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Debt Management

By Elizabeth A. Gudrais, Crimson Staff Writer

It seems like once a week offers for amazing credit cards--"no annual fees!" "low monthly payments!"--arrive in each Harvard mailbox.

If you've replied, you're not alone.

A full 77 percent of undergraduates at four-year colleges and universities have credit cards, according to data compiled by Consolidated Credit Counseling Services, Inc. (CCCS), a company that helps students with serious debt by securing them lower interest rates, along with credit counseling.

Credit card companies aren't worrying about reversing the trend. And at college campuses they solicit hard--trying to trap a gnerally conscientious and high-spending population when it is young.

"There's a lot of money to be made, and credit card companies know it," says CCCS President Howard Dvorkin.

No Tough Sell

Add the colorful flyers filling first-years' mail center boxes to those first-years' relative inexperience with budgeting and credit, and you're left with a dangerous combination.

"You go into the mailroom, and kids are getting credit cards from everyone under the sun," says Matthew J. DeGreeff '89, a Greenough proctor and also a financial aid officer. "It's obscene."

The average credit card holder keeps the first credit card for 15 years, according to CCCS. Needless to say, this makes 18-year-old college first-years a tremendously attractive market for credit card companies--one they expend large advertising budgets on every year.

Before issuing a card, companies do run credit checks, but if a student has just arrived on campus and applies for several cards, they all may be issued before any of them have the chance to show up on the report.

"You can get a whole bunch of credit cards very quickly," DeGreeff says. "It's all funny money."

Add to that the fact that Harvard graduates have one of the highest rates of loan repayment in the nation, and it's no surprise that, as DeGreeff puts it, "Banks love Harvard students."

A full 80 percent of colleges and universities allow companies to take further advantage of the student market by allowing on-campus credit card solicitations. Fortunately for Harvard students, as in many matters, their school is stricter than average.

The College's Handbook for Students says, "Solicitation in University buildings and on University property must have prior approval of the proper authority."

The statute, while expressly intended to regulate student groups, applies also to any outside groups, says Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis '68.

"We would almost never grant approval for a non-Harvard commercial enterprise," Lewis wrote in an e-mail message.

Just Around the Corner

The exception, of course, is the Coop.

Each September, staff from the Coop and First USA Bank set up a table on the ground floor of the Coop's book building. They then approach students entering the building, asking them whether they'd like to sign up for a Coop Visa to receive a free T-shirt.

Though the table may appear to be just your normal credit card solicitation scheme, in fact, it's quite different

Behind the Coop table wait baskets of cards--a card for each first-year student at each of Harvard's schools.

And on each of those cards is an $800 credit line, ready for use. The user must fill out an application, but may use the card that day, before the application is processed.

What's more, seldom is the application rejected later on. In the very rare cases it is--if the student has already defaulted on another credit card or has a very bad credit record, says Coop Corporate General Manager Allen Powell--the student must make monthly payments on the amount already spent, but is allowed to spend more.

Though the ready-to-use credit line might seem like a moneymaking ploy and a trap for vulnerable first-years, Powell says it's a service for students.

"What we found, quite frankly, is that many students, particularly foreign students, really don't have any credit vehicle available to them here," Powell says.

In 1997 the Coop Visa replaced the old Coop card that had a line of credit that could only be used at the Coop.

"After the proliferation of bank credit cards, people were no longer using the Coop credit card," Powell says.

So in order to quit losing money but still offer a credit card, the Coop negotiated a deal with First USA. According to Powell, students need the credit in order to buy their first round of books and supplies before they have a source of income.

The Coop has a special deal with the University, through which it gains access to a list of the names of all first-year students.

Lewis says the arrangement is an unusual one for Harvard, in that the University is generally averse to issuing companies lists of student addresses or even names.

"I can't think of a case when we would do that, leaving aside a few unique institutions such as the Coop and the yearbook," he wrote.

Powell calls the solicitation for the Coop card a "very soft sell," but what about the credit card applications--currently for the Freedom Visa--slipped inside each and every shopping bag along with the merchandise?

The applications result from the Coop's affiliation with Barnes & Noble, Powell explains. Barnes & Noble uses the advertising revenues to pay for the cost of the bags themselves, so there is not much the Coop can do about those flyers.

"We review what goes in there, and make sure it isn't...a product...that we wouldn't want to support," Powell says.

In the envelope with the Coop Visa are written materials informing them about the seriousness of credit card debt and the importance of budgeting. Such parental advice is of course not included with the Freedom Visa solicitation materials.

Powell says the warnings distributed by the Coop are sufficient, because credit card companies' rarely issue cards to students already in debt. And the company has gotten positive feedback from First USA.

The Coop Visa was an experimental project, but Powell said the results of the arrangement have more than satisfied First USA.

"Quite frankly, if there was a problem with students abusing the credit card and defaulting, First USA would say, 'No, we will not grant automatic credit for your students,'" Powell said.

"There are controls for this thing," he added. "We review this program on an annual basis."

The fact that this seemingly shaky arrangement is working at Harvard is all the more striking because no other school has a similarly permissive relationship with First USA.

Director of the Bureau of Study Counsel Charles Ducey agrees that credit card debt is not a major problem at Harvard.

He said "relatively few" students mention it as an issue, and students coming in for counseling seldom mention debt as their primary concern.

"Perhaps it has to do with the effectiveness of the financial aid office," he said.

DeGreeff says the low rate of students seeking help for debt-related issues doesn't surprise him.

"Weakness is always a hard thing for students to admit," he says.

In his experience as a proctor, DeGreeff says he sees plenty of first-years spending freely on chic wardrobes or stereo equipment, but in general, what brings students financial trouble are one-time major expenses like airfare for an emergency trip home, uninsured medical expenses, spring break trips, or travel for interviews.

What most students don't know, he says, is that the financial aid office has a special fund for emergencies.

"There's not a lot we can do for consumer debt," he says. "Medical expenses, emergency trips home, books and supplies--those are things we can help students with."

DeGreeff is quick to advise students to visit the office sooner rather than later if they're having money troubles.

"It can ruin your credit history," he says. "It could push you into depression."

"We have so many great resources here," he adds.

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