Increasingly concerned about student debt levels, colleges are pushing credit card marketers off campus.
Some schools are banning card company representatives. Others are raising the permit fees to set up solicitation tables.
The companies say they will not abandon the student market, which used to be an easy sell and apparently remains highly profitable. The good cardholders often turn into long-standing customers, loyal to the issuers of their first cards.
Ed Stanley, president of American Credit Card Inc. of Indianapolis-a marketing company that sells credit cards to students on behalf of banks- said that in the face of new obstacles "we simply have to be more creative."
College-based card marketing has long been a hot button for consumer advocates. Their concerns are gaining more credence among school administrators, as publicity rises about bankruptcy and debt among young people.
The controversy-and the bad experiences some colleges have had with unsavory marketing companies-is threatening to turn card companies into campus pariahs.
"Schools are treating card marketers differently from other marketers," said Jim Stowers, managing editor of the Association of College Unions International, a Bloomington, Ind., organization that represents student groups and distributes several publications.
In 1998, 160 of the 660 four-year schools listed in Barron's Profiles of American Colleges did not allow card marketers on their campuses, up from 110 in 1997, according to United College Marketing Services of Oak Brook, Ill.
Some schools are restricting the number of days or areas of campus that can be used for student soliciting, which is known as "tabling."
Other institutions are simply raising the price for a table. These costs rose about 15% in 1998, United College Marketing said.
Typically, a table costs $250 to $270 a day, with some as high as $600, said Larry Chiang, founder of United College Marketing, which sells credit cards to students on behalf of banks.
"It costs more money to do the same job," Mr. Stanley said. To compensate, he has doubled in three years the fees he charges banks to hawk their cards. He would not disclose his price.
Citigroup and American Express Co., two of the most aggressive marketers of cards to students, acknowledged that their costs have risen, but would not say much more.
Gail Wasserman, an American Express spokeswoman, said college students "remain a viable and important market for us."
Citigroup spokeswoman Maria Mendler said Citibank executives are planning meetings with college officials to address grievances.
"We take the concerns of colleges seriously, and we are looking at ways to work with them directly," Ms. Mendler said.
Citi, like the majority of card issuers, hires outside companies to solicit students on campuses. It has worked exclusively for several years with On Campus Marketing of Moorestown, N.J.
Even as costs rise, it is still less expensive to market cards to college students than to other groups, Mr. Chiang said.
The acquisition cost of a student account is about $40, one-fifth the mainstream rate, Mr. Chiang said. That mitigates the impact of higher tabling fees.
United College Marketing claims to be the only company that uses on- campus credit education seminars in selling cards. This approach frequently spares the company from paying the fees other card marketers must pay schools, and it wins accolades from a consumer advocate.
"Larry Chiang is doing a great job," said Gerri Detweiler, who is affiliated with Debt Counselors of America and has written two financial management books for consumers.
Mr. Stanley said it is becoming increasingly difficult to fight negative perceptions of his profession. He said Auburn University in Alabama charges card marketers $150 per day and requires that the tables be set up outside, "so if it rains, you're in trouble."
The University of Illinois, he said, allows card marketers on campus just four days during the school year, "and they choose the days."
Kent State University in Ohio shunts card marketers to less-trafficked areas of the campus. But Mr. Stanley said the administration has no control over the ROTC building, which is considered government property.
"We became friends with the colonel, and he allows us to set up on his property, which is a busy area," Mr. Stanley said.
Robert Bugai, a former college card marketing executive, has visited hundreds of campuses and made a crusade of exposing questionable practices.
As head of College Marketing Intelligence of North Arlington, N.J., Mr. Bugai has found companies that enlist the help of students to sell cards, then fail to pay them.
He said some companies "crash" campuses, disregarding official bans on soliciting. Others are guilty of "stacking," which involves using information from a legitimate, completed application to apply for other cards the marketer represents.
The bad apples are in the minority, but they taint the industry, executives said.
"Colleges are reacting to the media articles," Mr. Stanley said."But it's our job to go and sign students up."