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COLLEGE STUDENTS PROVIDE FRESH MARKET FOR CREDIT-CARD COMPANIES

He signed up for his first credit card as a freshman at the University at Buffalo, planning only to use it for emergencies.

Now, the UB senior has four credit cards, and has to take a semester off.

Why? To work off the $4,000 he ran up on his credit cards.

"I signed up for my first credit card at a table in the school that was set up in the student union," he said, asking that he remain anonymous so he will not embarrass his family. "They were giving away candy and stuff I could use."

College students represent a fresh new market for credit-card companies. But most college students have little or no income to begin with, and are also strapped with student loans. Credit-card debts accumulate so quickly that some students are starting out their post-graduate lives by declaring bankruptcy.

And at least one retailer is taking it a step further, giving credit cards to high school students. A state lawmaker warned that these practices could turn some young people into credit-card junkies before they have their first full-time job.

"The students will sign up, thinking they'll never use it," said State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-North Tonawanda. "By the time some of them graduate, they're addicted to credit cards."

"You never saw college kids filing bankruptcies. Now, you're seeing it," said Keith A. Herald, a Kenmore attorney who handles bankruptcy cases.

Approximately two-thirds of all college students hold credit cards, according to a recent report by Claritas Inc., a market-research firm. That's a nearly a 25 percent jump since 1990. The average amount these students owe more than doubled from $900 in 1990 to $2,100 five years later.

Credit-card companies maintain that college students are good credit risks and quickly learn both the freedoms and responsibilities that credit cards bring. But Maziarz said some college students are getting into financial trouble and he wants to limit the access banks have to students.

As chairman of the Senate Administrative Regulations Review Commission, Maziarz introduced a bill last year to keep credit-card companies out of New York's public colleges. Maziarz said credit-card companies entice students to sign up for credit cards with water bottles and compact discs.

"One constituent who contacted me had just graduated from (Buffalo State College)," Maziarz said. "The student only had a part-time job, and over the four-year period, the credit line grew to $10,000 from $500."

The Senate passed the bill. It has yet to pass the Assembly, but Maziarz thinks it will.

Cathy Edwards, spokeswoman for Discover Card, said the company has dealt with college students since 1986 and believes they know how to use credit responsibly. Yet, about one in every 20 college students failed to pay their Discover card debts last year.

Most colleges realize the problems generated by credit cards and limit companies' student recruitment:

At Buffalo State College, credit-card companies are allowed to solicit students for credit-card applications only on Mondays and only in the Student Union. The companies also must be sponsored by a student group that will get some benefit or financial support from the credit-card company.

At UB, credit-card companies must also be sponsored by student groups. The bulletin boards at UB are open to everyone to post information on programs, events and opportunities, said Dennis Black, dean of students at UB.

Canisius College has no universal policy regarding credit-card vendors, but no one can solicit wares on campus unless invited or sponsored by a student group. The companies can only solicit on Monday afternoons. A Canisius official said the college is "inundated" with credit-card application forms posted on the walls.

St. Bonaventure University does not have a policy restricting the credit-card companies, said George Solan, vice president for student life.

"My hope and my belief is that young people not only deserve but should have the same opportunity (for credit cards) as anyone else," Solan said. The JCPenney department store chain, meanwhile, is targeting even younger students. A new program gives high school students credit cards, with their parents' permission.

The UB senior who got into credit-card debt said he stopped using his cards last year. He said he never intended to use them regularly, but found them almost too easy to use. He suggests students get a debit card that draws from their own checking or savings account.

"I warn everybody now, especially incoming freshmen, that they'll see a lot of credit-card companies asking them to sign up," he said. "I tell them not to sign up for them, and to get a debit card because it's safer."

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