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U of I Students Teach Their Peers about Credit Use

By Jeffrey Patch

College students use credit cards to buy books, shop online and make a range of other purchases, yet many are uninformed about the cards' pitfalls, financial advisers say.

So University of Iowa students set out to spread the message about responsible credit use through an informal marketing agency they formed during the fall.

The student agency at the U of I was one of 12 similar groups on campuses across the country that were part of a program that connects educational institutions and corporations.

Edventures, a company that partnered with Citibank's educational arm, Citi Credit-ED, offered adjunct business professor John Byrne's advertising theory class of 35 students $2,500 to execute a campus-based credit education campaign.

"In a traditional class you talk about concepts and ideas," Byrne said. "Here we did something real and followed through with it."

The class held educational sessions in U of I dorms and in four Greek houses. Students also ran advertisements in the U of I campus newspaper for two weeks, surveyed about 200 students before and after the campaign to gauge the results, and created pens and T-shirts. In addition, the class operated a booth at the Iowa Memorial Union and created a spokesperson named Professor Plastic.

"The students really did exactly what you would hire a professional agency to do," Byrne said. "They had a chance to be creative, and they learned a lot of the mundane details."

The campaign directs students to a Web site that provides information on formulating a budget and other tips for students to avoid credit calamities.

Tom Cronin, a senior business major at U of I, said the class provided him with invaluable "real-world experience."

"Personally, I think it has taught me a lot more about credit," said Cronin, a 21-year-old from Le Mars who plans to attend graduate school. "It's really just opened my eyes and shown me the importance of good credit to get a job and get house and car loans in the future."

In December, class members presented their results to Citi officials in New York via a teleconference.

Credit education expert Amer Sajed, a senior vice president at Citi Cards, said college students generally avoid credit trouble better than their peers who are not in college, but the marketing campaign does not help students sign up for credit cards.

"We keep it separate purposely," Sajed said.

Young people are particularly vulnerable to credit card trouble, said Kevin O'Toole, education director at Consumer Credit Counseling Service, a nonprofit group that provides free credit counseling to U of I students.

Students "are not informed. They don't have the education," O'Toole said. "They walk in with blinders on."

Some credit card companies use predatory lending rates to take advantage of young customers, he said, but ultimately students must educate themselves by reading the fine print on a form before committing to a company.

This year, representatives from O'Toole's group presented credit information and tips during a class for first-year students called "College Transitions."

"It's important for a student to know what the rules of the game are," he said.

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