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Project Credit Smarts strives to teach students

DSC00878The Deval Patrick Administration has begun to initiate “Project Credit Smarts,” a drive to inform college freshmen – including those at the University of Massachusetts Amherst – about the dangers of credit cards, gimmicks, fees and debt.

The Project Credit Smarts seminar, according to the Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation (OCABR), will be on the UMass Amherst campus sometime in October.

The program will be geared towards incoming freshmen, but any student is welcome to attend. A free slideshow is available on the OCABR website that outlines the program. Teaching of the seminar will be done by OCABR staff, and, according to Undersecretary of the OCABR Barbara Anthony, it will not cost UMass anything.

“Our goal here [is] to teach a crash course to college students about how to be credit smart when it comes to credit and credit cards,” said Anthony.

Sallie Mae and Nellie Mae – financial companies that specialize in college student services – conducted a survey in April of 2009, concluding that the mean credit card balance for college students is at its highest ever – $3,100. The same study found that college students on average graduate with over $4,100 in credit card debt compared to just $2,900 of four years ago.

Anthony cited the high rates of debt that college students hold as a primary reason for the formulation of Project Credit Smarts.

On Sept. 16, Governor Deval Patrick announced the program at Roxbury Community College. “Young adults need to … develop responsible financial management skills.”

As debt increases, Anthony claims that students are setting out on their own with a very limited knowledge of how to manage their personal finances. Project Credit Smarts is meant to help those new college students understand the consequences that taking out large numbers of credit cards and succumbing to free gifts from credit card companies can have on a person’s financial well being.

Patrick Callahan of UMass relations said of the program, “(OCABR) is going to run [Project Credit Smarts] for the benefit of our students.”

So far, there are nine colleges and nine businesses that are taking part in Project Credit Smarts. Those nine colleges are mainly focused in the Boston area and include such schools as Bentley College, Wellesley College and Fitchburg State College, along with UMass Amherst.

OCABR is collaborating with such business organizations as the Federal Trade Commission, the FDIC, and Sallie Mae, who was awarded, according to their Web site, a contract through the Department of Education “for the servicing of federal student loans” that has allowed the company to immediately add $100 billion in volume.

Massachusetts GOP communications director Tarah Donoghue commented that it was hypocritical for the Patrick Administration to teach financial common sense.

“I find it ironic that the Patrick-Murray Administration is educating students about credit card use, but cannot even manage their own out of control spending in Massachusetts,” said Donoghue.

It was acknowledged that the recession has added to the recent tumult of student finances and debt management.

“Credit card debt is increasing for college students. [The] numbers are going up. It’s a reasonable connection to make that in recessionary times, everyone works hard, and it is more tempting than ever to use credit to pay for things,” said Anthony.

The Sallie Mae study said that one-in-five college students would have more than $7,000 in credit card debt – not including student loans – by the time of their graduation.

One of the biggest problems for college students is that most buy schools supplies like textbooks on credit, which vastly increase the student’s debt.

On the Project Credit Smarts slideshow, an example is given in order to demonstrate what an 18 percent interest rate on a credit card might mean in the long term.

According to the slides, a thousand dollars of textbooks bought on an 18.5 percent credit card – if the minimum is paid every month – would take nine years to pay off and cost the debtor an extra thousand dollars in addition to the initial cost of the books.

According to advocates of the Project Credit Smarts program, another big problem for students in debt are gimmicks in credit reports. The catchy jingles of the company freecreditreport.com are given as an example of something to stay away from. The fine print of the company’s print ads are blown up reading, “If you don’t cancel your membership within the 14-day trial, you will be billed $14.95,” for each month of continued membership.

Credit reports can be obtained for free; Project Credit Smarts advises that credit reports should never be paid for.

Former UMass faculty member and current Chairman of the FDIC, Sheila Bair, commented on the importance of the program. She said, “Being financially astute is nothing less than an essential survival tool.” Project Credit Smarts warns students that not educating yourself to personal financial matters can lead to bad credit reports. Bad credit reports can lead to trouble finding a job, renting an apartment or even gaining entrance to graduate school.

Michael Phillis can be reached at mphillis@student.umass.edu.

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