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Kids and Money: One man's mission to help students avoid college debt trap [The Kansas City Star :: BC-PFP-KIDSANDMONEY:KC]

For Charley Green, one thing in life always seems to lead to another.

The Kansas native has seen and done a lot in his 78 years. Growing up, he worked on the family farm. Later he gained experience as a teacher, a home builder, a church administrator, a limousine driver and even a novelist (he wrote "The Relucant Warrior," about a westward journey after the Civil War).

As Green likes to say, his career path can be defined as having been "in between opportunities" a lot until something else falls into place.

What is he focused on now? Financial education, namely as it relates to helping children and parents make better choices about going to college - or not - and avoiding suffocating student-loan debt.

I met Green for the first time after he contacted me about a column I wrote on older Americans who are now more likely than ever to be burdened with student debt long into retirement. In many cases, I noted, grandparents have taken on debt to help a grandchild cover the tuition tab.

Sitting at a restaurant, Green opened his briefcase and pulled out samples of his work, all self-published booklets. His first book several years ago was "Debt-Free College Education or a Debtor's Burden?" There was a follow-up, "If You Think Student Loans Will Guarantee the American Dream, You Might Qualify as Some Type of a Dumb Ass." About a year ago he wrote "How to Keep Student Loans from Threatening Your American Dream." (These and other works are available at

Green said he's always had a strong interest in education, and was inspired to write college finances after hearing stories over the years from friends and even family members who had suffered through the stress, pressure and broken dreams associated with being overburdened with student loans.

The goal of his latest 92-page booklet, he said, is to "create a heightened sense of awareness, and to reinforce positive attitudes and actions needed to achieve a debt-free degree as well as point out dumb (actions) to avoid."

Debt free? Or even minimal debt? Green acknowledges the financial challenges of obtaining a degree have never been greater. But he believes it's not out of the question to avoid or minimize debt if you possess financial smarts, are self-reliant and are focused on a career path with a marketable degree.

"It's not going to be easy, Green said, "and it's not for the lazy and unmotivated."

His attitude is the exact opposite of how many students and parents approach selecting and financing college. Many pick schools that are out of their price range and compound the problem by not understanding student loan repayment obligations before signing on the dotted line.

Green's latest publication is a mixture of advice and tough love, and it offers lessons and suggestions that resonate far beyond his home in Overland Park.

Some of his main pieces of advice:

- Parents need to instill in their children the value of saving for a rainy day at an early age. For example, one can pay $5 for a cappuccino or save the money. It's about choices, Green said.

- Know the "rule of 35" when evaluating student loan balances and projected salary after college. For example, he said, if you borrowed 25,000, you will need a job that pays 35 percent more per year than the principal on the debt to meet repayment responsibilities.

- Don't wait until senior year of college to start job hunting. Visit the career counseling center early, apply for internships, and find someone you can trust who can guide you through tough decisions and be your mentor.

- Don't discount jobs in skilled trades, such as plumbing, electrical and construction. If you're weighing the value of a college degree paid for with lots of student loans vs. skipping college and going straight to the job market, the salary "equalizer" may be the debt, Green said.

- If you borrowed heavily to pay for college, pare your post-campus living, socializing and entertaining to a minimum and use the extra money to pay down student loans.

It's no surprise that Green has a side project underway, an audio version of his latest college student loan booklet. Green has even written a song. It's called "The Debtors Train."



Steve Rosen is assistant business editor at The Kansas City Star. To reach him, call 816-234-4879 or send email to


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