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Chapter 6 Excerpt:

The Social Consequences of Student Credit Dependency


On June 8, 1999, the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) convened a major press conference on student credit card debt at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The program featured leading consumer advocates, mothers of two college students whose credit card debts contributed to their recent suicides, and the release of the first major academic study of student credit card debt that was based on both in-depth interviews and cross-sectional, survey data. The highly publicized event was widely reported in the national and regional media. This is because the previously neglected social consequences of credit card debt captured the nation’s attention in front-page newspaper stories, magazine articles, newspaper editorials, evening television news programs, cable TV interviews, and radio call-in shows.

Although Americans have become inured to the tremendous growth of the national debt and economic consequences of corporate mergers, the newly reported social impacts of student debt struck a chord in the national consciousness. Most Americans assumed that college administrators are responsible for providing a safe, nurturing environment where parents can expect that their children will acquire the personal skills and professional experiences necessary for a rewarding future. Instead, it was a national revelation that young lives were being ruined by credit card debt due to dropping out of college (misclassified as academic casualties), health problems (physical and emotional), family conflicts, bankruptcy, job rejections (due to poor credit histories), loan denials, inability to rent apartments, professional school rejection, and even suicide. Many people were aware of anecdotal stories of family members or friends whose collegiate careers were disrupted or abruptly ended by credit card debts. However, most had been persuaded by the assurances of the credit card industry that the problem affected only a small number of students (3-4 percent) and most of them would suffer only a minor financial inconvenience after beginning their work careers.

The personal testimonies of parents whose children committed suicide challenged the benign image of student credit card debt as a new adolescent rite of passage of the “Just Do It”-”Shop ‘til You Drop” generation. Their anguish resonated with the concerns of all Americans who realized that their own sons and daughters were at risk to the predatory marketing policies of the credit card industry. Janne O’Donnell described the despair of her 22 year-old son, a National Merit finalist and a “letters” major, who succumbed to the temptations of “easy money:”

“A week before Sean killed himself [we] had a long talk about his debts and about his future. He told me he had no idea how to get out of his financial mess and didn’t see much of a future for himself. He had wanted to got to law school but didn’t think he could get a loan to pay tuition because he owed so much on his cards... Sean tried to pay off his debts. He went through credit counseling but fell further behind... and moved [from University of Dallas] back home with us to attend the University of Oklahoma. He was working 2 jobs while attending OU. Still he couldn’t make ends meet... By the time he died he had 12 [credit] cards including 1 MasterCard, 2 Visas, Neiman-Marcus, Saks 5th Avenue, Macy’s Marshall Fields, Conoco, and Discover. How those companies can justify giving credit to a person making $5.15 an hour is beyond me... Credit must be based on the applicant’s present income--not on potential to earn... There simply has to be some limits set on credit card companies before more students end up in bankruptcy or dead.”

O’Donnell later described the emotional pain of making the “hard” decision not to help Sean with his mounting credit card bills. In previous years, Janne and her husband had paid some of his debts. In retrospect, however, they believed that their assistance had actually been a “disservice” by not “holding him responsible for his debts.” At the time, Sean expressed his desire to attend graduate school and become a lawyer. With his younger brother preparing to start college in the fall, Janne explained that “we thought our money should be spent paying for Tim’s bachelor’s degree rather than graduate school for Sean. It was a [difficult] choice of allocating our [limited] resources.” As Janne pondered this agonizing dilemma, she related that “I don’t know if it was the right decision and I do not know if Sean would be here today if we had paid his bills. It haunts us still.”

