New US program turns students' debt sagas into cautionary tales

Crystal Brooks stores her lone credit card inside a tiny case in her desk drawer. She tries to keep it out of sight and mind. "I don't use it, I don't like it," says Ms. Brooks, a junior at Northeastern University in Boston.

The reason for her distaste: She owes $1,500 on her account, largely resulting from

an 18 percent interest rate.

Brooks's story of financial growing pains is typical among college undergraduates, and the US government hopes students will learn its lessons firsthand.

This fall, a number of students like Brooks are sharing their debt horror stories with their collegiate peers.

The new effort represents consumer advocates' latest attempt to address what has become a financial crisis among the next generation of consumers.

"Project Credit Smarts 2002," sponsored by the Federal Trade Commission, will share with incoming students the testimonies of peers, dramatic skits about debt, and the admonitions of regulators in an effort to reverse statistics that show a rapid increase in credit-card debt among young adults. According to national student-loan provider Nellie Mae:

• The average credit-card balance for college students last year was $2,327.

• Twenty-one percent of undergraduates owe between $3,000 and $7,000, a 61 percent increase over last year.

• The average undergraduate keeps more than four credit cards in his or her wallet.

Officials with the FTC and participating universities in the Boston area point to high-pressure tactics of credit-card firms to help explain the soaring debt. Many set up tables on campus, luring students with free apparel and music.

Universities often enable card issuers to send offers for cards to students' homes by providing them with lists of students' names and addresses.

Other students are simply overzealous spenders. According to Shirley LaBrande, whose daughter, Lily, accumulated more than $3,000 in credit-card debt at Northeastern University over the past two years, her daughter did not need to be goaded into spending.

"I wasn't surprised that this happened," says Ms. LaBrande, of Sanford, Maine. "Some people just have to learn the hard way."

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