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Journal of Consumer Marketing

Credit card consumers: college students knowledge and attitude

Jacquelyn Warwick Phylis Mansfield

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To cite this document:
Jacquelyn Warwick Phylis Mansfield, (2000),"Credit card consumers: college students knowledge and attitude", Journal of
Consumer Marketing, Vol. 17 Iss 7 pp. 617 - 626
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An executive summary for

managers and executive
readers can be found at the
end of this article

Credit card consumers: college

students' knowledge and
Jacquelyn Warwick

Associate Professor of Marketing, School of Business,

Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA

Phylis Mansfield

Assistant Professor of Marketing, School of Business,

Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA

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Keywords Credit cards, Consumer credit, Consumer behaviour, Debt, Students

Abstract Given the proliferation of the credit card industry in today's US households,
and the aggressive promotional tactics employed to get college students to sign on as
customers, this exploratory study takes a look at the credit card activity of college
students at one Midwestern campus. The majority of students surveyed did not report
knowledge of their credit card interest rate, although approximately half did report
knowing their credit balance and credit limit. Students appear to have a realistic attitude
toward the use of credit cards.

The credit card industry has developed into a major financial service used by
the majority of US households across all income classes. What evolved from
relatively humble beginnings following the Second World War, is now a
major system that stimulates household and personal spending. For example,
with the recent introduction of credit availability in the fast food industry,
credit sales are now 50-100 percent larger than cash transactions (Ritzer,
``Baby Busters''

In many cases, consumers today live on or over the financial edge often
spending everything they make, or more than they make, not even realizing
their expenditures consistently exceed their income (Mapother, 1999).
``Baby Busters'' have been raised in a credit card society; they grew up with
debt and use credit freely. To some, the money involved in credit card
transactions is abstract and unreal (Roberts, 1998), to others, obtaining more
credit is the equivalent to obtaining additional income (Mapother, 1999).
This attitude toward credit can exacerbate credit card debt and personal
The FDIC reported that banks suffered $3.8 billion in losses on credit cards
and consumer loans in 1996, a 36 percent increase over the same period in
1995 (Roberts, 1998). In 1997, 1.26 million people filed for personal
bankruptcy (Paquin and Squire-Weiss, 1998), that number increased to
1.4 million in 1998. Paquin and Squire-Weiss (1998) suggest the change in
the personal bankruptcy rate can be explained by the combination of four
determinants (three with direct correlation to credit cards): the supply of
consumer credit, consumers capacity to service their debt, the condition of
the job market, and interest rates.
Lessening of credit card debt can come about through an increase in
awareness and understanding in the use of credit. However, awareness and
understanding are different; companies listing credit card interest rates
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at



increase awareness of the price of credit but this does not guarantee
improvement in consumer understanding. Thus, mandatory disclosure of
information itself (which leads to awareness) does not help consumers make
effective credit decisions unless they understand the information provided.
There is a general consensus that consumers' lack of understanding is a
problem in credit markets (Lee and Hogarth, 1999).
A lucrative market

Nearly three in four US households receive at least one credit card offer every
month with many offers being sent to college students. College students are
seen as a lucrative market since they have higher than average lifetime
earnings and are just beginning a major transition period which is a key time
to change previous behaviors. Collegians are just beginning a cycle of
``firsts''; there is the first dorm room, first apartment, first job and, in
conjunction with these, the first laundry, first long distance service, and first
credit card (Speer, 1998). Given that for many students credit cards are a first,
this paper will look at the attitudes college students have toward credit cards
as well as how knowledgeable they are concerning the use of credit cards.

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Credit cards and students

Promotion to college students
A decade ago, only a handful of issuers pitched their cards to college
students; now, 40 of the top 50, and about 65 of the top 100 card issuers are
vying for their business (Ring, 1997). Why? This target market consists of an
estimated 5.8 million students enrolled in four-year colleges and universities
(which are populated with more women and older students than ever before),
4 million of whom study full-time. Part-time students in four-year and
two-year schools and graduate students make up the balance of enrollees
(Speer, 1998). One marketing firm estimates the spending power of all
college students at more than $90 billion dollars with full-time, four-year
enrollees spending an aggregate of $30 billion a year. It is estimated that of
the $30 billion dollars, $23 billion is being used for essential purchases such
as rent, food, gas, car insurance, tuition, and books and $7 billion in
nonessential ``pizza'' money (Ring, 1997). Thus, card applications are
becoming readily available on campus.

