Six Letters Re: A Prepper Goes to College


The article “A Prepper Goes to College” by S. John aptly points out a problem in which is completely avoidable.  It is heartbreaking to know that so many people are setting themselves up for a life of lost opportunities by being saddled with educational debt.   This problem is the subject of the book Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching off My Parents by Zac Bissonnette.  “Debt-Free U” points out the huge disparity in the cost/value relationships of the many college education options.  It provides strategies (solutions) for getting a good quality college education and “the most bang for your buck.”  It is a well written contemporary investigation into the myths and realities of higher-level education.   We have three college-bound high schoolers.  Our entire family has read this book and enjoyed it, including grandparents.  “Debt-Free U” has changed our expectations for college and convinced us to avoid educational debt at all costs.  I consider it a must-read book for any parent or student considering college.  (Coincidentally, I found out about this book while listening to Dave Ramsey, who is cited in the article by S. John.)

All the best, – John in Florida


I completely concur with John’s piece on the college scam.    

My spouse and I lived in a two-room apartment for seven years to pay off our loans. It was painful, but we did it. I would never borrow that kind of money again. The worst part of the bank scam (besides the no bankruptcy)?

When a student is awarded a loan, the bank takes a 10% “Origination Fee,” right off the top.   So, if the loan is $5,000, the check to the student is $4,500. What a scam.  What other loan or investment pays off 10% at the beginning of the loan?   Mind you, the student has to pay back the $500 (with interest). And then of course, there is the schools parts in this.   College financial aid (“aid” what a joke) offices point students to particular kinds of loans, frequently the ones that give a kick-back to the college.

And then the colleges apply all sorts of late fees, interest (it was 21% on unpaid balances at my college in 1994), etc. I’m hoping my son becomes an electrician. – Mary Beth


I appreciate S. John’s article. He is quite correct in much of his evaluation. However, I believe the crux of his financial problem was not the higher education decisions, but his failure for he and his wife to wait on their marriage until they were debt free.  A decision to marry must include the freedom to marry and anyone in debt is not free.

As a former High School Guidance counselor, I encouraged my students to seek post-high school education with specific goals in mind…e.g. how that education will enable the student to be employed in a career. I encouraged maximum use of CLEP and community colleges. I encouraged them to live at home, attend college year-round and to take the maximum credits permissible each semester (the schools say 12 semester hours is a “full time” load. If you follow that for eight semesters (four years) and you have 96 semester hours (about a year short of the 122-124 semester hours required for graduation). I encouraged Technical Colleges and high schools to learn a trade to pay for their educations (being a part-time welder at $26/hour beats working at McDonald’s for minimum wage…while going to college for mech engineering).

Unfortunately, we live in a “credentialed” world…and the beginning credential is a bachelor’s degree. The unemployment rate for bachelor degree holders is in the neighborhood of 5% (the under employment rate is quite another matter!). Positions once held by High School grads (retail sales, etc) are now requiring a college education. So, if you must have the education, then get it as quickly and cheaply as possible.

BTW, I am a graduate of Hillsdale College (BS Math) paid for by work and scholarships as well as the Air Force Institute Of Technology (MS Systems Mgt) courtesy of the USAF and St Bonaventure University (MSEd Counseling Psychology) via the GI Bill. I left all schools debt free. My Hillsdale experience was invaluable in setting my life’s course. I echo S. John’s endorsement. Blessings, – John G.


James Wesley:
I felt the need to add some insight to the article regarding higher education.

I believe the author meant to use the total balance of all student loans instead of total cost of education.  If you play your cards correctly then you will be able to walk out with a degree and much less student loan debt than what your actual educational costs are.  In my case my education cost nearly $250,000 but I walked out with only $60k in student loan debt.

I hope my personal example may be used to help others.

I attended a state university for two years (getting a straight 4.0 GPA) and had to borrow nearly $20,000 in those two years to attend the local state school.  I CLEPed out of three courses from taking AP tests and from things I have taught myself.  In the beginning of my second year I applied to transfer to Washington University in St. Louis, (which happens to be one among the top universities in the nation)

I was accepted into the school and immediately took it upon myself to discover which courses I could CLEP out of.  I spent that next summer in constant self-study.