Sadly, Janne and her family are regularly reminded of their personal tragedy due to ongoing debt collection activities. The aggressive tactics of one particular bill collector continues to haunt O’Donnell, “He called about Sean’s credit card debt [a year later]. I left two messages explaining his death and where to get a copy of his death certificate. I just couldn’t believe it when I received the third phone call... [This time] he insisted that I pay [Sean’s] debt. I’ll never forget [this conversation]... he said to me ‘wouldn’t you want to honor his memory by paying off his debts.’ I was so angry. If I had the money, I would have paid them [earlier] and Sean might be with us today.” As if the O’Donnells need further reminders of their ordeal, Chase and other credit card companies still mail “pre-approved” credit card applications in Sean’s name to their home. And, more instructively, “the creditors still call but not as often.” See O’Donnel Web site

To the chagrin of the credit card industry, the national debate continues to intensify over the seriousness of the student debt problem and who is ultimately responsible. Criticism of the industry’s methodologically flawed research (which have been previously used to soften and systematically underestimates student credit card debt) elicited a flurry of journalistic and academic investigations that confirmed many key findings of Manning’s 1999 CFA study. Significantly, the most striking feature of the ongoing furor over predatory marketing to college and high school students has been the adamant refusal of the credit card industry to publicly acknowledge any culpability. In fact, representatives of the credit card industry have rejected all requests to participate in national television or radio programs that specifically addressed the issue of student credit card debt. As CNN reporter Brooks Jackson concluded the “Headline News” story on the CFA press conference, he explained that “credit card companies say [that] most students use credit responsibly but the representatives [of] Visa, MasterCard, American Express would not go on camera to discuss this story.” The following week, Visa even withdrew its spokesperson from an interview on “Good Morning America” which included O’Donnell and Manning. To the surprise of millions of viewers, a miffed Diane Sawyer curtly commented that “the credit card companies, by the way, would not come on our program to talk with us [about the CFA study].”

For the credit card companies, their initial public relations strategy was to dismiss the scholarly criticism and its relevance to the public as unrepresentative of national trends and the student suicides as anecdotal anomalies. By ignoring the negative publicity, they gambled on the expectation that the public’s attention would shift during the summer to baseball pennant races and family vacations, financed by friendly credit cards--of course. Instead, the groundswell of opposition to credit card marketing and lending policies led to mounting public pressures for political action in the form of federal bills and legislative amendments as well as the introduction of restrictive marketing bills in at least nine state legislatures. The most prominent federal response is HR-3142, the “College Student Credit Card Protection Act,” which was introduced by U.S. Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY) in October 1999 and again in January 2001.

Additionally, student groups, parents and alumni have intensified pressure on college administrators to ban or restrict credit card marketing on their campuses. During the academic year 1999-2000, over 400 colleges and universities formulated official policies against on-campus credit card marketing and nearly 600 other schools are considering similar restrictions. Significantly, the most effective policies have been instituted by small, liberal arts colleges where the loss of even a few students has social and economic repercussions. Conversely, it is large public schools with their highly profitable student populations where credit card companies are aggressively directing their energies. This includes the threat of potential lawsuits against non-cooperative universities, persuasive tactics of corporate lobbyists, major donations, and of course lucrative marketing contracts such as the $16 million deal with the University of Tennessee. The latter has provoked greater public scrutiny of “exclusive licensing” agreements with colleges that generate millions of dollars in annual fees.

In addition to the public scrutiny of college administrators in providing a “safe” environment for their students, the result has been greater attention to the role of colleges and universities in promoting complacent attitudes toward personal debt and the need for effective credit card education/financial literacy programs. The latter focus is reminiscent of the beer industry’s “Drink Responsibly” campaign which publicly lauds cautious attitudes toward alcohol consumption but loathes the impact on its financial bottom line. Unfortunately, the current business climate of higher education rewards revenue enhancement programs over instructional excellence. This explains why many college administrators are willing to sacrifice the long-term interests of their students and their own institutional interests for the short-term financial inducements of the credit card industry.

