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Competition Forum Vol.

8(1), 2010

College Students Credit Card Usage and Debt

Amir A. Jassim, California State University, Fresno James C. Taylor, California State University, Fresno

The increasing levels of college students credit card debt are raising alarm among parents, educators, news outlets, and various government agencies. The purpose of this study is to explore credit card debt and use by undergraduate students and examine whether gender and household income have an effect on that use. The study found that undergraduate students credit card debt levels are no different than that of the general public and students gender or household income, with some exceptions, had no effect on credit card debt and use. Keywords: Student credit cards, Student Debt, Credit Card usage

College students access to and use of credit cards has been studied by researchers and covered by the news media for many years because their potential misuse can cause harsh consequences such as uncontrollable debt, low credit ratings and forcing some students to find work to pay their bills, negatively affecting their attention to their academic work, delaying their graduation, and even their decision to stay in school (Tan 2003). According to Sallie Mae, undergraduate students are carrying record-high credit card balances. Twenty-one percent of undergraduates had balances of between $3,000 and $7,000 in 2008 with an average balance of $3,173, the highest in the years the study has been conducted. The median debt grew from $946 in 2004 to $1,645 in 2008, an increase of 74 percent from $946 in 2004.Also, Sallie Mae 2008 Survey showed that only 15 percent of freshmen had a zero balance, down dramatically from 69 percent in the fall of 2004. The median debt freshmen carried was $939, nearly triple the $373 in 2004. Seniors graduated with an average credit card debt of more than $4,100, up from $2,900 almost four years ago. Close to one-fifth of seniors carried balances greater than $7,000. Demos. Org 2008 study indicated that the average college graduate has nearly $20,000 in debt; average credit card debt has increased 47 percent between 1989 and 2004 for 25-to 34 year-olds and 11 percent for 18- to 24- year olds. Nearly one in five 18- to 24year-olds is in debt hardship, up from 12 percent in 1989. Credit card companies have offered college students incentives to obtain and/ or to increase their available balance limits. These incentives and other credit card issuers practices has been the subject of both state and federal scrutiny. Furthermore, excessive use of credit cards can leave students with a heavy debt burden upon graduation if not before. estimates that about two-thirds of four-year undergraduates leave school with debt. College graduates with low credit scores will have difficult time getting credit in the future and may even lose some attractive job opportunities. On the other hand, credit cards can be a convenient method of payment, a helpful tool for learning financial responsibility, and a resource in case of emergencies (Lawrence, et al 2006). Also, credit cards are used by students to make airline and other travel related reservations, and manage large debts such as auto and student loans. Sometimes, credit cards are the only way students can afford to pay for a large portion of their educational and other living expenses.

The data was collected through the use of an anonymous questionnaire that was given to students attending various classes at the Craig School of Business (CSB) at California State University (CSUF) during the spring 2009 semester. The questionnaire had 24 questions that included 5 demographic questions related to a respondents gender, ethnicity, household


Competition Forum Vol. 8(1), 2010

income, class standing, and study major. Out of 712 responses received, 648, a 91 percent respond rate (representing about 22 percent of the approximately 3000 business majors attending CSUF were usable and were coded after they were received. More than one half or 53% of the respondents were males and 47% were females; 44% were Caucasian, 24% were Hispanic or Latino, 16% were Asian, 5% were African American, and 11% classified themselves as others. In terms of household income, 39% of respondents indicated a household income of less than $40,000, 23% indicated between $40,000 and $80,000, 31% indicated more than $80,000, and 7% did not know their household income. In terms of class standing, 5% of respondents were freshmen, 8% were sophomores, 36% were juniors, and 51% were seniors. Finally, 89% of respondents were business majors and 11% were non- business majors taking introductory business classes as elective classes within their General Education course requirements.