Prior to arriving at WashU, I applied for school-based financial aid and was able to receive many need based grants and scholarships (nearly $24,000 out of $40,000 in tuition and living costs).  After arriving, I CLEPed out of a few classes at WashU.  So far, I was able to save myself nearly a year of tuition.  The first year I did my best to obtain a straight 4.0 GPA at WashU as well.

Towards the end of my first year I went into the financial aid department  (when they were not nearly as busy as other times.)  I mentioned the fact that the school loans were going to be quite burdensome and that I was doing very well at the school and would like to continue attending but that the loans may become a problem down the road.  The financial aid officer / manager said well we’ll take a look and see what we can do.  At the time I was receiving about $24,000 in need based scholarships and I had to borrow nearly $16,000 that first year.  He said “well we can convert this $8,000 school loan into a scholarship and then you’ll get free tuition but you’ll still have to provide for your own living expenses.”  Having that short 10 minute talk has saved me $24,000 plus all of the interest.

After a few years at WashU, I was able to graduate with a BS in Physics and a MS in Computer Science (from the Engineering school).  I had many choices of internships during the summers and most companies were fighting over people from the university.  I took all of the opportunities I could to have an internship over the summers.  They are really worth their weight in gold and even to this day, when I have decided to switch jobs, they still are inquired about.  (But I should caution you, if you do not take the opportunity to have internships then you may not be able to easily find jobs.  I knew of many classmates who had B/C averages and no internship experience and by the time graduation came around they were still looking for jobs.)

When interest rates dropped really low I consolidated all of my loans into one big loan at 2.875% and most lenders will drop 1% off of your interest rate if you make 3 years of timely payments.  I’m now paying 1.875% and it is much lower than inflation (meaning it is essentually now “free” money.)

So to sum it up: Go to a local school first, use that to transfer into a much better school with a much better name.  If you notice it, WashU ended up being cheaper per year than the local state school. Talk to the financial aid department after you show that you are capable of succeeding.  It was such an easy thing to do, that I, at the time, didn’t know if it would work or be worthwhile.  But I have been taught growing up that, if you ask, the worst that can happen is that they will say no, but if you don’t ask then you will never know.  Mind you, I selected WashU because their endowment per student ratio is very high so I knew there was a good chance of obtaining better financial aid. Consolidate your loans into a lower fixed interest rate.  If the interest rate is higher than inflation or salary increases then pay it down fast, otherwise make the minimum payments. In case you are wondering, my tuition costs the last year were around $45,000, my student loan cost that year was around $10,000.  I was able to get a job immediately out of school starting at $74,000 and I had six offers to choose from.

I’m not sure if this had anything to do with it or not, but I believe it did, you should read the book How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.

Thank you and I hope my story will give others ideas on how to better afford their education, kudos to the original author, KJP


Mr Rawles,
I agree with a lot of the post  “A Prepper Goes To College” but there is one paragraph that is wrong: Here it is:

“As an example of this, you must realize that many colleges were created only to get free Federal money, which students have to pay back. “Trade colleges” like DeVry, University of Phoenix, and all sorts of art schools are only there to take students’ money which is “free” to them through student loans. If a school advertises on television then it probably offers junk diplomas.”

This is simply not true. DeVry University has been in existence since 1931 and I know that in the field of  electronics technologies that DeVry has a sterling reputation and its graduates were generally known to be well qualified in that field. I know this because that is my profession and has been for over 40 years now.  I graduated from a competing school and am not affiliated with DeVry in any way, so I speak out of respect for DeVry having worked along side many of their graduates. Respectfully yours, T.W.T.

To S. John regarding higher education:
I’ve been a college professor for more than 20 years – and in higher education generally for twice that — and I agree — you have a point in saying higher education is a scam, but…

The system is the problem – not the education itself.  Clearly, a university degree isn’t for everyone, but there are some things you can do — as a Christian and a prepper — to help:

1) Decide ahead of time if you need a university degree.  For some professions — including professions that all preppers would probably agree we need — bursing, medicine, engineering, teaching — a university degree is useful — and often required. If you don’t need a degree don’t do it — remember the “dirty jobs” — road work, ditches, sewage — will always be needing people and you can do them without degrees. Better often to work at Home Depot and use your income (and employee discount) on preps.

