Special to the American Banker

"Nothing is stronger than habit." -- Ovid

Taking its cue from the Roman poet, MasterCard has gone college in an attempt to instill responsible money-management habits early.

MasterCard co-sponsored the American Marketing Association's 1991-1992 collegiate competition, in which students developed promotions to foster creditworthiness among their schoolmates.

MasterCard got involved to "create a greater awareness of MasterCard" among students while encouraging them to use credit cards - and generally manage their money - responsibly.

"It was one of our first endeavors with the college market," said Barbara S. Schulte, director of marketing for MasterCard. "We want to make sure that we're the first card in the wallet and that we stay there forever."

A Call from Colorado

The idea for the program began one year ago, Ms. Schulte said.

"Kathleen Kelly, assistant professor of marketing at Colorado State University, wrote MasterCard asking us to sponsor her promotional strategy class."

The class took on a project of developing an on-campus promotion for MasterCard and responsible credit.

Professor Kelly's students set up a table in the cafeteria, wrote ads, designed fliers, and even created MasterMan, a campus representative who gave out prizes and information.

"After this campaign was over, representatives from Mastercard saw my students' presentation and they became very excited," Professor Kelly said. "They thought the project could be extended, and they came up with the idea of sponsoring the AMA competition,"

Given the current numbers, encouraging responsible credit is no small matter on campus.

The amount of bad debt that bank card companies have charged off for nonpayment has been mushrooming over the past decade. For this reason, responsible credit weighs in after responsible drinking and safe sex as a top college priority.

The current recession has reduced credit card ownership on campus - particularly among freshmen and sophomores.

However, Roper CollegeTrack, a company that specializes in the college market, found that 54% of all full-time undergraduates - or some 2.5 million students nationally - have at least one major card.

Discretionary income, affectionately known in the business as beer and pizza money, is hovering at around $136 per person monthly. So college students are active users of financial services.

Three-quarters of these students also have a checking account, two-thirds a savings account, and 70& an ATM card.

`Master Your Future'

MasterCard was well aware of these data when it signed on to sponsor the college competition.

For this year's competition, innovative students adapted a "Master Your Future" series, an umbrella concept developed by California State University at Bakersfield. The series included segments on mastery of health, time. and finances.

The financial seminar featured speakers from a local bank, a credit union, a savings and loan institution, and a local accounting firm. Topics ranged from personal portfolio management to information about income taxes.

Cleveland State University, which won the grand prize, invented its own credit card, "Credit U." The goal was to motivate first-time card holders to build a credit history.

Credit U was conceived as opening with a $500 credit line that offered discounts on books and college tuition. If used responsibly for three months, the credit line would go up to $1,000: $500 for general purchases and $500 for educational use at a lower interest rate.

Adviser Sanford Jacobs, a member of Cleveland State's marketing department, was thrilled that his students came in on top for their first entry in the competition.

"We in marketing don't have a CPA or a bar exam," Mr. Jacobs said. "This is one of the few nationwide competitions where we can compare our work to other schools. Certainly, it shows that we can compete with any of them."

Whimsical Flag Bearer

Competition judge Charles Ross, president of Financial Media Services in Atlanta, produces "Your Personal Finance," a nationally syndicated radio show. Mr. Ross praised fun-loving students at California State at Bakersfield who created their own whimsical mascot, Chargie, a three-dimensional, humansize credit card with a huge hologram.

"Many of the proposals were very creative and very innovative; although, operationally, I am not sure they are all feasible," said Sybil Stershic, president of Quality Service Marketing, Bethlehem, Penn.

Winners included Hofstra University, New Mexico State University; Northeastern State University/University Center at Tulsa, Johnson & Wales University, and California State University at Bakersfield.

Ms. Bernstein is a New Yorkbased freelance writer specializing in educational topics.

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