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Exploring the Survival Strategies of College Students

“One of the most important and underexamined features of student credit card debt is its dynamic nature. In some cases, it reflects seasonal variation such as school related expenses at the beginning of the academic year or holiday gift giving such as Christmas and Hanukkah. In other cases, it may mirror the exhaustion of summer savings or the family college ’nest egg’ while among a smaller number of students it may be due to irregular parental support payments. Additionally, students may confront family related economic demands that are satisfied through charges to their credit cards. Furthermore, as revealed by the following in-depth interviews, the general assumptions that credit card debt increases incrementally during college or is unrelated to the changing lifestyle activities on college campuses belies the contemporary reality of student “survival strategies.” That is, credit cards are used to bridge financial gaps in student budgets. However, the availability of credit cards has profoundly changed a typical student’s consumption patterns. As a result, credit cards have so profoundly changed the perception of personal “emergencies” that students of must distinguish between an on-campus financial “crisis” from an urgent need at home. Finally, these experiences illuminate the increasingly important role of college life in shaping the attitudes of future generations toward credit and debt. These issues are illuminated by “Jeff” a graduate of the Class of ‘99.

Beginning with his middle-class upbringing in Indiana, where his father inculcated the Midwestern values of frugality and debt avoidance, Jeff enrolled at Georgetown University in 1995 with a commitment to conduct his financial affairs on a cash-only basis. Initially, he socialized with students like himself--from moderate income Midwestern families--whom shared similar social backgrounds and cultural experiences. But, Jeff soon realized that he wanted to transcend his family background and enjoy the more exciting lifestyle of his more affluent and urbane friends such as his roommate. At first, his adherence to the ‘cognitive connect’ (income/resources dictate level of consumption) made him “stand out” among his peers. For instance, Jeff’s father always paid restaurant bills in cash. His motto is, “if you don’t have the cash then you shouldn’t buy it.” Jeff’s new friends, however, associated this behavior with the quaint and backward cultural practices of Depression era farmers. Rare is the situation when their parents use cash for common financial transactions.

This clash of cultures led Jeff to apply for a credit card. He received two credit cards his first semester including a Gold MasterCard. Although Jeff initially obtained his credit cards for convenience, he was impressed by the favorable response of others to his Gold credit card, “It made me feel like I had made it... people treated me different when they saw [the Gold card].” Jeff acknowledges that this new respect was premature, since he did not yet have a ‘real’ job, but perceived it as an early recognition of his future social status as a graduate from a prestigious university. Significantly, Jeff first began using his credit cards like cash, paying off the balances at the end of the month, “Why pay cash. [Afterall] what’s the point of having a credit card.” His other reason for obtaining credit cards was for emergencies. Hence, as long as Jeff’s savings and loans could finance a carefree lifestyle, his credit cards served as a modern convenience that befitted his status as a student at an elite, private university. Of course, this situation quickly changed when his financial resources were exhausted in the fall of his sophomore year.

As a freshman, Jeff saw his credit cards as his best friend, an angel of mercy during crisis situations, “At first, I decided that my credit cards would only accumulate debt in case of emergencies, such as being stranded in an airport and needing a [plane] ticket. After a while, I decided that it was okay to charge necessary things like books and other school related expenses... Then, after charging for ‘needs,’ it was just so easy... I decided that it was okay to charge anything I damn well wanted.” As his debt increased, with 8 new credit cards during his sophomore year, Jeff became disheartened. Although they enabled him to rebel against the strict social control of his father, Jeff was now encumbered with several thousand dollars of debt. Over time, Jeff confounded his pursuit of personal independence with the rejection of the cultural ethos of the ‘cognitive connect.’ Afterall, he argued, consumer debt it is a common--even modern--trend of professionally successful people and “everyone else I knew was in debt... and so were many of their parents.” Among his peers, they rationalized their indolent spending behavior by emphasizing “the great jobs that we will get [after graduation] that will enable us to pay off our credit card [debts].”

