Banks have long been trying to capture the hearts, minds, and account balances of college students, and Citibank seems to have figured out how to do it.
The bank is cutting deals with schools to set up permanent branches on campus and is trying to piggyback Citi payment cards on college identification cards.
Last year Citibank set up shop in a brand-new $85 million student center at Columbia University in New York, and has been teaching freshmen how to write checks, use automated teller machines, and fill out deposit slips.
For some years the Citigroup Inc. subsidiary has served Columbia's student population at its branch just four blocks south of the main campus. Opening a branch in the student center - which includes two ATMs and a help desk that is staffed during business hours - has given it a more direct entry into university life.
During freshman orientation last week Citibank opened about 350 new accounts a day at the branch at Columbia's Lerner Center, which also houses a coffee bar, a restaurant, and 7,000 student mailboxes. The center is named after the benefactor and alumnus Alfred Lerner, mogul of the credit card company MBNA Corp.
"The [account] numbers are still coming in, but it gets into the thousands pretty quickly," said Bruce Nohe, vice president of Citibank's education solutions division, who has managed the relationship with Columbia since January. More than half of Columbia's 25,000 students have Citibank accounts, he said.
The four-year-old division has been pursuing similar ventures with other schools. The University of Utah and several campuses of the State University of New York are also trying out the Citibank on Campus program.
The contracts with these schools are a way for the bank to reel in new accounts, as well as "a chance to establish Citibank as a meaningful vendor to the institution and to segue into other areas on the university business side," Mr. Nohe said.
For example, since the agreement with Columbia was struck, Citibank has developed purchasing cards for Columbia faculty and staff and has begun helping the school manage its endowment. However, the on-campus branch remains the centerpiece of the deal.
Citibank was awarded the Lerner Center contract two years ago. While waiting a year for the center to be built, the bank installed temporary ATMs in a freshman dormitory.
It also developed a card with Columbia that can double as a university ID card and Citi ATM card. The ATM function has not been activated yet on most of the cards because of security concerns, but Citibank has begun testing it.
"We ran into a couple of problems" on the ATM side, Mr. Nohe said: Columbia officials were concerned about what would happen if the card was lost. "For a lot of young people, their school ID is their main ID, especially for these city kids who don't have their driver's license. If they lose it, they lose their ID, and they lose their money."
Because the card is an ID card, Columbia would have to replace it, not Citibank, Mr. Nohe said. Since the university offices are open only during business hours, students who lost the card at night would have problems getting into their dorm and getting access to money, he said.
Those who sign up for accounts get a package the bank says is designed "exclusively for Columbia University students," but is actually quite similar to what students at other schools get: A checking and a savings account, 50 free checks, and unlimited transactions for a $3 flat monthly fee, which is waived if a student uses direct deposit or keeps a combined savings and checking balance of $1,500.
The idea behind this offer is to turn students into loyal customers before they become successful, Mr. Nohe said. "Columbia's tuition is what? $30,000? So, in general, we're talking about some fairly well-heeled people."
Earl Allen, manager of the branch in Columbia's student center, said the students keep a variety of balance levels. "The smallest is zero, and that's OK," he said. "And the largest size, well, is huge."
While every student may not have wealthy parents to fund the accounts, the bank sees value in the students' future earnings, Mr. Allen said. "We're building relationships with students so that when they start their careers, they'll think of Citibank."
Many of the students are writing their first checks, he said. "I have to do some educating. Like the woman who was just here - she didn't know how to make an ATM deposit." Many students are from overseas, Mr. Allen said. "You can imagine that in some countries, it's unheard-of to put money into a slot."
Mr. Nohe said most of Columbia's foreign students sign up for Citi accounts. "They enjoy the benefits of a global franchise, and they tend to keep balances," he said. To make things easy for these students, "Columbia works with us on compliance issues for international students. It's part of the relationship."
One American student also benefited from Citibank's international presence. Killian O'Brien, a junior architecture major from Shaker Heights, Ohio, said she was pleasantly surprised to see a Citibank branch while touring small towns in Spain last year.
Ms. O'Brien, 20, had no complaints about her checking and savings accounts, where she keeps a combined balance of about $2,000, but she met with difficulties as a Citibank MasterCard holder. "Once when I was asleep, someone called about some kind of credit card insurance. They said 'Blah blah blah' and I said 'Yeah, yeah,' and then they started billing me like twice my balance. I was scammed."
She has since cancelled her card and now uses one under her parents' account. Having her own MasterCard meant the risk of tarnishing her credit history, she said. "I'm planning to apply to grad school. I don't have deep pockets, and I'll probably need loans."
Anne Murray, a senior from Long Island at the School of Engineering and Applied Science, holds a Citibank MasterCard and a Discover card. Ms. Murray, 22, said she relies mostly on her Discover card, because of "the 1% cash-back thing" - and the fact that she misplaced her Citibank card somewhere on Long Island.
She predicted her Discover balance would reach around $300 this month because of textbook purchases. "Usually it's less, around $100."
Ms. Murray said she signed up for an account at the Columbia Citibank branch because of the combined ID/ATM feature. Though her ID was issued with a magnetic stripe and Citibank, NYCE, and Cirrus logos on the back, she was disappointed to find out it does not yet work as an ATM card.
Ms. O'Brien had no complaints about the ID card, but said the bank should reconsider its layout in the Lerner Center. One of her recent class assignments was to design an ATM station, and she had strong feelings about the machines in the Columbia branch.
"I think this space is particularly not well-designed," she said. "Just look. People have to walk through other people getting food. You don't know which side of the machines you're supposed to wait on. And there are all these people going to the bathroom."
Mr. Nohe listened to the suggestion, but he pointed out that the two ATMs generate about 45,000 transactions a month.