Credit Cards Target College Students on Campus

There is a predator on the loose at college campuses around the country. While many parents and administrator struggle to tackle issues such as fraternity hazing and binge drinking a silent killer is stalking college students. They are frequently spotted hanging out around student unions, football games and other large student gatherings. There weapon of choice? Credit cards.

college football game
photo by

Sign Your Financial Life Away for a Free T-Shirt

I remember attending football games as a student at a large state university and noticing the line for souvenir cups and popcorn was nothing compared to the one for the MBNA table. After all, they were giving away free t-shirts, as if us college students didn’t have enough of them. Later, credit card companies made an even more attractive pitch to the broke college student by offering free pizzas in exchange for a completed application. I am ashamed to admit that I signed up for a Discover Card from one of these bozos and used it to rack up a few hundred dollars in textbooks, groceries and other college-life expenses.

Brand Loyalties Run Deep

After I left school I went to work for a 3rd-party credit card processor and I began to see the “behind the scenes” view of the way certain demographics were targeted for credit card marketing campaigns. It was eye opening. I was upset that I had fallen for the hype, but at the time it was hard not to. Free t-shirts, pizzas, and promises of cash back and rewards for groceries was music to a college student’s ears. They made it sound as if you were really missing out if you passed up that table of applications. In hindsight I should have not only passed it, I should have run from it like the plague!

I eventually cut up that first credit card, but found it to be much more difficult than cutting up ones I have received since. Credit card companies are smart; they knew I would be loyal to that first card because I received it at my alma matter, and I used to purchase things for my little college apartment, and my girlfriend (now my wife).

Kickbacks During Kickoffs

Do colleges let credit card companies set up shop out of the goodness of their hearts? Of course not. There are financial incentives for colleges to promote credit cards. Co-branded cards often feature a picture of the school, or their logo, and those licensed images are bought by the credit card companies for use on the plastic. Many cards now offer to make donations to the school’s scholarship fund if you carry their card in your wallet. How nice. As if the next time someone is purchasing a 52″ plasma television they will think to themselves, “This sure is expensive, but at least I am sending three dollars to ACME University!” If you really want to be a good alumni and support your alma matter, write them a check and skip the co-branded credit card. It will probably cost you less in the long run.

If you are a college student, or the parent of a college student, I strongly encourage you to avoid the temptation to sign up for cards marketed on campus. Parents should also voice their displeasure to college administrators when credit card marketers set up shop on campus. I’m not anti-credit cards. In fact, I think they are a useful financial tool when used wisely. However, it does not make sense to allow credit card companies to peddle their product on campuses with 18-22 year-old young people, who for the most part do not have an income, nor a credit history.

As an additional resource for college students, I highly recommend reading a post over at The Wisdom Journal, 12 Things I Learned by 42 that I Wish I Knew at 22. I wish I had read this one when I was 22.


  1. I asked one of the guys giving away CC apps what kind of money they were making. He told me he got $8 per app, whether they were approved or not (most are approved)! These guys’ll do anything to make sure you sign up.

    It’s pretty sheisty, but the signers definitely have to take their own responsibility for their spending. What a mess!

  2. FG, I agree about the problem with these cards. But I don’t think that all the blame lies with them (obviously). They are out to make a profit and if we take a shirt in exchange, it’s our fault that we overspend later on. I got two free tickets to a Cubs game when I signed up for my first card in college. My dad pressured me to get one right when I turned 17 (he said it was to “build credit,” which meant nothing to me.

    BUT, he also said I should PAY THE BALANCE IN FULL every month. Why was it so easy for me to do that? He set the example: he never paid interest and I couldn’t even understand why someone would pay more for something instead of just waiting.

    A card is like a gun: it can do some major damage but it all depends on the person holding it

  3. My one and only credit card debt is 10 years old, from when I signed that first application at a table in UNC-Chapel Hill’s quad. *sigh* Ah, if I knew then what I know now. The debt started when my husband lost his job during that time, and I ended up paying two month’s rent on that card. The debt climbed from under $1000 to over $3800 in time, when I couldn’t make regular payments.

    Of course, I was incredibly naive and stupid then. I wish I’d known more about how credit worked, period.

  4. I work on a college campus, and often see the tables and flyers enticing students to open a credit card. The promotional materials include photos of computers, palm trees and beaches (bringing to mind spring break), and attractive co-eds living large. I also got my first credit card in college, and came away with more debt than I could handle by the time I graduated. More colleges are beginning to restrict access to campus by credit card marketers. . . and that’s a good thing.

    However, I tend to agree with the statement by writer’s coin; we do need to teach our kids responsibility and common sense financial skills. At some point, people need to make their own choices (including mistakes). No one was holding a gun to my head when I signed up for my credit card, and I certainly wasn’t under duress when I used it to study abroad, buy clothes, or live beyond my means in a multitude of other ways.

  5. I don’t remember anybody hawking credit cards to me at college events, but I do remember getting a deluge of credit card offers through the mail. The credit limits were around $500 and they were special “Student” cards. I signed up for every single offer (haha, yeah right – I never signed up for any, but what a waste of paper and mail).

  6. Another great post. Consider submitting it to my Kids and Money blog carnival. This is the type of blog entry I want ALL kids to read.

    Thanks again!