At the onset of his college career, Jeff’s conservative Midwest background made him a most unlikely candidate for accumulating a large credit card debt. However, with tuition over $23,000 per year at Georgetown University, Jeff quickly exhausted the $40,000 “loan” that his parents saved for his college education. And, with a combined household income of over $100,000, his financial aid was primarily limited to student loans. Unlike students at less costly public colleges, moreover, Jeff was not able to transfer any of his personal debts into student loans. This is because Jeff’s student loans paid only a fraction of Georgetown’s tuition while his duties as an on-campus resident hall advisor (RA) provided his room and board. Jeff’s family inculcated the importance of adhering to the ‘cognitive connect’ of consuming only what could be paid in cash; credit card use was acceptable only if one had sufficient savings or earnings that “could back up your purchases.” Initially, Jeff succumbed to the temptations of credit cards for non-economic reasons. They offer emotional security in case of personal “emergencies” and alleviate social status anxiety because “people treat me so much better when they see my Gold [American Express, MasterCard] cards.” Jeff’s first credit card was an impulsive response to a Citibank advertisement “that was hanging on the wall in the dorm.” The Visa card offered a credit limit of $700 with an introductory rate of 4.9%. By the end of his freshman year, Jeff had received three credit cards which were used primarily for entertainment-related activities.

The shift from using credit cards for convenience to financing an inflated standard of living was a normal extension of Jeff’s college experience. As he explains, “Everyone has to take on debt to go to college... everyone is expected to have student loans... Even in my Midwestern [culture] which emphasizes that debt is bad, college loans are viewed as good debt... Low interest rates... High price of college equals high value... [produces] a greater return on your investment.” By the middle of Jeff’s sophomore year, he had exhausted his parents’ college “loan.” At this point, he confronted a profound crossroads in his college career. Either he fundamentally altered his consumer oriented lifestyle or abandon his familial attitudes toward debt. Faced with the choice of losing his more “sophisticated” and urbane friends, whom view debt as a necessary means to a justifiable end, Jeff easily accumulated 8 more credit cards in 1997.

The most striking feature of Jeff’s credit card use is how quickly he abandoned the virtue of frugality as a necessary means for establishing his own social identity outside of his father’s strict control. Afterall, the culture of consumption that permeates collegiate life views saving as a practice of “hicks” while debt is the “breakfast of champions.” By the end of his sophomore year, Jeff had accumulated a couple of thousand dollars in credit card debt. Instead of beginning his junior year with savings from his summer job, most of Jeff’s earnings were used to pay off his credit cards. Significantly, as his credit card balances rose, Jeff received congratulatory letters from credit card companies extolling his good credit history and raising his credit limits as a “courtesy to our best customers” so that he could avoid over limit fees. Although he has never earned $10,000 in annual income, the deluge of credit card offers obscured the fragility of his Jeff’s financial circumstances, “with the constant arrival of new ‘pre-approved’ credit card applications AND the raising of my credit limits the credit card companies made it seem like [my level of debt] was okay... When I started to fall behind, I even received letters that allowed me to ‘skip a payment’ because the company ‘understood’ that sometimes debts can back-up such as during the holidays.” It was during this period that Jeff eagerly embraced the marketing ploys of the credit card industry so that he could accumulate ”miles” or “points” for frequent flier and consumer gift programs. More importantly, this practice led to “surfing” or transferring debt from high to low interest “introductory rate” credit cards to maximize the benefits.

