The temptation to take out the plastic has found its way to college campuses.
College students, in most cases still in search of careers, already have amassed thousands of dollars in credit card debts that will take years to pay off. Some students even have sought bankruptcy, and many more are looking for help from local credit counselors.
"It's a huge load just to keep up with the minimum payments. Most of the time I can't," said Jennifer Jacobson, a University of Pittsburgh senior, who piled up $9,000 in credit card charges.
"I used them for everything — to pay the bills and all sorts of general necessities," she said. "I haven't touched them for a year."
Nationally, four out of five college students have a credit card, and the average balance is $2,327, according to a recent study by the Nellie Mae foundation, one of the largest student loan associations.
When added to the burden of student loans, the overall load can be steep — sometimes too steep. Nellie Mae found that graduating college students average $20,402 in combined education loan and credit card balances.
Caryn Bilotta, of Consumer Credit Counseling Service on the South Side, said more college students and recent graduates are asking for help. Credit-counseling services offer advice and debt consolidation opportunities.
"We try to get to them while they're still in college through educational classes," Bilotta said. "Most students don't fully understand all of the problems with debt."
For some, bankruptcy is seen as the easy way out because it wipes out most or all unsecured debt.
Bankruptcy doesn't have the social stigma it did 10 years ago and is not used properly by people, according to John Waskin, founder and executive director of American Credit Counselors based in Charlotte, N.C. Waskin's company is one of the largest credit counselors in the nation.
"Bankruptcy is for people who just could never get out of debt," Waskin said. "It's not for 25 year olds who don't want to pay their bills."
Students double their average credit-card debt and triple the number of credit cards in their wallets from the time they arrive on campus until graduation, according to the Nellie Mae study.
"I used to have six credit cards totaling about $7,000 in debt," said Pitt senior Aubrey Loen. "Now I'm down to about $2,000."
Loen had a simple plan to lower her debt: "I cut them all up. I made it a priority to pay off those bills. It took a while to do it, though."
Robert Manning, professor of humanities at Rochester Institute of Technology and author of "Credit Card Nation," said many spending habits of college students are formed after being integrated with classmates from more affluent backgrounds.
"You have the doctor's daughter and the bus driver's daughter rooming together and having a good time. Nobody wants to be left out, but when it comes time to pay the bills, one father can afford to pay a $10,000 credit card bill and one can't," Manning said. "People who would never have been given a dime in credit 10 years ago can now have thousands of dollars."
Some parents, however, have figured out a simple way to control their son's or daughter's spending.
Gina Gelotti' said her mother placed a $300 credit limit on her card.
"My mom knows better," said the Pitt sophomore, smiling. "I usually max out the $300 limit each month. If my mom didn't have the limit on the card, I would probably have spent more than I should have."
The credit counselors agree that credit card companies specifically target college students through giveaways and other promotions. Manning called it a win-win situation for the university and the credit card company.
"Many big state schools sign exclusive agreements with credit card companies that allow them to come on campus and solicit students," he said. "They get the exclusive rights for the alumni credit card and other cards with the university mascot. The companies also get student lists with names, numbers and addresses, depending on the agreement."
The lists allow the credit card company to cross-market the lists to other companies to solicit the students for other products, Manning said.
Local universities have mixed policies toward credit card companies.
Pitt now is discussing terms with a credit card company, said spokeswoman Trish White, and cannot discuss any specifics of the agreement.
Carnegie Mellon University has an agreement with MBNA that is for alumni, but the program also markets to students on campus, said Bill Laird, a spokesman for the Oakland university.
According to its Web site, MBNA is the world's largest independent credit card issuer.
Penn State University has an exclusive agreement with MBNA to market to its students and alumni for an undisclosed amount of money. In return, MBNA gets exclusive Penn State marketing rights that include placing the school's logo on the credit card and soliciting students directly by phone and mail, according to Patrick Scholl, director of planning and business for Penn State's alumni association.
"The money we get from MBNA is channeled back into scholarships, library improvements and other building improvements," Scholl said. "It's not like MBNA is just coming on campus and giving cards to everybody. They screen the students. MBNA also has conducted several credit seminars on campus."
Officials at Duquesne University and Point Park College said credit card companies are not allowed on campus to solicit their students. Duquesne's policy offers a sharp contrast to that of Penn State.
The Rev. Sean Hogan, Duquesne's executive vice president of student life, said money isn't worth letting credit-card companies solicit their students.
"No way," said Hogan. "We don't want them pushing cards at the kids — not with all the debt problems students have. The credit-card companies are not allowed here."
Hogan said the university has an agreement with a credit card company only for alumni.
Not everyone views credit card companies as having a negative impact on college students.
Credit card companies get a bad rap, said Catherine Pulley of the American Banker's Association. She said banks and credit card companies market to everybody, not just college students.
"These kids are of legal age, and there are many kids in college who want to and need to establish credit," Pulley said. "They're exposed to all types of marketing every day. They're not swayed by a free T-shirt promotion.
"Most importantly, though, is that kids need to learn their financial ABCs early. Parents need to teach their kids about money," Pulley said.
James Donohue, an MBNA executive who deals with college agreements, did not return phone calls.
Some studies dispute Nellie Mae's findings and show that students may not be in financial peril.
Student Monitor, a national firm that surveys college students on a range of issues, indicates only three out of five college students have credit cards. And, of those students who carry a monthly balance, the average debt is $531.
Regardless of statistics, not all students are careless with credit cards, and for some, they are a necessity.
Barbara Woolston, a senior at Pitt, said she needed her MasterCard to charge the leftover $1,000 of tuition that she couldn't afford. She paid off the debt in three months.
"People who just make the minimum payments are stupid," she said. "I don't like being in debt, and I think most kids are pretty smart about it."
Tips to avoid credit card debt problems.
Source: Consumer Credit Counseling Service
Bobby Kerlik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story ran on Pittsburgh Tribune on June 1, 2002 .