Look into the purse or pocket of any college student and research indicates that you will find an average of $1,035 of credit card debt. Ask that same student what the interest rate is on the credit card, and you will likely end up with a number that is far from accurate.
“It comes down to a lack of financial literacy and students generally not knowing the importance of tracking their spending,” said Jill Norvilitis, associate professor of psychology, who chaired the study. “While a majority of college students will do just fine with their credit cards, there is a select group of individuals who can end up way in over their heads.”
Age, year in school, number of credit cards, and attitudes toward credit card use were also found to be accurate predictors of debt. Factors such as gender and grade point average could not be linked to the problem. A total of 448 students from five colleges in three states were surveyed for the study.
What are students buying on credit? Not laptops, iPods, flat-screen televisions, or even tuition, according to Norvilitis.
“Eighty-nine percent of the respondents said they are not using their credit cards for tuition,” she said. “Instead, it tends to be everyday living expenses, such as gas, clothes, and meals. It is just too convenient to swipe and go.”
One-third of students reported having two credit cards or more, while 12 percent had three or more credit cards. “As students accumulate more credit cards to their name, the chances of incurring more debt obviously increase,” said Norvilitis. The research also found a correlation between debt and an unrealistic expectation of after-college earning power. According to Norvilitis, many students believe they will make much more money after college than they will actually earn. Students take on debt because they expect to be able to repay it.
The buildup of debt also corresponds to a student’s year in school, with the likelihood of credit card debt increasing during an individual’s junior and senior years. “Older students encounter more expenses than first- or second-year students,” Norvilitis added. “As student’s age, they also become more tolerant of debt.”
Norvilitis notes that students’ troubled spending habits can often be traced to parents. Financial lessons taught early on and parents’ implied importance on material things are strong influences on a college student’s financial habits.
Even if parents have been unsuccessful in equipping their children with proper financial knowledge, Norvilitis offers three easy suggestions for parents to help prevent their children from falling into the trap of credit card debt.
-- Cosign on your child’s card. “If a college student knows that their parents are able to check purchases online, it can be a good deterrent.”
-- Request a lower credit limit. “This is a simple solution; credit card companies are giving students far too much spending power.”
-- Use a secure or prepaid card with a balance of $500 or less. “It is sort of a credit card with training wheels.”
Since it is unrealistic to expect college students not to acquire credit cards, Norvilitis notes that more time needs to be spent developing and sharing better debt-prevention techniques.
“This study highlighted the need for standards in financial education in this country,” she said. “A larger dialogue must begin about ways to equip college students with proper financial management skills.”