2) If you go major in something useful — sciences, nursing, engineering, computers.  You can always pick up electives — languages are a good choice. Stay away from majors like gender studies, English, political science, sociology. Remember that your classes in those subjects will be likely biased towards left ideology.

3) Start in a community college.  Most of the first two years is the same everywhere and you save buckets of money.  The big four year schools won’t tell you that.  Also think about taking classes on the side at your community/technical college.  Everyone should know how to weld and do electrical work.

4) Pick your school.  The small private school can do just as well as the big name school.  You can also find good Christian universities and colleges if that’s your thing. Pick your location.  There are fine schools in many “safe” states e.g. Idaho — why not spend four years in that area than on some eastern urban campus.  You can find a region (and possibly a school) which is more likely to be “prepper friendly” — and if you are planning to marry.  Well, what better place to look for a like-minded guy or gal?  There are not too many Montana rancher’s daughters enrolled at Florida State, I expect.

5) Stay away from student loans.  Quite right.  If you have all ready “drunk the Kool-aid” remember that you can get student loan forgiveness in a variety of public service professions — nursing, teaching, librarianship — make 120 payments and the government will forgive your loans.  Remember that the price on a school is always the “sticker price”– I see students routinely get deals through grants and scholarships and, gee, working! There’s a concept.  Don’t buy the “You need to finish in four years”  Take six years, work, and avoid the loans.   Consider, dare I say it, military service and have the government pay for your college — and you develop some useful skills.  What’s better — two years in camouflage or 10 years of paying loans in civilian clothes?  Stay away from the hucksters offering credit cards! That is the worst thing you can do! You are 18 — if you don’t have cash to pay for something then you can’t afford it. And what do you need anyway? A ski vacation in Aspen?

6) Do the work! Students fail because they don’t treat it like what it is — a job.  That’s why we have majors in basket weaving — to accommodate the sheeple. The college librarian can be your best friend — find the library and live there. Also, take care of your health — eat, sleep, exercise. Get the habits now you will need when the SHTF.

7) Along with that avoid the sheeple students — the parties, the distractions. Find a good church in the community and attend.  There are often campus ministry groups but they tend to be somewhat liberal. And if you are living somewhere away from home and the SHTF you want local contacts – not the campus ministry that is closed because it’s summer and the sheeple students are on vacation.

8) Do not make an issue of your prepping.  Campuses are hotbeds of liberalism. You say “prepper” or “survival” and you will have the campus police looking under your bed for guns.  The resident assistants in dorms are not your friends — in some cases I am aware of they were required to submit reports on students regarding their mental state, habits, etc.  in the name of “risk management”. Live off campus if you can.  I have nothing to say about the issues of BOBs, guns, et cetera on campus except the lower profile you keep the better.  In a real emergency campus authorities are clueless — for pandemic planning we were given, as faculty, a “Business Continuation Plan” that suggested that we would be sending everyone home and they (and we) would be doing everything we normally did — just over the Internet via online instruction.  Right — let’s see how that works the day after an EMP burst, but I digress.

9) Find like minded people.  I was surprised to find a student shooting group from my campus, notably liberal, having a table at the local gun show.  I had no idea they existed. There are guys (and gals) with your viewpoint — they will just be harder to find. And love your parents — but leave them at home.  Helicopter parents of students, who hover over their child’s every move and call every day — are a curse.  You are 18, you are a grownup, act like it, — call mom on Sunday and get on with your life the rest of the week. Be accountable for yourself, moral, and responsible and you won’t have problems — like large debt, arrests, or a pregnant girlfriend — that you will need help with.

