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Many young college grads faced with crushing debts
Christian Miller can't get a car loan and, at age 27, has returned to his parents' New Jersey home, forced back by the double load of credit card debt and student loans.
Like other twentysomethings across America, he's found that graduating from college means having to face tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Some even drop out before they finish school, while a growing number are declaring bankruptcy.
"It stinks," says Miller, who arrived on his parents' Livingston, N.J., doorstep on New Year's Eve two years ago.
Financial experts predict this year's graduates will have an even tougher time. Never has a generation entered a recession-weakened job market so debt-ridden.
"I have a negative net worth of $14,000 -- it's great!" Jessica Lopez says sarcastically.
In some ways, the 24-year-old Lopez considers herself lucky. A senior at Florida International University in Miami, she's saved money by living with her parents and has about $2,000 in credit card debt -- "tiny compared to some people I know."
Still, she's already been turned down for a small business loan to start a clothing company, even though she works a part-time job and actually owes less than the average college grad.
The federal General Accounting Office says students are graduating with an average of $19,400 in student loans. Average student credit card debt rose from $1,879 in 1998 to $2,748 in 2000, according to the student loan agency Nellie Mae.
It is the growth of the latter statistic that has financial experts most worried, especially since bankruptcies filed by the under-25 crowd grew to a record 94,717 in 2000, according to a Harvard law school study.
No surprise here
Vicki Jacobson, vice president for education for the Consumer Credit Counseling Service in Cape Girardeau, says university students' mounting debt doesn't surprise her. The median age for people in her debt management program is 35. "Many indicate their problems surfaced in college," she says. "Many got their first credit cards in college."
But Kent Puchbauer, local retail manager for Union Planters Bank, says the bank's younger customers are not defaulting on loans at a higher rate than usual. "This is a good part of the country in Cape Girardeau, a conservative area," he says. "People tend to take care of their bills pretty well."
Jacobson says many people she sees use a credit card like their parents used to use a savings account. "I don't think they understand personal finance and decisionmaking, and that deferring gratifiaction can be a benefit," she says.
"They are basically committing unearned income to pay for goods and services today. Those could be quickly forgotten like clothing and eating out. It's really a tragedy."
A third of students in the U.S. have four or more credit cards, picked up everywhere from phone solicitations to the Internet. And some universities have signed deals with particular credit card companies, giving them exclusive rights to market on campus and use school logos on their cards.
Delaware-based MBNA American Bank has such deals with about 600 colleges and universities, with about half a percentage point of interest earned on the cards going to the schools.
The company stresses that it targets alumni and upperclassmen, keeps its lines of credit at $1,000 or less and offers regular campus seminars about responsible credit card use.
"The last thing we want to do is give a college student a credit card and they can't handle it," says MBNA spokesman Brian Dalphon.
Officials at Capital One, another major credit card provider, offer a "high school credit card" to teens, 16 to 18, who get the card guaranteed by a parent or guardian.
Diana Don, a spokeswoman for the Virginia-based company, says parents use the cards to teach their children how to be responsible before going to college.
But some financial experts are wary.
"It's like someone who's not educated about sugar walking into a candy store and buying everything," says Juliette Fairley, author of the book "Money Rules," a financial guide for people in their 20s and 30s.
Bob Doyle, of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, says students should be learning about financial responsibility from their parents well before buying on credit.
He advises parents to loan money to their teen-age children, and then make them find a way to pay it back. Too often, he says, parents forgive loans or continually bail out their children.
"That is doing more harm than good," says Doyle, a CPA and personal financial specialist from St. Petersburg, Fla.
Those already in debt and graduating into a recession may have to learn some tough lessons.
"Before, many students were using signing bonuses to pay off their credit cards," says Robert Manning, author of the book "Credit Card Nation." Now the signing bonuses are gone -- and in many cases, so are the jobs.
And then there are those still saddled with debt from years ago, including Miller.
He's keen to move out of his parents' home but still has about $4,000 in credit card debt. Desperate to pay it off, he's even made two trips to Atlantic City casinos. That's not a move financial planners would recommend, but he won $1,000 each time.
"And it goes straight to the credit card bills," he says.