Table 1 show that over 80 percent of respondents use at least one credit card regardless of their gender or household income. These numbers are in line with other research findings. For example, Sallie Mae, the largest student loan company in the U.S., in their 2009 study of college students credit card usage found that 84 percent of the students sampled nationwide had credit cards in 2008 (91% for those living on the West Coast) compared to 76 percent in 2004 and 67 percent in 1998 and that half of them had four or more credit cards up from 43percent in 2004 and just 32 percent in 2000. The Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy, a leading promoter of financial literacy among high school and college students, found that about 67 percent of the 1,030 full- time college students participating in a national survey conducted in 2008 have at least one credit card. Lyons 2004 study showed that 79 percent of sampled students at the University of Illinois had at least one credit card. Noble, 2002 in her survey of students attending the University of Mississippi, found that 54 percent of them had one card and 27 percent had two cards. TABLE 1: Number of Credit Cards Used by Students Zero Gender Male Female Household Income Less Than $40,000 $40,000 to $80,000 Over $80,000 19% 16 One Card 39% 25 Two Cards 24% 31 Three Cards 13% 14 Four or More 5% 14

19% 17 14

30% 33 37

28% 26 27

15% 13 11

8% 11 11

Table 1 also shows that 5 percent of our male respondents used 4 or more cards compared to 14 percent female students. Jump$tart 2008 survey showed that 7.3 percent of their sampled students used 4 or more credit cards. It is interesting to note that in our survey the 39 percent of males who use one card far exceeds the 25 percent of females who use one card. The opposite is true for those who use 4 or more cards. The percentage of females, 14 percent, is significantly higher than the 5 percent for males with a p-value less than .0005. This agrees with prior research findings that college female students tend to have more cards and shop more frequently (Armstrong & Craven, 1993, Michael McCall & Donald W. Eckrich, 2006, Hayhoe , C. R., Leach, 2000, and McCall, 2004). However, that does not mean that they carry higher balances on their cards. According to Table 6 there is little difference in the percent of male and female responding students at the various levels of credit card balances. Armstrong and Craven, 1993 found that women were more likely than men to have credit cards but they carried lower balances. They argued that women may have a better understanding of credit cards and their finances. Noble, 2002 found that credit card limits, interest rates, special offers, and parents and friends experience in choosing a credit card company were not significantly related to a students gender. However, the number of places where a credit card is accepted is significantly more important to female students than to male students. Table 2 shows that 74 and 66 percent of our male and female respondents respectively obtained their first credit by the time they started college. Noble, 2002 found that 74 percent of sampled male and 66 percent of female respondents had their first credit by the time they started college. Sallie Mae reported that 39 percent of their sampled students in 2008 had their first


Competition Forum Vol. 8(1), 2010

card by the time they started college compared to 23 percent in 2004 and 98 percent had credit history. The table also shows that half of the respondents with household income of over $40,000 acquired their first card before entering college. TABLE 2: When Students Acquired Their First Credit Card Before College Gender Male Female Household Income Less Than $40,000 $40,000 to $80,000 Over $80,000 45% 41 When Starting College 29% 25 During First Year 9% 15 After First Year 17% 19

37% 50 46

30% 0 28

13% 12 10

20% 18 16


Students were asked to answer with yes or no whether they use credit cards to pay for groceries, pay for educational expenses, pay for periodical expenses, buy big ticket items, and pay for other expenses if any. Tables 3 shows that expenses associated with education were the most cited by respondents who use credit cards. This was followed by food and groceries, big ticket items, and finally periodic expenses such as rent and utilities. There was no significant difference between males and females with regard to the type of expenses they pay for with credit cards with the exception of paying for periodic expenses. We found that for periodic expenses 29 percent of males was significantly higher than the 22 percent reported by females with a p-value of .031. Some of the other expenses mentioned were gas and car repairs, clothing, medical, travel, entertainment, and cash advancements in case of emergencies. TABLE 3: Types of Expenses Paid for with Credit Cards Groceries Gender Male Female Household Income Less Than $40,000 $40,000 to $80,000 Over $80,000 Educational Expenses 50% 50 Periodical Expenses 29% 21 Big Ticket Items 39% 40 Other