Your points about higher education are justified.  The system is a scam.  The knowledge that is in universities and colleges isn’t.  There is alot of value in western civilization and our culture and history.  Universities and colleges are good repositories of that heritage.  Always the best? No.  There’s lots of waste and corruption and idiots trying to find better “business models” and promote questionable ideology.  And frankly some scam artists who have figured they can make six-figure salaries managing all this Federal money that flows into higher education. But there are also lots of good people, religious people, preppers, who are genuinely trying to do good for people.  Find those people and pay attention to them. – A Prepper Professor


S. John shared some very insightful views and suggestions to better navigate higher education and ways to find gainful employment.  I would like to share some other approaches and strategies which have worked for me and others, but were not mentioned by S. John.  Higher education is by definition, education past the high school level.  This would include trade, vocational, college, and university programs.  For preppers, not all information, knowledge, or skill can be found in one source.  With anything we prep, redundancy provides greater stability.    

Military Training, Education, & Benefits.  
As a U.S. Army Airborne Infantry veteran, I can attest to the value of training, education, and experience our armed forces provide.  While only 1% of our country serves in our armed forces, it is obvious the commitment to military service is not for everyone.  Some may not be qualified, while others have personal beliefs which prevent them, and others often have skewed views or a lack of self confidence.  I will discuss the Army’s programs as I am more familiar with them.  If you seek more info contact a recruiter and research to see if it can work for you.   All branches start with basic training and include training in combat skills, marksmanship, physical fitness, survival, field craft skills, and basic first aid.  The length of training varies from 8 to 13 weeks depending on branch.  The next step is military specialty (specific job) training.  There are numerous combat related functions, such as infantry and special operations, but there are even more combat support and service support jobs with a wide range of technical vocations.  Everything from communications, medical, transportation, engineering, intelligence, law enforcement, mechanical, to legal and everything else in between.  The US Army alone boasts over 200+ specialized job fields.   In addition to this training, some branches have basic training and military specialty schools accredited for college credits.  Those that don’t still provide the option of having training evaluated for credit as well.  While you serve on active duty or with the reserves you are eligible for tuition assistance to cover up to 100% of tuition, books, and fees.  If you serve with National Guard or Air National Guard units, depending on each state, most cover 100% of in state tuition at the state university rates.  After you complete your service, the Army College Fund and GI Bill can pay between $44,000 for education after a two year enlistment or up to $81,000 for education after a six year enlistment.  Also, if you have already attended college and acquired a large amount of loans, if eligible, the Army can pay off those loans up to $65,000 in return for service.  If you have an advanced degree, such as law, nursing, or medical there are additional special programs.   After your service you not only have an established experience in a trade, you have applicable vocational training, and the financial ability to further pursue additional higher education.  This provides one the ability to get paid to learn skills others pay money to acquire.  In addition to those skills and opportunity, you also have other VA benefits such as home loan grantee and hiring preference for civil service jobs.    

Other ways to reduce tuition costs…   When I landed on top of a heavy drop (parachute platform with equipment and vehicles strapped to it), after jumping out of a C-17 and screwing up my shoulder, I was told to ride a desk or take a medical discharge.  This was disturbing to me, as I had planned for a career and after seven years, the thought of a desk job in the army did not appeal to me.  I took the discharge, moved back home and decided to pursue a career in law enforcement.  I needed to work, as did my wife, to support our kids and make a living.  I got an easy gig managing security – hired on the spot – just after inquiring about the job and discussing my prior experience in the military.   As I began researching law enforcement in my area and related education through local community colleges and universities, I discovered something few people know of or take advantage of.  I learned that most colleges and universities provide tuition waivers for employees.  These are not like a work related only tuition reimbursement program, but an actual waiving of cost.  Some are like the one I work for, which provides tuition waivers for the employee and spouse (100%) and for dependent children (75%).  In my state, all public colleges and universities, also operate their own public safety or police departments.  This was fantastic for me and my family as I was looking to pursue both a career and education and was able to do it at the same time and the same place.  The university I work at provides these benefits for every staff member employed, from landscapers to janitors, maintenance, IT, to various services, and secretaries.   Using a tuition waiver, in conjunction with GI Bill or Pell Grants, produces the ability to not only attend college, but to actually get paid for it.  The tuition is calculated, then waived, with the remaining funds disbursed to the employee/student for other costs associated with college.  Things such as text books, room and board, transportation, childcare, computers, and internet service.  I have earned an associates degree in administration of justice, an associates degree in law enforcement, and I am finishing a  bachelors degree in emergency management.  My wife has earned an Associates degree in organizational management and is finishing a Bachelors degree in operations management.    All with no student loans or out of pocket expenses.  As a family of seven with us both parents working full time, this wouldn’t be possible without the research and time we were willing to invest to make it work for us.  To say it is easy to juggle five kids while both working and going to school full time would be a lie.  Finishing our education is the last step before we join the American Redoubt and move to establish our family retreat.  However, education is only one part of our plan, and it is combined with additional experience, knowledge, and skills.    