As Jeff learned to “tread water” by “surfing” in this period, he learned the next lesson of the credit dependent: the “credit card shuffle.” That is, paying his credit card bills with other credit cards through monthly balance transfers and ‘courtesy checks.’ This acceptance of his new debtor status was “disheartening... but I rationalized it by telling myself that everyone else is in debt... Afterall, I’m going to get a great job and pay it off.” The “good” or “responsible” credit card debt such as school related expenses, a personal computer, and work suits was soon overtaken by entertainment on weekends, restaurant dinners, spring break in Florida and then London and Canada. With one ten-day vacation costing over $5,000, “I even charged the passport application fee,” Jeff found himself on the verge of exhausting his available cash and credit. Fortunately, the university credit union is willing to assist students like Jeff whom find themselves “drowning in credit card debt... most of the people I know that go to the credit union are getting loans to pay their credit cards.” Without the option of federally guaranteed student loans to service his credit card debts, Jeff received a $10,000 loan at a moderate 11.9 percent. This credit union loan essentially “bought some time” for Jeff before entering the job market--an option not available to most college students. Not incidentally, a condition of the loan disbursement was that $3,000 had to be used to pay off one of his credit cards. The balance of the loan was spent on school expenses as well as catching up on his other monthly credit card payments.

During his junior year, Jeff began to engage in riskier and more creative credit card schemes. For instance, he began receiving new “Pre-Approved” credit card solicitations and congratulatory letters announcing that he had “earned” an increase in his credit limits. He even began receiving letters that encouraged him to miss a payment, such as during holiday gift-giving seasons, while lauding his good credit history. These mixed messages are easy for college students to misinterpret. Indeed, Jeff rationalized that his accumulating debt was not very serious since the the credit card companies “made it seem that everything was okay by sending new applications AND raising existing credit limits.” During this period, moreover, Jeff became so dependent on ATMs (his parents never used them) that he did not even think about the transactional costs ($1.50-$3.00). As cash advances became more frequent, he did not want to know that the fees and higher interest rates made their cost comparable to short-term pawnshop loans. Eventually, he “hit the [financial] wall” when his meager stipend as a residence hall advisor made it difficult to send even minimum credit card payments. The $10,000 debt consolidation loan from the university credit union temporarily averted an economic crisis. But, this proved to be only a temporary financial “band-aid.” Jeff’s finances has spiraled out of control.

Ironically, a contributing factor to his financial crisis was two failed business ventures with his roommate which were intended to eliminate their debts. The first was a service to translate resumes of Mexican and other Latin American students whom were seeking internships or applying to colleges in the United States. Encouraged by friends seeking their assistance, they purchased all the necessary office equipment of a high-tech company: computer, fax machine, cell phones, executive chairs, high quality business cards and fliers, web site fees, P.O. box, and legal fees for incorporation in Delaware. After several months without clients and rapidly depreciating business technology, Jeff and his “partner” opted to “cut our losses” and terminate the business. Each lost over $2,500. To add further financial insult, they had to pay additional legal fees to dissolve their corporation and are still paying the contract for their listing with an internet “search engine.”

Following this entrepreneurial debacle, they sought to recoup their losses through the stock market. Instead of becoming more cautious about debt, “our credit cards allowed us to get too big for our britches” According to Jeff, “my roommate found out that his company was going to be bought out. So, he was convinced that we would make a quick profit if we bought some stock before [the acquisition]... a sure winner! We each bought $5,000 worth of stock with cash advances from our credit cards... with e-trade we even saved on brokers’ commissions... The company was bought-out alright but then it was cannibalized and the stock fell... We each lost over $3,000.” When asked why they pursued such risky ventures while still in school, Jeff responded, “Because we could! The courtesy checks gave us the opportunity act on our impulses.”

By the end of Jeff’s junior year, the social empowerment provided by his 11 bank and 5 retail credit cards had changed dramatically: they had evolved from friends to foes. The social “doors” that they had previously “opened” were now increasingly closed. Jeff recalled that he was “so concerned about meeting the right people and fitting in with them... that [he] did not think twice about $50 bar tabs and spending spring break in London... To think otherwise would have meant certain social death.” Fortunately, Jeff was forced to confront his situation after realizing that “I no longer had control over my credit cards. Now, they controlled me.” The earlier freedom to “act like an adult” had been replaced with the financial responsibility of paying for his earlier excesses. Indeed, rather than enjoying his final year at college, Jeff endured a from of “social hell” by working full-time while taking a normal course load and applying/ interviewing for jobs. He works at least 30 hours per week at two part-time jobs (in addition to his position as a resident advisor) simply to make the minimum payments on his $20,000 credit card debt and $10,000 debt consolidation loan. Most of his friends have stopped calling to make plans for the weekend because he is “shackled to my credit cards... I can’t go out with them like I used to because I have to work... ultimately, to pay for the fun that I charged on my credit cards a couple of years ago.”