45% 42

23% 21

47% 40 41

46% 53 52

29% 24 22

35% 40 45

39% 36 41

The 2008 Sallie Mae survey shows that 92 percent of their respondents used credit cards to pay for various educational expenses followed by food, clothing, cosmetics, auto repair, and non-commuting expenses. Sallie Mae also reported that in 2008, students charged an average of $2,200 in educational expenses to cards, up 134 percent from four years earlier. Williams, Waterwall and Giardelli, 2008 found that the majority of their sampled students at a university in the southern United States used credit cards in emergencies followed by gasoline purchases and grocery shopping. Noble, 2002 in her survey of students at the University of Mississippi found that 53% of them used credit cards to pay for school related purchases, 59% for clothing, 65% for food, 64% for entertainment, and 73% to pay for car expenses such as gas and repairs. The 1998 TERI study indicated that one- third of students with card balance of over $1,000 used the cards to pay for tuition and fees while only 19% used them to pay for such expenses. Class standing, like gender, did not significantly predict the types of purchases made with credit cards. Hayhoe (et al), 2000 study found that female students used their credit cards


Competition Forum Vol. 8(1), 2010

more than male students to purchase clothes; the males used their cards more for electronics, entertainment, and food away from home. This agrees with the findings of Dittmar, Beattie, and Friese that women spent money on appearance items while men spent money on leisure items.


Sampled students were given a list of reasons about why they might use a credit card. According to Table 4, convenience was the number- one reason for using credit cards followed by increasing credit score, taking more time to pay bills, consolidating expenses, and the safety features of using cards. Safety was the only reason that showed a significant difference between males, 21 percent, compared to the 14 percent reported by females with a p-value of .033. Convenience was the most cited reason for using a credit card by participants in Joo, Garble, and Bagwell (2003) survey of 242 college students who use their credit cards to pay for everyday expenses. Other reasons mentioned by respondents include: lack of cash at time of use, dislike of carrying cash or writing checks, the receipt of card perks such as free airline miles and cash discounts. TABLE 4: Reasons For Using Credit Cards Convenience Gender Male Female Household Income Less Than $40,000 $40,000 to $80,000 Over $80,000 Consolidate Expense 39% 25 Safety Extra Time to Pay Bills 13% 14 Raise Credit Score 5% 14 Other Expenses 8% 6

19% 16

24% 31

19% 17 14

30% 33 37

28% 26 27

15% 13 11

8% 11 11

8% 7 6


Surveyed students were given a list of reasons about why they might not use a credit card. According to Table 5, high interest rates and fees charged by credit card issuers were the most- mentioned reason not to use credit cards followed by not wanting to accumulate more debt, spending beyond ones means, and the preference to use cash. Other reasons mentioned were fear of not having the funds to pay card balances and the fear of falling victim to fraud and identity theft. TABLE 5: Reasons for Not Using Credit Cards Interest & Fees Gender Male Female Household Income Less Than $40,000 $40,000 to $80,000 Over $80,000 Debt Accumulation Spending Beyond My Means 34% 39 Like to Pay With Cash 34% 27 Other

56% 54

44% 52

5% 5

61% 58 47

54% 47 39

42% 37 31

28% 31 33

3% 3 7


Competition Forum Vol. 8(1), 2010


Table 6 shows that 66 and 64 percent of male and female responding students respectively carry credit card balances of less than $1000. These percentages are more than what the researchers were expecting, taking into account that the majority of our responding students, 71 percent, were juniors and seniors, and therefore would tend to have higher credit card balances. The percent of our sampled freshman and sophomore students with credit card balances of more than $5000 was 8 percent compared to 12 percent for junior and senior students, therefore supporting the notion that students tend to accumulate more credit card debt as they approach graduation (Manning& Kirshak, 2005, Manning, 2003, Matttson et al., 2004, Tan, 2003). William, et al, 2008 indicated that the majority of their sampled students have full or part time jobs but there is no clear relationship between the amount of debt they carry on their cards and the amount of income they receive from work. Also they reported that higher credit- card limits do not necessarily lead to higher credit- card debt. TABLE 6: Balances Carried on Students Credit Cards Under $1,000 Gender Male Female Household Income Less Than $40,000 $40,000 to $80,000 Over $80,000 66% 64 $1,000 to $5,000 23% 24 $5,000 to $10,000 8% 8 Over $10,000 3% 4

