Getting a ‘Debt-Free Degree’: A Conversation With Anthony ONeal

By Barbara Danza, Epoch Times
September 4, 2019 Updated: September 6, 2019

Anthony ONeal is a financial speaker, author, and online motivator who helps teens and young adults understand how to manage their money and make good financial choices. 

His new book aims to teach parents and students how to go to college without any student loans. This one could be a game-changer. I asked ONeal about his work and his advice for getting a “debt-free degree.”

The Epoch Times: Congratulations on your success with Dave Ramsey’s company as a Ramsey Personality and your new book, “Debt-Free Degree.” You are now reaching a lot of teens and young adults with your inspiring message of financial responsibility. What led you to this work?

Anthony ONeal
Anthony ONeal. (Courtesy of Anthony ONeal)

Anthony ONeal: Helping kids make smart life choices is something that hits close to home for me. At the age of 19, I wound up homeless with $25,000 in student loan and credit card debt because of some poor choices. 

My parents did a great job raising me, but we didn’t really talk about money, and that hit me hard in college. Now that I’ve turned my life around, I want to help young people avoid making the same mistakes I made.

The Epoch Times: “Debt-Free Degree: The Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Your Kid Through College Without Student Loans” sounds like music to everyone’s ears. Many students and parents believe student loans to be the only way to get that college degree and that it’s worth it to go into debt for it. Why do you think so many have bought into this idea?

Mr. ONeal: Student loans have become normal for us these days, and parents and teens feel like that’s the only way. But our country is in a student loan crisis. College graduates are struggling to pay their bills. Some of them have $100,000 in debt with a starting salary of $50,000. 

I get it, though. The cost of college is overwhelming. But student loans are not the answer—$100,000 in debt isn’t going to open doors for your kid. It’s going to close them! That’s why I am so passionate about my new book “Debt-Free Degree,” because it gives parents and their kids a clear plan on how to go to college without student loans.   

The Epoch Times: What has been the reaction to your book so far? Has the idea that you can get a “debt-free degree” been met with skepticism?

Mr. ONeal: The average [yearly] cost for tuition at an in-state public university in 2018 was between $9,000 and $11,000. That’s $44,000, not including other expenses! Of course, some parents are going to look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them that college is possible without student loans. That’s a lot of money! 

But overall, the response has been great because the book provides a clear direction, and it gives parents hope for getting kids through college without a bunch of debt. 

The Epoch Times: The idea of kicking student loans to the curb is fantastic! The big question is, of course, how do you recommend students pay for college?

Mr. ONeal: There are three main ways that students can pay for college. Saving money, finding money, and work. 

When it comes to saving money, I want you to go to a school you can afford. Staying in-state will save you a lot of money. There’s also the community college or trade-school route. You can always transfer to a four-year school later. It only matters where you finish, not where you start. 

I also recommend that teens spend at least one hour a day applying for scholarships and grants. That’s time they would have spent scrolling on social media. Spend it finding free money instead! 

And send your kids to work! Studies show that students who work hold higher GPAs than students who don’t. Work teaches kids the value of money, time management skills, and they’ll take school more seriously if they have skin in the game.

The Epoch Times: When should students and parents begin preparing for college and what are the first things they should do?

Mr. ONeal: It’s never too early to start saving for college. Parents, if you are completely out of debt and investing 15 percent into retirement, I recommend contributing to an ESA or a 529 as soon as you can. The sooner you can do that, the more time that money has to grow. 

Don’t shy away from talking about money with your kids. Teach them why debt isn’t a part of the plan for their future. Teach them how to budget and the importance of saving. It will help them in the long run. 

If you are late in the process and your kid is a junior or senior, don’t lose hope. Remember that kids can work and help pay for college as they go. There are lots of other options, like trade schools, taking a year to work and save, or applying for scholarships and grants. 

The Epoch Times: What are the most common mistakes you see parents making in preparing their kids for college?

Mr. ONeal: Some of the biggest mistakes I see is not making a plan and not talking about money with your kids. I had college completely paid for through my dad’s GI Bill, and I took out student loans to afford my lifestyle because we never had that conversation about money. I didn’t know any better! 

College kids are vulnerable, so make sure you’re teaching them about money and the dangers of debt before they head off to college. They’ll thank you for it later. 

Another mistake I see parents making is dipping into their retirement to pay for their kids to go to college. That’s not the way to go! Retirement is guaranteed, but your kid going to college is not. I have seen parents do this and then their kids drop out of school. Don’t rob from your future to pay for theirs.

The Epoch Times: What do you hope readers understand after reading your book?

Mr. ONeal: I hope parents see what debt can do to their kid’s future, and I hope they understand that student loans don’t make a person successful. 

It is possible to pay for college with cash. It may not look exactly like you pictured. Your kid may have to take a year off and work to save for school. 

Maybe that’s not ideal, but think about this: On average, it takes people 21 years to pay back their student loans. That’s insane! But what’s worse, taking a gap year or spending 21 years chained to a payment?

“Debt-Free Degree: The Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Your Kid Through College Without Student Loans” by Anthony ONeal. (Courtesy of Anthony ONeal)
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