Today, Jeff views his credit cards with disdain, “I hate them.” He is delinquent on many of his accounts and has threatened to declare bankruptcy unless the banks offer him more favorable interest rates. Ironically, Jeff’s social odyssey of the last four years has brought him “full-circle” in affirming his father’s mantra toward debt: “if you can’t afford it, don’t buy it.” What angers him the most about credit card marketing campaigns on campus is that they extol the benefits of ‘responsible use’ but neglect to inform impressionable and inexperienced students about their “downside” such as the impact of poor credit reports on future loans and even potential employment. This is crucial, as Jeff explains, because “the credit card industry knows exactly what it is doing [in encouraging debt] while taking advantage of students whom are trying to learn how to adjust to living away from home, often for the first time... Let’s face it, how can these banks justify giving me 11 credit cards on an annual income of only $9,000. These include a Gold American Express and several Platinum Visa cards.”

Although Jeff does not dismiss his financial responsibility, he states that “I almost feel victimized... giving credit cards to kids in college is like giving steroids to an athlete. Are you not going to use them after you get them?” Furthermore, as a dorm Resident Advisor (RA), Jeff emphasizes that the university offers an wide range of student informational programs and services but with one notable exception, “there is nowhere to go for debt counseling... everything is discussed in Freshman Orientation or incorporated in Resident Advisor training and residence hall programs... AIDS, suicide, eating disorders, alcohol, depression, peer pressure, sex ed, academic pressures, learning handicaps... all but financial crisis management.”

As Jeff has “gone full circle” in his attitudes toward credit cards, he is now coping with the unexpected “pain” of his past credit card excesses. Over $20,000 in credit card debt (plus his $10,000 debt consolidation loan and over $30,000 in student loans), Jeff has washed ashore from his “surfing” escapades. Although working two part-time jobs during his senior year, Jeff is now delinquent on several of his 16 credit cards. A business major, Jeff is anxiously awaiting the outcome of his job search. He is optimistic as some of his peers have already received starting salaries that range from $40,000 to $55,000 per year. In addition, several have received signing bonuses between $3,000 and $10,000. For Jeff, the latter is especially important because he plans to use this money to reduce his credit card debt.

Unfortunately, Jeff’s promising career is encountering obstacles from an unexpected source--his credit cards. During a recent interview with a major Wall Street banking firm, Jeff was asked, “how can we feel comfortable about you managing large sums of our money when you have had such difficulty in handling your own [credit card] debts?” Jeff was stunned. It was obvious that the interviewer had reviewed his credit report--without prior notification--in evaluating Jeff’s desirability to the firm. “Can you believe it,” Jeff declared, “they want an explanation about my personal finances in college and yet they lost over $120 million last year!”

In their decision not to offer him employment, Jeff wonders how much was based on his GPA and how much on the “score” calculated by the consumer credit reporting agency. This is certainly not a potential consequence that is explained by the credit card industry when it exclaims, “Build your credit history... you’ll need [it] later for car, home or other loans.” As Jeff passes by the MBNA Career Center on campus, which is named after the credit card company that he owes several thousand dollars, the irony of his “catch-22” situation is not lost on him, “how can I pay them back when their credit reports are hurting my chances of getting a good job!” It is not surprising that growing numbers of students like Jeff are increasingly using sexual analogies in describing their unforeseen circumstances, denouncing the predatory policies of the credit card industry as a form of “financial rape.”

