Credit Card Usage & Debt Among College Students

Eighty-four percent of college students have at least one credit card, according to Sallie Mae.
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A wealth of newly available credit resources can seem tempting for college students, and a ready supply of credit car entice students with little or no financial experience to amass considerable debt. Though college students often have at least one credit card and typically carry some amount of debt, according to the Student Loan Marketing Association, about 17 percent of college students pay their card balances in full each month.


According to SLM Corporation, a privatized government entity also known as Sallie Mae, a typical college student carried about $3,173 in credit card debt as of 2009. The median credit card debt load for students climbed to $1,645, more than double the median credit card debt during Sallie Mae's 2004 study. Sallie Mae also found that most college students, 92 percent, used their credit cards for college-related expenses like textbooks and school supplies in addition to regular daily expenses. As of 2009, about 84 percent of college students had at least one credit card, and more than half carried at least four cards. College seniors carried an average of $4,100 on graduation day, and almost one in five students graduated with more than $7,000 in credit card debt.

Credit Card Marketing

Prior to 2010, when the Student Credit Card Protection Act of 2009 took effect, college students could obtain credit cards with relative ease. Lenders targeted college students with credit card marketing programs, often offering free merchandise in exchange for opening a credit card account. Because college students typically had little or no experience managing financial resources, credit card debt quickly escalated among this demographic, according to a July 2012 article in USA Today.

Act of 2009

In 2009 the U.S. Congress passed the Student Credit Card Protection Act, a piece of legislation designed to protect college students from predatory lending by credit card issuers. Under the provisions of this act, according to an official transcript of the act in the Library of Congress, lenders cannot issue college students credit cards with limits that exceed the greater of $500 or 20 percent of the student’s annual gross income.. Creditors also may not issue credit to full-time college students if the student's total available credit from all lenders exceeds 30 percent of the student’s annual gross income. Each creditor may only issue one credit card to college students under the act, and lenders must be able to verify the student’s income before issuing a card. In cases where a parent or guardian co-signs for the student’s card, creditors must obtain the co-signer’s permission before increasing the student’s credit limit.

Total Debt

Though students typically carry thousands of dollars in credit card debt, about 17 percent of college students pay their credit card balances in full each month, according to Sallie Mae. Though the Student Credit Card Protection Act of 2009 extended a number of protections to ensure college students’ financial health, students continue to carry a heavy debt load. According to Sallie Mae and to CNN, graduating seniors carried an average debt load of $29,620; this figure included $4,100 in credit card debt in addition to $25,520 in student loans. This figure does not include secured debt, like car loans and mortgages.

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