Applications can be found in a number of venues such as student mailboxes,

tables in student union buildings, school events, ``take-one'' applications
around campus, direct mail, Web sites, telephone solicitations, and campus
bookstores. Credit card companies are also paying student groups to sign up
classmates, sponsor campus events and arm cold callers with detailed data
(often bought from the college) on each student. Companies also gather
information from American Student List Company, Inc. (ASL), which works
with colleges and high schools in student recruitment efforts. ASL has been
compiling lists of student names, class year, fields of study, universities
attended, as well as permanent and academic year addresses and phone
numbers for 30 years (Credit Card Management, 1998). TeleServices in
conjunction with ASL has more than 10 million names and generates about
500,000 credit card applications annually (Credit Card Management, 1998).
This heightened marketing campaign has led to two-thirds of all college
students carrying at least one credit card and one in five holding four or more
(Rose, 1998).
Credit activity of students
Many students attain cards early within their freshman year and thereafter
often remain loyal customers; many holding on to their first card for an
average of 12 to15 years (Hultgren, 1998). Although card issuers state



delinquency and chargeoff rates are often no worse, and in some cases are
better, than the general public (Ring, 1997) some are not convinced.
Education officials worry about students accumulating both student loan and
credit card debt. Student loan provider, Nellie Mae, state undergraduate
credit card balances average $2,000 with 14 percent having balances of
$3,000 to $7,000 dollars and 10 percent owing amounts exceeding $7,000
(Vickers, 1999). The Chicago Tribune quotes Indiana University
administrator John Simpson as saying:
We lose more students to credit card debt than academic failure (Commercial Law
Bulletin, 1998).

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Yet in a recent survey it was found that four out of five college students had
balances of $1,000 or less with more than half paying off their balances at
the end of the month and those who paid by installment usually paying more
than the required minimum (Merrick, 1998).
Another survey, conducted by the US Public Interest Research Group found
the average unpaid balance to be similar to the first with the average $986
(Commercial Law Bulletin, 1998) while a third survey indicates that 63
percent of four-year college students carry credit balances of at least $2,000
(Feldman et al., 1999). There is also anecdotal evidence suggesting that
many under graduates are acquiring big balances in school, some even
graduating with a five figure credit card debt. Although as noted, there is a
wide array of differences in the information being reported, some colleges
are not waiting for a definitive answer and are reining in card issuers. Also,
lawmakers in some states, including New York and Massachusetts, are trying
to ban card marketers from colleges altogether (Rose, 1998).
Reasons for possessing a
credit card

Financial literacy

College students argue they want and often need a credit card. A 1995
Roper College Track poll asked students why they had a credit card. The
responses were: ``to establish a credit history'' 65 percent, ``to meet
emergency needs'' 35 percent, and ``to become more financially
responsible'' 18 percent (Newton, 1998). Although not opposed to their
reasons for possessing a credit card, academics (as well as consumer
advocates) feel an ethical obligation to serve the students' interests by
determining the best way to educate them on what it means to have a
revolving line of credit and how to manage credit responsibly (Hultgren,
1998). Although the obligation is noted, relatively few college students
study personal finance, making primary and secondary schools the only
places where the vast majority of young Americans can acquire financial
survival skills (Mandell, 1999).
Students' knowledge of credit cards
A 1999 Youth and Money Survey found that most 16-22 year old US high
school and college students do not know much about personal finance.
Many are not confident about their knowledge of basic financial matters
with only 15 percent stating they understand money very well, and only
18 percent agreeing that they do a good job of managing their money
(Merrick, 1999). With an estimated 85 percent of college students having a
credit card in their name (Ring, 1997) some credit card issuers are beginning
to recognize that college students need instruction in how to be good credit
card customers. Visa has run a media campaign aimed at teaching students
how to use credit wisely (Speer, 1998). Visa is also sending out kits to
freshman orientation leaders at 4,000 colleges, along with advice on how
students should select credit lines. They are also planning to stage mock
game shows on 20 college campuses to quiz students about their financial



savvy. American Express and MasterCard are also showing educational

interest by having interactive Web-sites that allow students to play with
financial charts and budget expenses (Commercial Law Bulletin, 1997). For
those that receive or make use of the material and sites available to them,
this may be their first steps toward financial literacy.

