Student Credit Debt Soars

Harvard students defy the national trend of rising credit debt and card demand

The use of credit cards among college students has risen to an all-time high, according to a report released Monday by student loan company Sallie Mae.

According to the report, college students own an average of 4.6 credit cards, and the mean credit card debt has increased from $2,169 in 2004 to $3,173 last year. But students who discussed credit card use with their parents were less likely to overspend, according to the report.

“Students indicated that they wanted more information about smart money management and they wanted it earlier than even college,” said Patricia Nash Christel, a specialist in saving, planning, and paying for college at Sallie Mae.

Christel said the credit problems are related to rising college tuitions and lack of family savings. Many households are simply underestimating the cost of paying for college while the convenience of credit card use—especially online—provides a constant temptation for college-age students.

Contrary to the findings of the study, Harvard students and affiliates have remained relatively unaffected by the trend of increasing debt.

Gene Foley, president of the Harvard University Employees Credit Union, said, “On the Harvard campus, we have not really seen students [who] look like they’re getting out of control or getting into trouble with their credit cards.” Foley added that there has not been a spike in the demand for credit or requests for cash advances recently.

Foley said that part of this stability at Harvard is a result of the credit union’s attempts to maintain the limits it sets on student credit cards. The credit union arranges for financial literacy and education programs to teach students about the dangers of credit card abuse.

However, Harvard has not been completely unaffected by the changes in consumer financial behavior. Although applications for credit cards at the Harvard union have not increased, the amount drawn from each card has risen, said Foley.

In addition, Harvard students may be succumbing to the same temptations as other undergraduates across the nation. “There’s about 4 or 5 major credit card lenders, and some of them have preyed on students,” Foley said.

He said that direct marketing to college-age students has resulted in the increased credit card usage and debt recently.

Nonetheless, Foley warned that the disadvantages of excessive credit card debt do not outweigh the advantages offered by this form of payment.

“While students need to be cautious about credit cards, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have one,” he said.