59% 63 72

27% 26 19

10% 8 7

3% 3 2

The 2008 Sallie Mae survey indicated that only 15 percent of freshmen had a zero balance on their credit cards down dramatically from 69 percent in 2004 and the average students living on the West Coast carried higher balances on their credit cards than did students in any other region in the country ($3,817 and a median of $2,080 compared to a nationwide average of $3,173 and a median of $1,645) with 16 percent of them having a balance of over $7000 compared to 12 percent nationwide. This might be attributed to generally higher living expenses on the West Coast. The average students credit card of $3,173 in 2008 as reported by Sallie Mae represent an increase of 46 percent compared to 2004 of $2,169 and 69 percent compared to 1998 of $1,879. Our sample had 24 percent of responding students with auto loans and 11 percent with home mortgages compared to the Jump$tart sample which had 12.5 percent with auto loans and 2.7 percent with home mortgages. This might be explained by the fact that 90 percent of our male and 84 percent of female responding students were either junior or senior students compared to about 49 percent in the Jump$tart study. Junior and senior students tend to be older with higher incomes, making it easier for them to qualify for auto and home ownership- related loans than their younger counterparts could qualify to get. Table 6 also shows that card holders with household income of less than $40,000 constitute the highest percent in all card- balance levels, indicating they depend on credit cards more than do households with higher levels of income.


Table 7 shows that 56 and 46 percent of our male and female responding students respectively pay off whole credit card balance(s) every month. Only 19 percent of males and 24 percent of females make the minimum required payments each month. These findings are in line with the numbers in the 2008 Jumpstart study, 46.7 percent paying the whole balance and 7.7 percent meeting the minimum required payments and are indeed impressive taking in account the high unemployment rates in Fresno County that generally surpass state and national rates. According to FINRA, Investor Education Foundation, 41 percent of cardholders from the ages of 18 to 29 made only the minimum required on a credit card in some of 2009 months. Noble, 2002 indicated that 59% of her sampled students paid their credit card bills in full each month, while about 36% pay what they can afford each month and about 5% paid the minimum or some other fractional amount. Robb (2007) quoting Lyons (2004) using research findings from the U.S. General Accounting Office , The Education Resources Institute


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(TERI), and the Institute for Higher Education Policy to develop a profile of an individual is financially at risk: 1) they carry a revolving balance of $1,000 or greater, 2) they have been delinquent on their credit card payments for two or more months, 3) they have borrowed up to the maximum credit limit on at least one of their credit cards, and 4) they only pay off their credit card balances some of the time or never. Lyons also found that financially at-risk students were more likely than others to be financially independent, to receive need-based financial assistance, to hold $1,000 or more in other types of debt, and to have acquired their credit card(s) by mail, at a retail store, and/or at a campus table. Students who are having difficulty making credit card payments were more likely to be female, black, and/or Hispanic. They favor receiving financial information online and in the form of pamphlets and informational handouts rather than seminars. TABLE 7: Pattern of Credit Card Payments Pay Whole Balance Every Month Gender Male Female Household Income Less Than $40,000 $40,000 to $80,000 Over $80,000 Have An Outstanding Balance Sometimes 13% 16 Have An Outstanding Balance Usually Make Minimum Payment Usually 19% 24