Aggressive promotion

The study
Research questions
Given the pressure the credit card industry puts on college students today to
attain a credit card, evidenced by the aggressive promotion tactics employed
on college campuses, this paper will address the following primary questions:
(1) How are students attaining their credit cards?
(2) Are students knowledgeable about credit?
(3) What are the students' attitudes towards credit cards?

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Additionally, the study will explore the question of whether or not there are
differences between demographic groups with regard to their attitudes
toward credit.
Sample frame

The sample frame for this study was both graduate and undergraduate
students at a small, private university in the Midwest, whose population of
3,100 is predominantly on-campus residents (95 percent). Since
approximately 80 percent of the university's population visits the cafeteria
on any given day, the students were approached by a researcher and asked to
take part in the study. A total of 381 usable surveys were obtained,
representing approximately 12.3 percent of the total university's student
population. Simple t-tests showed there was no significant difference
between the sample characteristics and the total university population. A
breakdown of the sample by demographic characteristics is shown in Table I.
An exploratory study was conducted using descriptive frequencies and
percentages to describe the data. Additionally, cross-tabs were used to
analyze differences between various demographic characteristics, reporting
the chi-square statistic at the 0.05 level of significance.
Demographic characteristic





27 and over



Class standing



Note: n = 381

Table I. Descriptive profile of sample by demographics



Promotion of credit cards
With card applications available in numerous formats, this study first
addressed how students attained an application. Of those students reporting
ownership of a credit card, only 15 percent had attained them by requesting
an application directly from the company. Another 37 percent received the
credit card application through unsolicited mail. Students typically receive
unsolicited mail through several venues: commercial mailing lists through
memberships to music or book clubs, magazine subscriptions, or by
completing sweepstakes entry cards. Another 33.6 percent of the students
received the application for a credit card at the school itself, either at kiosks
located at special school events, or commonly distributed in the ``bag'' for
carrying purchases from the school bookstore.

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Job requirements

Possession of credit cards

As the data in Table II indicate, roughly two-thirds of the students
responding possessed at least one credit card. Of those students who owned
cards, the majority (22.8 percent) owned only one. However, 20 percent
owned two credit cards, and almost 4 percent had over five cards. The
majority of students in this sample are full-time undergraduates at a
predominantly residential campus, who are likely to be employed in jobs
paying the minimum-wage for part-time (under 20) hours. This leads to the
question of whether credit card companies relax their standards for job
requirements when marketing to college students.
Students' knowledge of their credit card
Of interest in this exploratory study was the degree of knowledge that college
students had with regard to financial information concerning their credit card.
Specifically, the question dealing with students' knowledge of the interest
rate on their credit card, its credit limit, and its outstanding balance. Table III
presents a summary of the percentages of interest paid on the student's credit
card with the highest interest rate. Of the students, 71 percent had no idea
what interest rate they were paying on this card, and the majority of those
who did know were paying an interest rate of over 17 percent.

Credit limit

Although almost half reported that they did not know their credit limit or credit
balance, students do appear to be more knowledgeable about the credit limit
amount than the interest rate on their credit card. A total of 57 percent of the
students said they knew what the credit limit amount was on their card
(Table IV), and 52.5 percent of the students knew what the current balance
was on their account (Table V), compared to 29 percent knowing its interest
rate (Table III). Further studies may determine why students appear to be more
aware of their card's credit limit and balance than they are of its interest rate.
Number of cards


One card
Two cards
Three cards
Four cards
Five cards
Over five cards



Note: n = 378

Table II. Number of credit cards in possession



Interest rate percent

Do not know
20.0 and over




Note: n = 381

Table III. Highest interest rate on credit cards

Credit limit amount

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Do not know
$501 to $1,000
$1,001 to 1,500
$1,501 to 2,000
$2,001 to 2,500
over $2,500




Note: n = 381

Table IV. Credit limit on highest interest rate card

Balance amounts


Do not know
$500 or less
$501 to $1,000
$1,001 to 2,000
$2,001 to 3,000
$3,001 to 4,000
over $4,000



