Making their annual return to college campuses, credit card marketers are busy enrolling students in credit awareness programs, distributing leaflets on how to manage debt, and -- oh, yes -- accepting applications for cards.

Another year's worth of criticism and legislative proposals aimed at keeping college students from falling into card debt has not daunted the card companies. But it has prompted them to pretty-up what were once bald-faced solicitations for high-interest-rate credit products.

Tables that once brimmed with promotional gifts for students who filled out applications are now laden with brochures on budgeting and signup sheets for credit education seminars. The card issuers are describing their presence on campuses almost in terms of providing a public service.

"The challenge we face when we're developing education programs for college students is to get the materials into their hands in the right place and at the right time," said Catherine Cummings, vice president of consumer affairs at MasterCard International. "We're quick to point out statistics that the vast majority of students use their credit responsibly."

Another challenge is to dull the sting of negative publicity from consumer advocates and other people concerned about student debt.

In June, the Consumer Federation of America released a three-year study highlighting the hazards for college students of falling behind on credit card payments.

That organization and others are using the study to lobby Congress for legislation that would limit card issuers' ability to extend credit to students under 21.

To counter such arguments, credit card companies have stepped up education efforts and are working harder to attract public attention to them.

MasterCard, which last year sponsored a low-key credit-education program aimed at parents of high school and college students, has returned this year with what it hopes will be a high-profile peer-counseling effort.

Working with the nonprofit United States Student Association of Washington, MasterCard is trying to get student leaders to educate classmates about debt management.

Visa U.S.A. has spruced up its educational package, "Choices & Decisions: Taking Charge of Your Financial Life," which has been offered to educators at the university and high school level since 1991.

The teaching program, created by a team of advisors which includes the National Foundation for Consumer Credit and the National Consumers League, comes with a book of lesson plans, a teaching video, and an interactive CD-ROM.

Last year, in addition to the educational package, Visa toured the country with a glitzy game show designed to teach students how to manage money.

And Citibank, long a major presence on campuses, has come out for the first time with a complete "education kit" for students, which it is handing out with applications.

To make its points to the news media, the Citigroup subsidiary is sending out information packages with demographic information about the college market.

The materials include statistics showing that, in 1996, 21% of undergraduates were 25 to 34 years old, and nearly a third of students characterized themselves as "employees taking classes" rather than "students who were working."

The information, attributed to the Department of Commerce, seems designed to combat perceptions of college students as young, jobless, and fiscally naive.

The kits were distributed because "we understand that there is some concern today about college students and credit cards," said Citigroup spokeswoman Maria Mendler.

"We've had information programs in the past, but this is the first year we've put it all together like this."

Citibank wanted to show "who the college student really is today, which is a really different picture than the college student portrayed in the media," Ms. Mendler said. "Today's student is more mature," and therefore can handle credit responsibly, she said.

Issuers such as American Express Co. and Associates First Capital Corp. offer card products specifically for students, with the idea that young people, as they grow older, are likely to be loyal to the company that delivered their first card.

A study released last year by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in Washington found that students who applied for credit cards at on-campus marketing tables had more cards in their wallets and carried higher revolving balances.

However, another national survey, released in June 1998, by two research organizations, concluded that the majority of students use credit cards responsibly, and do not accumulate large debts.

This report, based on telephone interviews with 750 students, was written by the Education Resources Institute of Boston and the Institute for Higher Education Policy of Washington.

"Most students have reasonable attitudes" about how cards should be used, it said.

But it did warn that "some students' credit card behavior could lead to high debt levels and misuse."

MBNA Corp., which maintains affinity relationships with 500 universities and visits campuses annually to hold educational seminars, says it has few problems with lending money to college students.

"Our experience with students is that they handle their credit in a very responsible manner, and they have very good payment records," said Brian Dalphon, senior executive vice president at MBNA.

"Some of the information out there about students and how they handle their finances is incorrect."

Among the most prominent -- and controversial -- findings were those in the recent Consumer Federation study.

The work was conducted by Robert D. Manning, a visiting sociology professor at Georgetown University, who concluded that credit card debt has caused some students to drop out of school, use student loan money to pay bills, and -- in a few extreme cases -- to commit suicide.

In an interview, Mr. Manning said educational pamphlets from the credit card companies touch only on "soft issues" like budgeting.

"There are a lot of issues that the credit industry is refusing to acknowledge are a problem, which further discredits their educational programs," Mr. Manning said.

"No one is telling these kids that when they graduate they're not going to be able to rent an apartment or buy a car because their credit is wrecked."

Howard S. Dvorkin, president of Consolidated Credit Counseling Services in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said he is skeptical that the companies' literature could make an impression on a freshman being offered instant credit. "I can see a 20-year-old kid reading the educational material," he said with deliberate sarcasm.

Mr. Manning's study was based on 300 interviews and 400 responses to a written questionnaire by students at Georgetown, American University, and the University of Maryland. Card industry executives have called his work narrow in scope and slanted toward the Consumer Federation's agenda.

"There needs to be more of a balanced debate," said Ms. Cummings of MasterCard. "Mr. Manning's study looks at three schools in the Washington area, and he even says in his report that they aren't representative of students across the United States."

MasterCard's student curriculum highlights a topic often kept quiet by issuers: the advantages of paying off balances in full, and the pitfalls of making minimum payments.

Eye-catching brochures ask, "Did you know that it can take as many as eight years to pay back a credit card balance of $1,000 when you make only the minimum payment each month?"

Robert McKinley, president of Inc., a Frederick, Md., firm that tracks payment system developments, said MasterCard's warning about high balances was "the surprise this year. That message hasn't been approached in the past because it goes against the whole business of how (card issuers) make money."

But some experts say MasterCard's previous program, which showed parents how to teach their children about credit, was more meaningful.

Mike Kidwell, co-founder and vice president of Debt Counselors of America, said it is the parents' job to pass along money-management skills.

"You can't shift the responsibility to the creditors," Mr. Kidwell said.

"It's the ultimate responsibility of the person who is applying for the credit."

Others point out that parents have less influence once a child is away at school. Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America in Washington, said the colleges have a responsibility to limit marketing on campus and to provide financial education at freshman orientation.

A few colleges have set examples by banning credit card marketers, he said.

"The most effective education will be done by the colleges themselves, not the issuers," Mr. Brobeck said. "The issuers are faced with a conflict-of-interest."

Some colleges face conflicts as well, either because of the fees they earn from leasing promotional tables to card marketers, or because of the money they make from credit card affinity programs.

Universities involved in affinity programs with MBNA or Bank One Corp.'s First USA division typically receive 0.5% of all charges made on the cards. Last year, the University of Tennessee received $2.3 million, according to Mr. Manning.

"The real problem is that the more cards students get, the higher their (credit) limits become, and that seems to be contrary to normal lending criteria," Mr. Manning said.

Mr. Dvorkin said it is wrong to attack the issuers. The way to curtail the phenomenon is "if the educational institutions have pressure put on them" by parents or others.

"The issuers are not going to back off, and they may even increase their activity because they need to issue cards and they're running out of places to do it," Mr. Dvorkin said.

According to Nellie Mae, a student loan provider in Milton, Mass., 10% of students have card debt of more than $7,000, and 27% carry more than four credit cards.

Mr. Manning said, "The ultimate irony of marketing on campus is, you've got a better chance to get credit without a job than when you graduate and get a job."

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