Just before I left for college, my grandmother laid down the law on a lot of things.
Big Mama's first rule: No boys in my dorm room. She threatened to show up on campus at any time of the day or night to make sure I didn't disobey her.
Her second rule: Spend what little money I had wisely. Big Mama explicitly warned me about getting a credit card.
"At your age, a credit card ain't nothing but trouble," she said. "All you're doing is promising to pay later what you don't have today, and what makes you think if you don't have it today, you'll have it tomorrow?"
I listened to my grandmother. I didn't get my first "plastic" until I was just about to graduate and had accepted my first full-time job. Even then, I chose an American Express card because you had to pay it off every month.
The reality is that many undergraduates are ill-equipped to handle the responsibility of managing debt. It's crazy to give college students with limited income access to so much easy credit. They are under a lot of pressure to please their peers. Much of what they charge is for clothes and entertainment.
In fact, seven out of 10 Americans believe it is a bad idea for college students to have a credit card, according to a recent survey by the Orlando, Fla.-based InCharge Institute of America, a nonprofit personal finance education and credit counseling organization.
Nellie Mae, which provides federal and private education loans for undergraduate and graduate students and families, has conducted three credit card studies since 1998. Quite frankly, the results are troubling.
The average credit card balance among undergraduates was $2,327, according to Nellie Mae's latest survey, based on 2001 credit card usage by college students.
Twenty-one percent of undergraduates had credit cards with high-level balances between $3,000 and $7,000, a 61 percent increase over the 2000 data.
Overall, students double their average credit card debt from the time they arrive on campus until graduation, according to Nellie Mae. And they are collecting credit cards like they do wall posters.
The number of cards held by students continued to increase, from three cards in 2000 to 4.25 in 2001. In 2001, 83 percent of college students had at least one credit card, up from 67 percent in 1998, according to Nellie Mae.
Case in point
Although freshmen have the lowest rate of card possession among undergraduates, the figure was still 54 percent in 2001, the Nellie Mae study found. The percentage of students with at least one card increases to 92 percent in the sophomore year.
This year, I met a college student who had landed a wonderful job with a $10,000 signing bonus. This student wanted to know if she should save the money or pay off her credit card debt.
"How much credit card debt do you have?" I asked.
"Ten thousand dollars," the student answered.
"What in the world did you buy for $10,000?" I asked.
"Honestly, I can't remember most of what I bought on the cards," the student admitted.
Now you know, that is a shame.
But at least she had a windfall to pay off the cards. Many students aren't so fortunate. They instead count on getting a well-paying job upon graduation to pay off those debts, but there's no guarantee that will happen. Just ask some recent graduates.
Many students who graduated in May are still looking for jobs, according to the Summer 2003 issue of Salary Survey, a quarterly report published by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
In addition, salary offers in many fields are lower than they were a year ago, NACE found.
For example, offers to computer science graduates dropped 4.4 percent from last year to an average of $47,419, according to NACE. The average offer for information science graduates is down 6 percent to $39,787.
Given students' rising credit-card debt, seems to me Big Mama was right.
So, if you're about to send your child off to college, insist that he or she leave credit cards alone (and keep the young men or women out of their rooms). As with sex, credit-card abstinence is their best protection.