the Color of Money book club selection for November. Bissonnette is a senior at the University of Massachusetts. The cost of his education will come to $60,000. When he graduated from high school, he had already saved about $35,000. He made up the difference by working his way through school.

His book is no vanity project meant to berate people who take out student loans. Instead, Bissonnette lays out a blueprint that students and parents can use to avoid financial heartache.

"I wrote this book because I've met, spoken with and read e-mails from hundreds of families who are struggling with the burden of college costs - worrying about how they'll pay for college without bankrupting their retirement accounts or burdening their kids with massive debt loads," Bissonnette says in his introduction.

Key to Bissonnette's advice is really a mind change. Rethink the advice that a student loan is a sure-thing investment. Resist the societal pressure to have the traditional college experience. That might mean starting out at a community college, for example.

This last piece of advice reminds me of an episode of "Everybody Hates Chris," a sitcom developed by Chris Rock. In this episode, young Chris, a middle school student, tells a guidance counselor (played by Rock) that his mother wants him to go to college just to learn.

Rock responds: "But your parents are way too broke for you to go to college to just learn. They need you to go to college and learn how to get a job."

As Bissonnette writes: "Look at college as a rational investment, not a coming-of-age ritual where money is no object."

On college debt as an investment, Bissonnette says this: "Any reasonably intelligent investor will tell you that the worthiness of an investment depends on two factors: the cost of the investment and the return."

This is a well-researched book that strives to debunk a lot of myths about college. Best of all, the guidance comes from a young man taking his own advice. As he writes: "A large portion of the advice in this book is hugely counterintuitive, but guess what? I'm living it."

I'll be hosting a live online chat about the book at noon Dec. 2 at washingtonpost.com/discussions. Bissonnette will join me to take your questions. I hope that parents of soon-to-be college students will join in the discussion. Every month, I also randomly select readers who will receive a copy of the featured book, donated by the publisher. For a chance to win a copy of "Debt-Free U," e-mail colorofmoney@washpost.com with your name and address.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her e-mail address is singletarym@washpost.com. Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible.

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