Students Charge Their Way into Big Debt

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For millions of American youth, plastic is the popular way to pay.

"Technically it's a lot easier with a credit card," said college student Ryan King. "You just swipe now and pay later."

For many, the debt attraction starts on the college campus, where credit card companies target students.

One student said he saw tables set up around campus within weeks of the new school year. Another explained the offers didn't stop there.

"I used to think my parents were getting a lot of offers, and then as soon as I (turned)18, the mail started coming in for me too," said student Moses Amartefil.

Universities say credit card solicitation on campus benefits their schools.

"Lots of universities see this as an opportunity to raise revenue. The credit card companies pay them a fee to come on campus and sign up students," financial expert Michelle Singletary said.

She added that companies also come bearing gifts.

"They have these tables and they offer them trinkets and t-shirts, and they think of it as a bargain, (when) In fact it is just the opposite," she said.

Last year, college students held an average of three credit cards. Seventy-eight percent had at least one credit card, 32 percent had four or more and 95 percent of graduate students carried credit cards.

Currently, the average credit card debt owed by students is about $2,700, but close to a quarter of them owe more than $3,000, according to Nellie Mae, the nation's largest provider of student loans. Ten percent owe more than $7,000, and these debt amounts equal big trouble for students already strapped for cash.

"They're using credit cards to pay for their tuition, they're using credit cards to pay for their books and they graduate with thousands of dollars in credit card debt on top of their student loans," Singletary said.

Binging on borrowing has consequences later in life.

"Studies show that when they have this kind of debt both credit card debt and student debt, they delay getting married, buying a home, having children... all the major milestones that we look forward to. All because of debt, and most of it is used on things they can't even remember just a few months after charging," Singletary explained.

So what's the lesson for students?

Use credit wisely. If not, students could end up paying their way out of debt longer than the time it takes to finish school.

*Originally aired on March 24, 2008.

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