Redundancy is required in all things, to create greater stability, not just prepping.  Before you prep, you need to plan and mitigate first.  I second S. John’s warnings and advice to ensure you research well and chose your financial obligations wisely.  I would also add to plan your education to match careers available in or near your retreat or if not practical, to match them to benefit you post collapse.  Being able to combine both career and post collapse efforts through education would be optimal and require additional research.    I realize how blessed I am and know this may not work for everyone.  I am confident in the course of action I took and recommend it to my own sons and daughter.  I wanted to share my experiences and hope it works for someone else too.  Good luck! – C.W.  


Dear JWR,    
After reading “A Prepper Goes to College”, I felt that I needed to make a qualified rebuttal to this article. Going to college can be a very important means of getting out of the minimum wage grind and building the sort of income needed to prepare adequately for bad economic times. First and foremost, if you go to college, you need to pick a degree in something that will have practical use in a world that has to focus on self-reliance or at least a significantly reduced reliance on the government. I know, for many people, it is their dream to study the arts, music or law. But when you find yourself in a survival situation, the people who are going to have skills of real value will be those who learned how to build or fix things. For the most part, that means people with degrees like mechanical engineering or similar areas of specialization. As someone who learned about fixing cars from my father who was a mechanic for Cummins, I can easily see how an engineering degree can have very practical value for a prepper. I also saw my step-daughter have to incur tremendous amounts of debt in her quest for her PhD in Psychology. She was exceptionally hard working though and is now is an associate professor at the age of 30, specializing in the treatment of autistic children. She literally worked her way through college as a therapist. But even this is the exception, rather than the rule. It will still take her years to finish paying off her debt. Someone with a degree in the liberal arts will find that achieving her success to be almost impossible.     

The article also brings up the very valid points of how the cost of college degrees have skyrocketed and how school loans can be a very heavy burden for years after graduation. It is very important then that when you select a school, that the real cost has to be considered very highly. Students often learn that they pay an unnecessary premium for the privilege of attending a ‘big-name’ school. Find the least expensive college or state university that carries the degree program that you seek first. Secondly, try to find as many grants and scholarships that do not need to be paid back before exploring loans that do. There are a lot of opportunities for college money that does not have to be paid back, but it takes time and effort. Another option that should also be considered is military service, either with your state’s National Guard or with one of the service ROTC programs. They can often pay for most if not all of a student’s tuition plus supply a student with a couple of hundred dollars a month of drill pay as well. This option also gives the student to learn other skills like fieldcraft and basic rifle marksmanship training that can prove to be very helpful in a survival situation. If you can, pick an officer specialty that can teach you skills that can translate into the civilian marketplace like Military Police or even Military Intelligence. (The latter teaches a lot of skills that can translate into other fields not to mention that a security clearance that can open a lot of doors.)     

If you do decide to pursue higher education, be serious about it. Don’t do to school expecting to have a great time at parties and breezing your way to a degree. Getting a useful college degree is hard work, especially when you are working in more of the more technical areas. If you don’t have a decent GPA, your job opportunities can be few and far between especially when competing with other students with 3.5+ GPAs. But it will be worth it in the long run. I found this out the hard way myself.     

I’m sure that the author’s wife is very intelligent and likely performed very well in law school. But how much real use will there be for lawyers when the economy shuts down and we have to learn to make do with what we have? I can easily see how an engineer can be helpful by building or adapting machines to produce power or to make the tools that their community can value however.     

Higher education is important, but choose carefully and work hard. The skills that you learn need to be able to sustain you and your family in the future. – Tek