Review of Debt Free Degree by Anthony ONeal

I love to browse the book section at Target when we go.  If we have to run to the back of the store to pick up cat food or litter, I always ask my husband if we can spare an extra ten minutes for me to check out the books.

This allows me to see some of the more popular current books while avoiding getting lost in a large bookstore. Goodbye to spending hundreds of dollars on books.

These days, when I spot a book I’m interested in, I snap a picture of the cover and put the book into my Audible wish list, which is what I did with this one.  I bought the book two weeks later and finished it in just a couple of daily commutes to and from work.

The title sort of gives away the premise: how can you or your child attend college without taking on debt?

This is a topic near and dear to my heart. I never finished my degree, and when I think of going back, the topic at the top of my mind is whether it’s even worth the cost, given where I am in my career. Usually the answer is no.

Why I Decided to Read this Book

I have kids of my own who are fifteen and twelve as of the time I’m writing this.  My son wants to join the military straight after high school (and I’m agreeable), and my daughter wants to go straight into college.

I’ve decided to devote more time to teaching my kids how the world works. So this book seemed like a great one to read to glean any new information I could about getting my kids through college without debt when their time comes.

I doubt I’ll be able to pay for their college, at least not in full, so it’s important for me to understand how to guide them through getting themselves to this goal without going into debt.

Okay, but Get to the Review Already

I’ll start off my review of this book by saying it’s not groundbreaking.  If you already know the basics, like applying for FAFSA, saving ahead of time, applying for scholarships, and making sure to score well on the ACT and SAT, then this book won’t offer you much.

ONeal Stresses Pragmatism

Dave Ramsey endorses this book and sells it as part of his educational products. As with any Dave Ramsey info product, what this book does well is to look at the topic in a pragmatic kind of way. That’s right up my alley.  ONeal says that kids should be looking for affordable schools that help them meet their goals, rather than attending college for either the “college experience.” (Are you really going to pay $100k for an experience?) Or for the lofty goal of “being educated.” (Did we forget the internet exists to feed our desire for information?)

To this end, he recommends only going to college when you can afford it without debt. He also stresses selecting affordable colleges and looking into doing your first two years at a community college before transferring to an inexpensive state college.

Breaking Down What to Do Each Year

ONeal spends some time breaking down what you should be doing as a parent to prepare your child for school. His advice starts for parents with children in kindergarten and goes all the way to 12th grade.  He focuses on grades K-5 as a group and 6-8 mostly as a group, but with a focus on 8th grade. He then looks at what you should be doing each year from grades 9-12, one year at a time.

The author puts a strong focus on the types of conversations you should be having with your kids, to understand their goals, and to guide them.  To me, this was the absolute best part of the book and my biggest takeaway.

But he doesn’t leave everything to the parents. He also instructs kids to focus on in each year to start preparing for college as well. Among the topics covered are getting a job, applying for scholarships, preparing for the SAT and ACT, figuring out what school makes the most sense for their career goals, which years to visit school campuses, the importance of volunteer work and extracurriculars, and so on.  He expects the parent to lead the conversations but the kids to do the work in these areas.

Other Key Topics

In addition to conversations that need to be had, Oneal stresses actions to take and avenues to pursue that include work-study programs, saving up ahead of time, 529 plans (the 401(k) of the education world), the power of applying for every scholarship you can possibly qualify for, living at home through the college years, and working through college to pay for it.

If none of the above sounds like it’s anything new, that’s because it’s not.  This book serves as more of a tool that will help you organize these topics and tackle them in a logical fashion. It can help to make sense and order out of a process that can at times feel overwhelming.


I love how this book emphasizes that an education is an investment in your career rather than an experience or a goal in itself.  An education should be a resource for building wealth or to otherwise meet your career goals. Education for its own sake is available for free using the wealth of knowledge on the internet. There are even free courses that colleges offer online.  You won’t get a degree from it, but you will get to learn about the topic you’re interested in.

I also love that he questions whether it even makes sense for your child to go to college.  Some fields require degrees, while others only need a trade school certificate. Think blue collar skilled labor jobs like plumbers, HVAC technicians, and electricians.  Other courses of action may not even require anything beyond high school, so it makes sense to first determine what your child’s goals are.  They can always attend college later if their goals shift.

In other words, the author’s opinions about school align with my own, and I love that he brings up these important topics.

ONeal could have improved the value of the book by including some solid examples of budgets.   I also think this is likely a better read using a physical copy of the book than it was as an audio book.

I’m starting to learn that when I read books to learn things I want to apply later, I should really keep a hard copy and have a pen handy.

Who Should Read This Book?

If you’re already familiar with the college admission process and the costs and all the ways to pay for it, this book is probably not for you.  You will have at best a three-star (out of five) experience with this book, which was my experience.

For me, the value lay in the types of conversations I should be having with my kids as they prepare to enter high school and head to college.  You will likely at least pick up a few tidbits and tips along the way, but your experience will vary.

However, if you’re unfamiliar with the process or the avenues available to pay for college, either because you never went to college or because you’re from a family that doesn’t have these kinds of conversations, this book will provide a wealth of new information and a solid plan for things to focus on each year starting in 8th grade.  These readers will be much more likely to have a four- or five-star experience with this book.

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