Note: *n = 381

Table V. Balance on highest interest rate card

Attitude toward credit

Students' attitude toward credit cards

Students were asked to describe their feelings about credit cards in general
by selecting from four statements, the one which most closely described their
attitude toward credit. These four statements were:
(1) They are the best thing man ever invented (1.4 percent).
(2) They are good, if used correctly (68.6 percent).
(3) They are not the best way to manage money (21.2 percent).
(4) They are the worst thing man ever invented (8.2 percent).
Additionally, the attitude item was compared to various demographic
characteristics to see if there were any differences between age, gender,
those with numerous credit cards, those with high balances, and those with
high interest rates, with regard to their attitude toward credit. No significant



differences were found with regard to these demographic characteristics and

attitude. Table VI lists the frequencies in these demographic categories
across the four responses on attitude toward credit.
This study shows that the majority of college students who own credit cards
do not actively seek them out, but are aggressively pursued through the mail
and on-campus by credit card issuers. Given that most students in our sample
were residents on campus, and therefore likely to have jobs that pay close to
minimum wage, this could raise concern over the social responsibility of
both the credit card issuer and the university with regard to access to the
student. Many schools have already banned the active pursuit of college
students on-campus by credit card companies.

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Students' knowledge of

With regard to students' knowledge of their credit card, the majority of

students did not report knowing the interest rate they were paying. Although
approximately half did report knowing their credit balance and the credit
limit on their cards. It would be of interest in future studies to see if the
students' knowledge of their credit card data is comparable to that of the
general public.
Students' attitudes toward credit cards appear to fall primarily in the ``good,
if used correctly'' category (68.6 percent). This suggests that students appear
to have a realistic attitude toward using credit, although not knowledgeable
about the details on their credit card. In summary, the results of this study
raise the question of whether or not universities in general and business
schools specifically, should do a better job of preparing their students to be
knowledgeable consumers in the marketplace.

Benefit ratio

Managerial implications and applications

Given the billions of dollars in losses on credit cards and consumer loans
suffered by banks, it is imperative that these institutions look at the cost/
benefit ratio of the college student as a target market. Banks are interested in
this market due to the fact that the first credit card an individual possesses is
likely to be held for an average of 12-15 years. However, in this study 43
percent of the students had more than one card, which may not provide as
strong a card loyalty as anticipated. Additionally, in this study of full-time
students who are likely to be employed only part-time at minimum-wage
jobs, 20 percent owned two credit cards, and almost 23 percent had three or
more cards. Of these, 26 percent had a credit limit of over $1,000. Thus, the
fiscal responsibility of issuing banks should consider the number of credit
cards possessed by a new student applicant, as well as setting appropriate
credit limits.
University administration also has a fiscal interest in the student as well as an
educational responsibility for what the student is exposed to on campus.
Given these responsibilities, many campuses have chosen to prohibit credit
Attitude response


Best thing ever invented

Good, if used correctly
112 138
Not the best way to manage money 36 41
Worst thing man ever invented
14 11


Age group
21-23 24-26


Over 26

Table VI. Attitude toward credit by demographic characteristics



card solicitation by issuing banks on campus. However, this may not be the
ultimate solution since there are multiple sources where students may
acquire credit card applications, as well as it does nothing to educate further
the student on the basic principles of using credit. In this study, 71 percent of
the students did not know the interest rate on their card, 43 percent their
credit limit, and 48 percent their current balance amounts. Therefore, student
education may be an alternative to prohibiting on-campus credit card
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Money, Vol. 28 No. 9 pp. 165-8.
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This summary has been

provided to allow managers
and executives a rapid
appreciation of the content
of this article. Those with a
particular interest in the
topic covered may then read
the article in toto to take
advantage of the more
comprehensive description
of the research undertaken
and its results to get the full
benefit of the material

