Gatekeepers

March 15, 2004

THE COLLEGE Board put it best: "Imagine being 30 years old and still paying off a slice of pizza you bought when you were in college."

That's the kind of credit card trouble many young adults get into before learning how to manage debt, a skill increasingly necessary by college age.

It doesn't help that card issuers are eager to sign up low-income students for the chance to build brand loyalty. The latest studies by the loan provider Nellie Mae show that by sophomore year, 92 percent of college students have a credit card; by graduation, their combined plastic debt plus school loans averages $20,400. And though recent statistics suggest that many young adults are handling their credit, an early slide into dangerous levels of debt has made bankruptcy a very real risk for others.

Training in financial savvy and personal responsibility should begin at home, and continue in school, but plenty also can be done by card issuers and college administrations to help prevent students from overextending themselves.

Credit card companies should require parental consent before dependent students can obtain a card. Greater limits on the amount of credit extended to students - based on a percentage of their income, for example - also would help.

Colleges, meanwhile, could do more to restrict aggressive credit card marketing on campus. For example, several Maryland colleges bar vendors from setting up promotion tables, but enforcement is sometimes lax, according to a recent survey by the Maryland Public Interest Research Group.

And some of the colleges themselves need to shake credit card habits. While putting limits on direct soliciting to students, some colleges allow alumni associations or other groups to provide student names and addresses to the credit card companies in affinity card deals. They woo these companies with offers to trade exclusive access to the students and alumni in exchange for millions for scholarships, fellowships, building funds and other projects.

They shouldn't be selling the students this way - or disingenuously citing public information laws to justify the practice. Maryland statutes and federal law, in fact, classify college directory information as public, to be made available upon request. The schools decide which details they'll maintain in a directory (wise ones err on the side of safety and privacy, and omit students' current addresses). They can then let the credit card companies ask for the printout or disk like everybody else, and charge a duplication fee.

Nothing in the state public information act or federal privacy law, however, encourages getting in bed with the credit card companies or condones the hypocrisy of opening the back gate to solicitations while closing the front door.

Towson University's alumni board has decided wisely to eliminate student names from its next affinity card contract. Other colleges and groups that sell student data to credit companies should follow suit.

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