56% 46

12% 14

44% 51 57

13% 17 17

13% 13 12

30% 19 14

TERI (1998) indicated that most students managed credit wisely with 59% of them paying off their credit card monthly. Also, the study showed that 82% of students with credit cards had balances of $1,000 or less and many of them had and used cards in emergencies and to build credit history. Our study shows that 13.8 percent of our responding students with credit card balances of more than $1000 seldom paid off their balances or pay only the minimum required payment each month. Also, our sample showed that 4.8 percent of respondents with balances of more than $1000 are late paying their credit card bills at least once a year. Barron and Staten (2004) in their study of a pooled sample of over 300,000 credit- card accounts randomly selected from the portfolios of five general-purpose credit card issuers in the U.S. over a twelve-month period during 2000-2001 found that the average balance of a student credit- card account ($552) was about one- third the size of the average balance of a non- student young adult under age 25 and one-fourth the size of the average balance for adults 25 and older. Among their other findings were that students were substantially less likely to use the credit cards for cash advances and that 12.1% of students accounts were 30 days past due compared to 11.6% for other young adults and 8.1% for older adults. However, the 3.1% percent of student accounts that were 90 days past due were triple that of older adults and 29% higher than that of non-student young adults. Also, they found that a student account was less likely to incur finance charges in a given month but more likely to incur late or over-credit-limit fees. They concluded that although recently opened student accounts were more likely to be delinquent and have a higher likelihood of charge-off compared with other groups, the dollar amounts at risk on delinquent accounts and the actual losses on charged-off accounts were substantially lower. Further, within two years of opening the account, the delinquency and charge-off experience for student accounts became quite similar to non-student accounts of young adults. Norvilitis, Szablicki, and Wilson (2003) in their study of sampled students attending the State University of New YorkCollege at Buffalo found that over 75% of participating students had at least one credit card and a mean credit card balance of $1,518 and debt- to- income ratio of 24%. However, they believed that credit- card debt was temporary and controllable because it should be paid off after they finished their studies and started working. Also, they found that students who obtained their cards from on-campus sources were in greater relative debt than were students who got their cards from other places and they believe that colleges supported these companies. Students who obtained cards from such issuers were more likely to believe that these issuers were more reputable than others. More than half of their sampled students requested information about how they could reduce their debt burden. The 1998 Public Interest Research Group (1998) found that


Competition Forum Vol. 8(1), 2010

students who received cards from campus tables had higher unpaid balances than did students who obtained their cards from elsewhere and were also more likely to carry a balance from one month to the next. Williams (2008) indicated that 81% of sampled students always paid their card bills on time, 16% paying their bills on regular basis, and all students supported the notion of paying their bills on time regardless of their age or job status. Also, 34% of their respondents did not know the interest rate on the credit card they used most often. According to Student Monitor 2008 annual financial services showed that among the 35 percent of college students with credit cards that do not pay their balances in full every month, the average balance is $452. This is down 19 percent from 2007. Moreover, this balance is approximately one- third the size of the average balance for active nonstudent young adult accounts and one- fourth the size of active accounts for older adults.


Table 8 shows that 46% and 57% of female and male respondents respectively indicated that current economic conditions had no impact on their credit card use. The 20 percent of female respondents reporting an increase in credit- card usage during this period is significantly higher than the 12 percent for males with a p-value of .016. . One possible explanation for the increase in usage of credit cards is the card holders lack of funds to pay for expenditures during this economic slowdown. Only 34% and 31% of female and male respondents respectively indicated they use cards less now than before. Also, table 8 shows that 42% of cardholders with household incomes between $40,000 and $80,000 indicated that they use their cards less often now. This is the largest decline in credit card usage among all household income brackets. TABLE 8: Effect of Current Economic Conditions on Credit Card Usage No Change More Often Gender Male Female Household Income Less Than $40,000 $40,000 to $80,000 Over $80,000 46% 57 20% 12

Less Often 34% 31

44% 48 64

21% 10 14

35% 42 21

TABLE 9: Level of Worry About Credit Card Debt Never Gender Male Female Household Income Less Than $40,000 $40,000 to $80,000 Over $80,000 Credit Cards Balance Under $1,000 $1,000 - $5,000 $5,000 - $10,000 Over $10,000 31% 29 Little 33% 25 Sometimes 18% 20 Often 13% 18 All the Time 5% 8

24% 30 36

26% 33 31

21% 16 18

19% 14 12

10% 6 3

36% 15 10 41

32% 27 24 6

16% 26 27 18

12% 24 23 18

4% 8 16 18


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The level of credit card debt may have a negative effect on students performance in school. Table 9 shows that 18 percent and 26 percent of male and female respondents respectively, often or worried all the time about their credit card debt. The table shows those cardholders with household income of less than $40,000 worried often or all the time about their credit card debt more than any other household income bracket. Also, the table shows that the level of worry increases with credit card balances.


