At universities across the country last week, bank representatives pushing credit cards descended upon campuses like confetti at a homecoming football game.
They offered T-shirts, baseball caps and water bottles to entice students to sign up for their Visa, MasterCard or American Express cards.
"Kids are absolutely bombarded," said Carol Jarvis, executive director of the Council on Economic Education in Maryland at Towson University.
College students are a lucrative market because they have $19 billion a year to spend and just 60 percent of them have plastic, said Robert B. McKinley, president of CardWeb.com Inc., which tracks the credit card industry.
Whatever bank or issuer can get to the student first has the advantage.
"Historically, people remain very loyal to that first card," Jarvis said. "They [banks] are also taking on a calculated risk that college students are going to have fairly good incomes."
When purchases are made, experts say, students should try to pay off the entire bill each month, or pay more than the minimum amount. A credit card debt of $2,162 takes 15 years to pay off with minimum monthly payments of $36, assuming the interest rate is 18.84 percent.
Some students, like adults, can get overextended and fall behind on payments. What should they do when too many pizzas, movies and clothes are charged?
The first step is to stop using the credit card immediately, contact the issuer, and explain that there is a problem, experts say. Usually, the student can work out a payment plan.
If the student falls several months behind in payments, he should seek professional help. That's where the tough love begins, said James F. Godfrey, executive vice president of Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Maryland & Delaware Inc. in Baltimore.
Consumer credit counselors urge clients to slice up their credit cards. After a financial analysis, the client is placed on a budget and typically agrees not to use another credit card until the debts are paid.
Counselors also negotiate with the lender to try to reduce monthly payments or lower the interest rate. "Creditors are generally cooperative in trying to work out situations that people find themselves in," Godfrey said.
Parents are out of the picture because most college students are 18 or older and are legally liable for their own debts.
"They can't intercede other than pay the bill," Godfrey said.
Credit cards, used wisely, are useful, especially in emergencies. They can come in handy when the car breaks down on a trip back to school or when a homesick student needs a flight home.
Using one responsibly can pay off later in the establishment of a good credit rating that the student will need for a mortgage or a car loan. Some employers even check credit ratings to make sure the prospective employee isn't loaded with debt.
But the convenience of the card can be a killer.
"When you start handing out $1,000 credit limits that is pretty enticing," McKinley said. "One of my kids had a Jeep. He could blast through a $1,000 credit limit on a weekend."
The most important step is communication. Parents should talk to their children about using credit.
Some universities offer credit card orientation programs for parents and their children, but that is no substitute for a chat, said Charles J. Fey, vice president for student affairs at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
"I impress upon them the need to talk with their kids about what credit is all about and the impact it will have on their lives," he said.