DANGERS OF STUDENT DEBT

You nailed your SAT--how hard can it be to balance your checkbook and manage a credit card? You'd be surprised. Learning how to budget while you're trying to find your classrooms and pay for books and football tickets out of that pittance you saved from your summer job is harder than it looks. It's no wonder freshmen are soon inundated with debt. The typical senior is juggling six cards and $3,200 in balances, Nellie Mae reported in 2002. It's probably gotten worse.

Schools don't help much. Orientation is replete with talk of sex and alcohol, but that third leg of student self-destruction--credit--is often brushed aside. "There are very few schools that have seriously addressed this with anything other than window dressing," says Robert Manning, a sociology professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology who developed a financial-literacy course. Ohio State limits the number and types of pitches that can be sent to its students, and has a credit counselor at its student wellness center. At Penn State's Erie campus, Prof. Mary Beth Pinto offers classes for new students.

But Penn State illustrates the dilemma. Financially strapped schools and card companies cut deals that aren't always to students' advantage. At the school's flagship University Park campus, where there are 35,000 undergrads (compared with Erie's 3,700), there's no formal credit-education program. But there is a new MBNA career center and fitness center.

So don't depend on your school to educate you about money. Teach yourself. Big debts and bouncing checks can deny you credit when you're ready for a condo or car. Experts suggest various ways for taking control of your finances. For starters, get one credit card, use it for convenience and keep your credit limit low. Start with $500 during your freshman year. And don't let your parents pay your credit-card bills. You'll fail to master the details of credit.

Make sure to shop around for a checking account and credit card at a school credit union instead of a commercial bank; fees tend to be lower. And set up an automatic monthly payment from your bank to your credit-card company for a minimal amount, like $50. That way you'll never pay a late fee or jeopardize your credit score by being late.

Online tools can help you crunch the numbers. Try the credit-card payoff calculator at youngmoney.com or the budget program at Manning's creditcardnation.com. Most of all, be frugal. It rarely hurts not to spend what you don't have.

DANGERS OF STUDENT DEBT | News