Three questions were included in the survey to test the financial knowledge of students with regard to credit cards and borrowing money in general. The first question asked the students about the kind of information their credit report contain. About 61 percent of male and 53 percent of female respondents chose the correct answer that, among other things, a credit report contains the record of their loan and bill payments. There was no significant difference between responses of female and male respondents. The second question asked respondents whether they were aware of the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act (CARD) of 2009 that was signed into law by President Obama on May 22, 2009 with its major provisions to take effect in February 2010. CARD became part of the 1968 Truth in Lending Act (TILA).The aim of the bill is to protect consumers from issuers using unfair credit- card practices and place some restrictions on the methods they use to market their services especially to students and individuals less than 21 years old. Only 34 percent of all responding students said they were aware of the bill. There was a significant difference between the 39 percent of male versus the 26 percent of female students who were aware of the bill with a p-value of .008. The relatively low percent of respondents who correctly answered questions one and two is consistent with other research findings that suggest that college students do not have a high degree of financial knowledge. This lack of basic financial knowledge among high school and college students is behind the call by many consumer and educational advocacy organizational groups to promote programs that increase awareness and financial skills. Sallie Mae (2009) indicated that twothirds of their survey respondents said they had frequently or sometimes discussed credit card use with their parents. The remaining third who had never or only rarely discussed credit cards with parents were more likely to pay for tuition with a credit card and were more likely to be surprised at their credit card balance when they received the invoice. Also, eighty-four percent of their respondents indicated they needed more education on financial management topics. In fact, 64 percent would have liked to receive information in high school and 40 percent as college freshmen. The third question was about the acronym APR. About 89 percent of males and 90 percent of female respondents correctly said that APR stands for the Annual Percentage Rate. APR was introduced by The Truth in Lending Act (1994) requiring credit card issuers to disclose among other things the APR in 18-point font to provide borrowers a single measure of a loans true annual total cost, making it easier for them to compare different loan offers. However, Robb (2007), Mattson (2004), and Lee & Hogarth (1999) indicated that one has to be careful about associating awareness with understanding of the APR Concept. Braunsberger ( 2004) findings did not support the position taken by the Federal Reserve Board that requiring credit card issuers, among other things, highlight cards APR should help card holders to become aware of and recognize the important cost information regarding their credit-cards. Also, Robb (2007) and Mattson (2004) showed that students who carry high balances on their credit cards are more concerned with APR than are convenience users with lower balances. Noble (2002) found that over 94% of surveyed students indicated that interest rates are at least of some importance to them in making that decision. Students should explore the idea of joining a credit union since they usually charge lower interest rates. According to a study by PEW (2009), credit unions offered significantly lower advertised rates compared to bank credit cards, with penalty fees that were half the cost of comparable bank fees and fewer dangers associated with unfair or deceptive practices.


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The paper presented the findings from a survey of over 600 mostly business students attending California State University, Fresno during the spring 2009 semester. The findings with few exceptions are in line with other research studies and in line with the notion that college students are no different than the general public in terms of their use of credit cards. The behavior of students is no less rational than that of the general public. According to the 2008 Student Monitor annual financial services study, 65 percent of the students with cards pay their bills in full every month which is higher than the general adult population. Furthermore, the 35 percent that do not pay their balances in full every month, the average balance is $452. This is down 19 percent from 2007 and is about one-third the size of the average balance for active non-student young adult accounts and one-fourth the size of active accounts for older adults. This may negate the need for special treatment by regulators. Finally, this survey found five statistically significant results related to gender. Weak economic conditions and record level of default rates forced many credit card issuers to stop aggressively targeting young adults, including college students, and therefore, reducing the need for restraints imposed by government laws. Furthermore, many college campuses imposed their own restrictions on credit card issuers setting up shop to market their services before CARD was enacted. Teaching college students smart money management techniques, including the responsible use of credit cards, should be a joint effort of parents, the educational system, and the credit card industry. Popular media technologies, such as, laptops, cell phones, ipads, webcasts, etc., should be employed to achieve such a goal. Reasonable access to college campuses is important to various firms offering students job opportunities and their services, and that should include credit card issuers. Finally, the eventual goal should be preventing careless or vulnerable students from increasing credit card debt and at the same time helping responsible students build up good credit card practices and other financial management skills.

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