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The worst thing you can do for your college-bound teen is saddle them with student debt

The book is "Debt Free Degree: The Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Your Kid Through College Without Student Loans" by Anthony ONeal. (N/A/Ramsey Solutions)

When it comes to a college education, many parents have accepted as fact that student loans are the gateway to financial freedom for their children.

Think about that for a moment.

Debt has become the default for families trying to ascend the economic ladder. But debt, when overused, can tip you over and make you crash.

I’ve found that when people start with a promise to themselves and their children — a degree with no debt — they make different choices. Those choices help folks achieve real wealth sooner.

Your child probably won’t get a free ride to college

If you’re not strangled with student loans starting out, you’re more likely to start investing for retirement. The sooner you start saving, the more time you have for your money to grow.

To help you believe the impossible is possible, for this month’s Color of Money Book Club, I’m recommending “Debt Free Degree” by Anthony ONeal (Ramsey Press, $19.99).

ONeal is a protege of Dave Ramsey, the anti-credit-card champion of living on beans and rice because, as he frequently tells his millions of followers, “if you will live like no one else, later you can live like no one else.”

In the foreword of ONeal’s book, Ramsey sets the tone for a guide that pulls no punches.

“Our culture has become stupid about being educated,” Ramsey writes. “That’s a dangerous paradox, and it’s led to a crushing student loan crisis in America today.”

Need I point out again that outstanding student loan debt has reached $1.5 trillion?

As part of Ramsey Solutions, ONeal travels the country talking to teens and young adults, trying to keep them from taking on decades of debt for their undergraduate degree. But this guide is his plea to parents.

“Student loans keep you or your kid paying for their past when you should both be enjoying your present and future,” ONeal writes. “I meet way too many smart, talented young people whose lives are being choked by debt.”

ONeal speaks from experience. Although his college tuition was paid for through his father’s GI Bill, he took out student loans to elevate his lifestyle. He borrowed $10,000 in student loans and foolishly ran up $15,000 in credit card debt and another $10,000 in furniture-store loans.

Partying too hard got him kicked out of school. “I went from a future-college-graduate to sleeping in my car in a Walmart parking lot,” he writes.

But when you go through a test, you often come out with a testimony. ONeal uses his hard-life lessons to deliver a message of hope with a cautionary tale: Poor choices can change everything.

So, how do you get your child through college without the debt? ONeal covers the usual advice of saving early, searching for scholarships and encouraging your child to take Advanced Placement classes. But here’s the heart of his guidance.

Here’s one way to cut the cost of college

Don’t make a decision based on emotions. Parents are often so panicked about their children succeeding that it drives them to do whatever it takes to get them into their desired college, even if it means taking on gargantuan loans. But good decision-making involves a plan, not panic.

Drop the dream. So many loans are the result of parents giving in to children who just have to go to their dream school.

“The only dream school out there is the one that you can graduate from debt-free,” ONeal says.

Don’t rule out community college. I’ve long advocated that community college shouldn’t be seen as a last resort but as a more economical first choice. You can significantly cut the cost of college by encouraging your child to take general education or prerequisite classes at a community college, and then he or she can transfer to a four-year school and complete their education.

Don’t give in to your pride and prejudice. Many people look down on community college. They think a prestigious university is the best ticket to a higher lifestyle.

“Your child’s future success does not depend on an elite education,” ONeal preaches. “A hundred thousand dollars of debt isn’t going to open doors for them — it’s going to close them.”

If you just can’t imagine paying cash for college, ONeal’s advice may seem overly optimistic — even absurd.

But this book is a tough-love lecture about making the seemingly impossible a reality. You just have to hate debt bad enough to embrace his assurance that with a plan, your kid can make it through college without student loans.

I’m hosting an online chat about “Debt Free Degree” at noon Eastern on Dec. 12 at ONeal will join me to answer your questions about paying for college.

Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or To read previous Color of Money columns, go to