MasterCard International is going back to school to help its members meet new college students.

In partnership with the National Association for Campus Activities, MasterCard established a talent competition this month that draws on the group's membership at 1,200 colleges and universities across the country.

The best student comedy or musical act will win a cash prize from MasterCard, which is also giving the winner's school a donation for scholarship funds.

The competitions, taking place on 80 or so campuses over the next five months, provide a new forum for MasterCard's members to establish contact with students. Fliers posted around the participating campuses, which have a combined student population of 750,000, will promote the competition.

The card issuers that are most active in student marketing, including Citibank, AT&T, Household International, and MBNA, are currently reviewing the program to determine whether they will participate as cosponsors with MasterCard.

Generally, outside service providers, which set up booths on campuses, are hired by card issuers to sell credit cards.

"The theme of all of our marketing is not to thrust something at students, but to let them be a part of it," said Barbara Schulte, director of marketing for MasterCard.

Ms. Schulte referred to the fact that members of the National Association for Student Activities, which includes student groups that promote and produce student entertainment programs, are in charge of organizing the competitions on their campuses.

The competition, dubbed MasterCard ACTS (American Collegiate Talent Search) by the New York-based association, is divided into three parts.

The fall semester will be devoted to local competitions. The semifinals will take place in January and the finals will be held in February at the student organization's national convention. More than 2,000 students from about 500 campuses are expected to attend the convention in Anaheim, Calif.

The winning act will receive $15,000, and the winner's school will get a $10,000 scholarship.

In addition, two acts from the semifinal contest will be awarded $1,500. The student activities group that creates the most effective promotion of its school's event will receive $5,000. The student group's school will also receive $5,000.

Marketing credit cards to college students attracted national attention earlier this year, when Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy 2d, chairman of the House Banking subcommittee on consumer credit and insurance, held hearings to address concerns that credit card issuers are not doing enough to educate students on how to use credit responsibly.

While applauding MasterCard for supporting the arts, Ruth Susswein, executive director of Bankcard Holders of America. said that she hoped the association would use this opportunity to expand its educational efforts. which include a series of six instructional pamphlets.

Ms. Susswein advocates the use of educational seminars that teach students about the proper use of credit cards, and the consequences if the product is abused.

Ms. Susswein argues that the students have an incentive to attend such a seminar, because they would receive their card afterward.

"The best time to provide education is not at the time students sign up for the card," said Ms. Susswein, "but right before they get the card."

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