Deliver us from marketers

Everyone knows that credit card marketers are annoying.

From tables offering chintzy gifts in exchange for a completed Visa application to piles of glossy pre-approved junk mail offers, the more intrusive methods of pushing plastic can be aggravating.

Worse, credit cards pull many college students into a world of financial hurt. With high interest rates for first-time cardholders and the unlimited consumer desires of leisurely college life, debt can - and often does - pile on quickly for the average undergraduate. In fact, the most recent survey of student credit card use, conducted in 2004 by student lender Sallie Mae, found that the average college student carries an outstanding balance of $2,196. That figure has steadily increased, more than doubling over the past ten years.

There's no question that credit cards can be dangerous and tempting tools for college students, and that advertising for cards can be a bother. But are college students really so helpless that they need to be protected from stupid T-shirts and free pizza flyers? According to a survey released last week, the answer is a resounding yes.

The Campus Credit Card Trap, a report compiled by the US Public Interest Research Group, an ostensibly unbiased consumer advocacy organization, surveyed 1,500 undergraduate students at campuses across the United States, asking them to complete questionnaires on credit card use and marketing.

According to the survey, ""only 1 in 5 students replied yes to the proposition that students could handle credit card marketing without regulation."" So much for the idea that college students are competent, responsible adults - apparently 80 percent of us need the warm arms of the nanny state to protect us from dastardly advertising.

The idea that college students need the power of government to protect them from driving themselves into debt in exchange for a free hat is more than a little insulting. And the willingness of students to use government coercion to make their lives a little less annoying is a troubling trend.

Unfortunately, the rest of the data from the study is less than elucidating - especially when it comes to credit cards. There's the claim that 74 percent of students ""asserted that only cards with fair terms and conditions should be marketed on campus."" Pity the 26 percent who evidently want more hawking of ""unfair"" cards on campus.

Then there's the analysis of student credit card spending at the heart of the report. Although the section on ""How students reported using their cards"" could have offered some useful information on student spending habits, it's so flawed it's almost worthless. Students were asked to indicate the types of purchases for which they used credit, choosing from a smorgasbord of assorted categories, including ""day to day expenses,"" ""books,"" ""weekends and pizza,"" ""emergencies,"" ""travel to school,"" ""vacation,"" and ""tuition.""

""Weekends and pizza"" is the most puzzling category of all, and seems to have been designed with the express purpose of encouraging students to admit charging frivolous purchases to their credit cards. If that was the idea, it worked: ""weekends and pizza"" was the second most popular credit card purchase among the students surveyed.

But the inclusion of the bizarre option complicates the rest of the choices. Should ""day to day expenses"" exclude weekend purchases? What about pizza purchased on a weekday? What about a weekend vacation? A pizza emergency?

Shoddy methodology and bias are evident throughout much of the rest of the report. If you have any illusion that the report is an independent, unbiased survey, check out page nine, where the survey asserts that when faced with regulation ""credit card companies simply invent new, more lucrative enticements and insidious marketing schemes in a never-ending effort to ensure that students carry their cards."" Or the statement on the first page that the ""enormously profitable"" banking industry merely wants to ""squeeze their customers for greater profits."" Not exactly the language of dispassionate analysis.

Finally, there are the report's recommendations on reforming cards on campus: ""prohibit,"" ""control,"" ""block"" and ""stop"" various forms of credit card marketing. Credit card marketing may be irritating, but paternalistic government is worse.

Credit cards are legitimate - albeit potentially perilous - financial instruments. Used wisely, a credit card is instrumental in building a responsible credit history and bolstering one's credit score, a little number with big financial consequences. It determines the interest rate on your home mortgage or car loan, personal insurance rates, and is even reviewed by some employers to evaluate personal character. Every college student ought to have a credit card or two and know how to use it judiciously.

Suggesting blanket bans on credit cards or regulating the industry out of existence is just as financially irresponsible as driving up debt on superfluous purchases. Unfortunately, it looks like college students will keep on trying to do both.

Connor Mendenhall is a sophomore majoring in economics and international studies and the opinions editor of the Arizona Daily Wildcat. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.


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