More than 50 percent of Maryland college students and families with "unmet financial need" use credit cards to cover education costs, according to a recent survey by the Maryland Higher Education Commission.
State officials and experts called the findings a troubling echo of a national trend, though some financial aid authorities said that when used responsibly credit cards do not necessarily lead to unmanageable debt.
"This is a very dangerous way of paying for higher-education costs," James E. Lyons Sr., state secretary of higher education, said in a statement yesterday.
Unmet need is the gap between college costs and a student's ability to pay them after factoring in financial aid packages. In 2004, there was $32 billion in unmet need nationally. The average unmet need for Maryland public college students is $7,415, according to a state study in 2006.
College "costs," as defined in the survey, include tuition and books, but also living expenses, such as food and rent.
Though the recent survey of about 4,800 students did not ask respondents how they used their credit cards -- whether as a convenient way to make online book purchases or as a long-term loan to cover large tuition bills -- one expert said the results point to a need of warning students about the danger of relying on variable-interest charge cards.
"Using a credit card is basically taking out a high-risk loan," said Lauren Asher, associate director of the Project on Student Debt, "They may have other safer options, such as federal student loans."
Kalman Chany, author of Paying for College Without Going Broke, said general surveys of credit-card use can lead to overly alarmist conclusions.
"Most kids have credit cards now when they go to college, and surveys find that most tend to use them responsibly," Chany said. "The question is what are they using them for? What balances are they carrying?"
A study last year by the American Council on Education found that the majority of student cardholders paid off their balances each month, but that about 1 in 4 had used a credit card to pay some tuition. Of the roughly 40 percent of cardholders who did not pay off their debt each month, the median balance was $1,000.
Asher said more data were needed about precisely how students are using credit cards.
"The issue is to what degree are students using credit cards to meet educational costs that could be covered more safely from other sources," she said. "We don't really know the answer."