As Jeff’s experience shows, student financial strategies are becoming increasingly complex as credit card companies offer “the [financial] freedom to hang ourselves.” Even students at expensive private schools are finding ways to transfer their credit card debt into supplementary loans without the knowledge of their parents. This increasingly popular practice helps to explain the wide vacillation in student credit card balances due to infusions of cash from other sources of loans. In addition, Jeff demonstrates how access to credit cards can lead to costly and unnecessary purchases that would not have been considered under the financial constraints of a fixed student budget. The latter is especially disconcerting. It reflects the strong influences of escalating peer consumption pressures as well as sophisticated marketing campaigns that target the youth culture. One of the most seductive is the Sony advertisement, “Don’t deny yourself. Indulge with the Sony [Visa] Card from Citibank... The official currency of playtime,” Or, more succinctly, the ubiquitous NIKE slogan, “Just Do It.”

CONCLUSION: Paper Or Plastic?

Over the last 25 years, rapidly escalating college costs and declining financial aid/real wages have forced students to increasingly rely on credit cards to help pay for their college educations. This has led to a new trend where credit card debts are being “revolved” or paid off with federal student loans or even with private debt consolidation loans. For growing numbers of students, credit cards are becoming a savior for financing their educations--especially in public schools. For others, the initial freedom offered by credit cards may become financial shackles by the end of their college career. The most unfortunate may find that their only option for regaining personal control in the “Just Do It” culture of credit dependency is to withdraw from school and work full-time in order to pay off their debts. Indeed, official drop-out rates (attributed to low grades) include growing numbers of students who are unable to cope with the stress of their debts and/or part-time jobs for servicing their credit cards. For others, the reality of their credit card indebtedness may not be realized until after graduation when prospective employers question their past financial recklessness.

A key factor in college marketing campaigns is that adolescence and early adulthood is the formative period for shaping consumer attitudes (immediate gratification or “cognitive disconnect”) as well as consumer tastes for specific products and corporate brand loyalty. This has produced new “cross-marketing” campaigns where banks join with corporate retailers in marketing to students through credit card advertisements (American Airlines, Time Magazine, Wal-Mart, L.L. Bean, Sony). Not surprisingly, the social pressures of college--especially for students from modest income families--constitute an ideal setting for manipulating parental authority conflicts and status anxiety among young, impressionable students. The ability to acquire credit cards, without parental consent, is exacerbating family tensions over unapproved behavior (drinking, sex, drugs, holiday trips, expensive clothes). In fact, many students with credit cards provided by their parents are acquiring their own in order to conceal their social, sexual, and consumption activities. Hence, student credit cards are contributing to heightened family tensions as well as shielding potential financial responsibility from the purview of parents/guardians.

A final issue concerns the seduction of college and university administrators by the credit card industry. This Faustian pact includes sponsoring school programs, funding student activities, renting on-campus solicitation tables, and paying “kick backs” for exclusive marketing agreements such as college or alumni “affinity” credit cards. As a result, rather than protecting the economic and educational interests of their students, college administrators are playing an active and often disingenuous role in promoting the societal acceptance of consumer debt as well as the prominence of credit cards in collegiate life. For instance, the use of bank sponsored “smart” (computer chip) cards as student IDs with “stored value” features such as the University of Pennsylvania. In the absence of direct parental guidance, together with a social environment that promotes immediate gratification (attitudinal disconnect between cash and credit) and the deferment of economic responsibility (e.g. student loans), the financial education of American college students is increasingly being auctioned by universities to the highest corporate bidders. This suggests that one of the most enduring lessons of college--often beginning with the first tuition loans--is the uncritical acceptance of credit dependency. Most likely, it will help to shape the sharp disjuncture between current discretionary lifestyle activities and the inability to satisfy future consumption desires due to the burdens of college indebtedness and modest household incomes.

See the “Research Reports” section of this site for research methodology and full range of student case studies that are the basis of this chapter.

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