Executive summary and implications for managers and

Students and debt minimising the risks
I am sure that most people of my generation (and I am not yet 40) did not
have a credit card when they were a student. The huge explosion in the use
and availability of credit has come during the 1980s and 1990s. And, as
Warwick and Mansfield describe, this increased use of credit cards has come
with attendant problems excessive debts, rises in personal bankruptcy and
increases in default and non-payment. For some observers the rise in
personal debt especially in the USA is one of the more concerning social
problems of our age.
And we know who the culprits are we have seen their direct mail! Warwick
and Mansfield report that the average American receives one credit card
solicitation each month. We are sweet talked, badgered and cajoled into
taking out credit, often at fairly prohibitive rates of interest. But do we care?
Of course not until that is we get into difficulties repaying the money we've
Warwick and Mansfield focus on students as a key target audience for banks
and other financial institutions. These organizations see students as
tomorrow's high earners and know that getting them into the habit of using a
credit card bodes well for future lending and therefore future profits. We
have to assume that the credit issuing institutions have done their sums and
can accept the risks associated with the relatively small number of students
who use their cards irresponsibly.
Most students are responsible about personal finance (I know it is
hard to believe)
The revealing finding from Warwick and Mansfield's research is that most
students take a pretty responsible approach to debt. This is not to say that
they eschew the opportunities presented by the credit card industry most
students now have at least one card. But these students do not run up
excessive debts two of the three studies into this issues reported on by
Warwick and Mansfield show average debts of around $1,000. Given the
likely earning power of the students soon after graduation such levels of debt
are recoverable and acceptable to the financial institutions.
The question becomes one of placing responsibility. We expect students to
adopt an increasingly mature attitude and there is no reason why this should
not be the case for financial matters. However, what Warwick and Mansfield
find is that students are somewhat nave about personal finance matters.
While one hopes that the students are able to grasp the principle of debt
(these are the most intelligent individuals of their generation), there is
something of a Micawberish attitude that tends to prevail it does not matter
about the debt, we will sort it out when we get a job.
The response of colleges and universities so far has been somewhat
nannyish largely futile attempts to stop credit card issuers from getting
their offer in front of students. Not only is this a somewhat patronising
approach, but it also seems, from Warwick and Mansfield's findings at
least, that such access controls do not work. The credit card companies
are too keen on reaching students to be stopped by the righteous efforts of
college authorities.



Is education the solution to student financial ignorance?

Warwick and Mansfield suggest that colleges should consider financial
education programmes rather than continuing to act like King Canute
holding back the tide of credit card offerings. The question is how best to
deliver such programmes as an element within the course proper or else
through some other method. Warwick and Mansfield point out that some of
the big financial institutions have accepted the need to provide better
personal finance guidance to students.
Personal finance advice has always been available to students. However, the
recipients of this advice have tended to be the financial basket cases
students who have got into serious financial difficulties. These interventions
may result in recovery for some of these students but they do little to reduce
the total numbers of students experiencing credit repayment problems.

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It is right that colleges make financial advice as freely available to their

students as possible. But it will always be difficult to ensure that those
students take advantage of such a service it is hard enough to get students
to come to lectures let alone a session on managing personal finance! The
financial institutions can assist in this aspect by linking advice to the issuing
of a credit facility. But, some would argue, these institutions have an interest
in promoting moderate levels of financial irresponsibility!
Are credit card companies really irresponsible in their approach to
Many college authorities and other observers are sure that the principal
villains in the student credit problem are the banks and credit card issuers.
These organizations are issuing cards with credit levels far in excess of what
the student can manage Warwick and Mansfield remind us that most
students are working in minimum wage employment if they're employed
at all.
However, in the banks' defence (and like Ogden Nash I find it hard to defend
banks) they can safely argue that they are responding to demand, that most
students are pretty responsible and anyway it is the bank that is taking the
risk of higher levels of default or non-payment. Plus of course the
justification for high rates of interest is that credit card debt is a pretty high
risk, unsecured loan facility.
The growth in the use of credit by the wider society is not some cunning
capitalist plot by the banks but a fundamental shift in the financial culture of
western society. This shift is as much a reflection of increased wealth and
income as it is of financial deregulations and rapacious bankers (we should
not forget that usury is as old as money and the banks have always got a
pretty bad press).
Nevertheless, it is in the banks' interest to promote the sensible use of credit
the steady credit user is a far better long-term bet for the bank than the
boom and bust spendthrift. Colleges and other student authorities should
seek to accommodate the banks by developing partnerships that deliver
better financial information and education, more protection for students and
better bets for long-term custom.
(A precis of the article ``Credit card consumers: college students' knowledge
and attitude''. Supplied by Marketing Consultants for MCB University



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