Wednesday, September 5, 2007


Aggressive on-campus marketing by credit-card companies is coming under fire. What should be done to educate students about the dangers of plastic?

This story is the first in a series examining the increasing use of credit cards by college students.

Seth Woodworth stood paralyzed by fear in his parents' driveway in Moses Lake, Wash. It was two years ago, during his sophomore year at Central Washington University, and on this visit, he was bringing home far more than laundry. He was carrying more than $3,000 in credit-card debt. "I was pretty terrified of listening to my voice mail because of all the messages about the money I owed," says Woodworth. He did get some help from his parents but still had to drop out of school to pay down his debts.

Over the next month, 17 million college students flood the nation's campuses will be greeted by swarms of credit-card marketers. Frisbees, T-shirts, and iPods will be used as enticements to sign up, and marketing on the Web will reinforce the message. Many kids will go for it. Some 75% of college students have credit cards now, up from 67% in 1998. Just a generation earlier, a credit card on campus was a great rarity.

Congressional Oversight Weighed

The role of credit-card companies in helping to build these mountains of debt is coming under great scrutiny. Critics say that as the companies compete for this important growth market, they offer credit lines far out of proportion to students' financial means, reaching $10,000 or more for youngsters without jobs. The cards often come with little or no financial education, leaving some unsophisticated students with no idea what their obligations will be. Then when students build up balances on their cards, they find themselves trapped in a maze of jargon and baffling fees, with annual interest rates shooting up to more than 30%. "No industry in America is more deserving of oversight by Congress," says Travis Plunkett, legislative director for Consumer Federation of America, a consumer advocacy group.

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