College students heading back to school are facing a full-court press of credit card marketers, some offering free T-shirts and other favors along with spending limits as high as $5,000.
On-campus card offers are more pervasive than ever as banks dig deeper for new business. But their presence is increasingly controversial as young cardholders rack up record debt.
Two-thirds of undergraduates have credit cards, and 14% of them carry balances of $3,000 to $7,000, according to a survey by Nellie Mae, a nonprofit student loan provider in Milton, Mass. Ten percent of students have card debts exceeding $7,000, and 27% carry more than four credit cards.
Particularly ominous to credit counselors is a Nellie Mae statistic, based on its own applicants, showing that the percentage of students with more than $3,000 of card debt had doubled in the last year, to 24%.
Visa U.S.A. found in 1996 that 8.7% of bankruptcy filers were younger than 25.
"Getting your diploma now may mean going to bankruptcy court four years later," said Robert D. Manning, a visiting sociology professor at Georgetown University, who is writing a book about students and credit cards.
Some campuses have banned credit card solicitors, and others are calling for stepped-up education programs. Some issuers-notably Capital One Financial Corp.-have introduced programs offering credit cards to high school students.
Card companies defend their lending practices, saying they are giving students an opportunity to gain experience and build a credit record.
"We are in the relationship business, and we want to build relationships early on," said Dale Knight, spokesman for Associates First Capital Corp. of Dallas, which offers several products specifically for college students.
Getting there first seems to pay off. Studies have found that people hold on to their first cards for up to 15 years.
Mr. Knight said his company gives students low spending limits, around $500.
American Express Co.'s student Optima card, launched in 1995, is also on the low end of credit lines-$500 to $2,000, depending on age and credit history.
"We find students perform as well as other segments," said American Express spokeswoman Emily Porter.
American Express hands out educational materials with applications, and students must sign special "clear language" statements saying they understand the terms, Ms. Porter said.
Card marketers contend that learning to use credit responsibly can be viewed as a component of higher education. For that reason-and to dampen the negative publicity over growing student debt-the bank card associations are pouring money into promotions, brochures, and even entertainment events to encourage smart use of credit.
Visa U.S.A. has been touring the country with a glitzy game show designed to teach students how to manage money in a fun atmosphere, said Rosetta Jones, corporate relations manager. This fall it will visit 30 campuses.
Visa also sent out teaching materials on budgeting and credit to about 4,000 universities and junior colleges. The programs are meant to be taught during freshman orientation, and about 70% of campuses are using them, Ms. Jones said.
MasterCard International targets college students with print and television ads discussing the pitfalls of misusing credit. MasterCard also publishes a free guidebook for parents who want to teach their children about credit.
But critics are not appeased.
"You can't on the one hand offer education and on the other hand offer credit to people who don't have a job," said Luther R. Gatling, president and founder of Budget and Credit Counseling Services Inc., New York. "It's oxymoronic."
Prof. Manning said there is no difference between marketing credit cards to students and "hawking cigarettes to minors."
Robert Bugai, a consultant to companies that do campus marketing programs, was critical of the card companies' efforts. Most students, he said, sign up for cards with no knowledge of annual percentage rates, minimum payments, and other concepts.
"College students for the most part are financially illiterate," said Mr. Bugai, president of College Marketing Intelligence of North Arlington, N.J. "They aren't ready for real-life spending."
Mr. Bugai, who said he has visited 850 campuses to inspect the marketing of credit cards and other products, sometimes offers credit counseling services of his own.
"Some student always raises their hand at my seminars and asks in all seriousness, 'Is it O.K. to pay my Visa with my MasterCard?'" Mr. Bugai said.
Debt counselors say it is hard to blame students for falling prey to aggressive marketing.
"Students get their first card, and the offer says it's a 4.9% APR," Prof. Manning said. "Then they get their statement, and it's a 17.9% APR, and they see 4.9% was only for balance transfers."
Four out of five universities allow on-campus solicitations for credit cards, and they have something to gain. Mr. Bugai said schools charge card marketers $175 to $400 a day to rent tables during freshman orientation.
"When Georgetown University cuts their deal with MBNA and gets a half percent of all student charges, suddenly it's in their interest for these students to be in debt," Prof. Manning said.
MBNA Corp. said it contributes a percentage of all Georgetown student charges to the university. In 1982 Georgetown became the Wilmington, Del., issuer's first affinity card partner, according to MBNA spokesman Peter H. Frank. It markets the card to alumni as well as students.
One school made headlines five years ago for driving card marketers off campus.
Roger Witherspoon, vice president of student development at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, banned card solicitors, saying indebtedness was causing students to drop out. He also got the campus bookstore to agree to stop putting card advertisements in checkout bags.
"Middle-class parents can bail out their kids when this happens, but lower-income parents can't," Mr. Witherspoon said in an interview. "Kids only find out later how much it messes up their lives."
Other colleges and universities have followed suit amid complaints from parents about their children's debts. Some students have blamed card debts for their defaults on tuition payments.
But when New York University expelled issuers from school buildings, they simply set up shop on nearby public sidewalks. NYU's bookstore only takes American Express charge cards, which do not have a revolving credit feature.
Debt counselors doubt that card companies can be deterred from pursuing such a lucrative market.
Students are "extremely profitable and low-risk," said Howard S. Dvorkin, president of Consolidated Credit Counseling Services, Fort Lauderdale, Fla. For the most part, he said, "mom and dad will pick up the bill" when their child is in trouble.