‘Tomorrow is now’: U students rack up debt, scramble to pay off credit cards

Anne Preller

Ben Oertel and his brother Mike are always together. They work together, live together, hang out with friends together and struggle with credit card debt together.

“First I tried to do it on my own. I hid the fact that I was in so much debt from my parents for a long time,” Oertel said. “I told them I was only $1,200 in debt.”

Actually, Oertel is $6,000 to $7,000 in the hole.

“Between the five guys I generally hang out with, we probably have acquired over $30,000 in credit card debt since going to college,” Oertel said.

According to Boynton Health Center’s 1998-99 Annual Report, 11.9 percent of University students are $3,000 or more in credit card debt. Fourteen percent owe $1,000 to $2,999. These numbers are not unique to the University.

Seventy percent of U.S. undergraduate students today possess at least one credit card. According to a 1999 Consumer Federation of America report, one-fifth of undergraduate students carry debt of $10,000 or more.

The study reported, “Students, with large debts, who come from affluent families, typically are bailed out by parents who then impose strict financial discipline.” The report found the biggest problems are embarrassment and family tensions.

“My mom has blatantly told me she’d just like to cut me a check and pay it all off and let me go back to school, but they can’t. The best they can do is give me advice,” Oertel said.

Boynton’s report also found 16.4 percent of University students don’t work; 36.4 percent of University students work more than 20 hours per week.

At freshman orientation, Marjorie Savage, program director for the Office of Student Development, advises incoming freshmen that 10 to 12 hours of employment can be too much.

“We strongly suggest eight to 10 hours,” Savage said.

The University expects students taking 15 credits to spend 15 hours in class, plus anywhere from 30 to 45 hours studying and working on homework, Savage said.

“Students look at their schedules and see that they are in class for only three hours a day, but there’s more to it than that,” Savage said. “To add on any more than ten hours (of work) is asking them to have another job, and we can’t ask them to do that.”

Oertel works in a warehouse, 40-plus hours per week, to finance his debt.

“I make $15.50 an hour for four 10-hour days. If I work the fifth day, I get overtime,” he said. Mike Oertel also works at the warehouse and is taking fall semester off to pay for his credit cards.

Oertel entered the credit card game in his sophomore year.

“Almost all my credit cards, except for one, I signed up for on campus, mostly for free stuff,” he said. “I didn’t do cards for the longest time because my parents are in credit card debt, and I didn’t want to do that. But they were giving away plane tickets! And I thought, oh well, I’ll never use it.”

But Oertel did use it. When he maxed out his first card, he signed up for a second card. Oertel repeated the cycle until he owned seven.

“When I went to college I spent all my money much faster than I had planned on, and then there were these people giving me money. As dumb as it sounds, it just doesn’t occur to you that you have to pay it back,” Oertel said.

The people giving away money on campus were credit card companies. While the University does not have a policy to single out credit card vendors, it does have an operating policy for all vendors.

Vendors may be on campus if: “1. They are co-sponsoring an event. In that case, they can only have a table with the event they are sponsoring. 2. They have a contract with the Real Estate Office. 3. They have an agreement with the bookstores.”

Neither the University bookstores nor the Office of Scholarship and Financial Aid supports student use of credit cards.

“The Office of Scholarship and Financial Aid does not allow students to charge tuition or fee payments on credit cards,” said Nancy Sinsabaugh, the office’s director.

University bookstores do not allow credit card literature to be present, said Robert Crabb, director of University bookstores.

“There’s a pretty significant issue of credit card misuse by students, getting them over their head in debt. We’re not single-handedly going to prevent that, but we don’t want to contribute to it either,” Crabb said.

Credit card vendors set up tables on campus by partnering with student groups, who are the only ones allowed to run the tables.

A 1998 Coffman Union policy allows registered student groups to enter into co-sponsorships with non-University entities or companies to provide financial or other support for campus events.

“Without Coffman, it has been hard to pinpoint what exactly student groups are doing,” said Tracie Smith of the University’s Campus Involvement Center.

Smith stressed student involvement does not invite vendors to campus, and the center does not connect student groups with credit card vendors. Smith said the vendors could check the University’s Web site – where student groups are listed – and contact student groups on their own.

Visa spokewoman Melissa Morey said Visa does not issue Visa cards; the 14,000 Visa banks across the nation do.

Neither Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank – two banks with University locations – nor Capital One returned phone calls.

TCF, the bank partnering with the University’s U Card program, does not promote a student credit card.

“We don’t really promote credit cards on campus. The University is sensitive to promoting credit cards on campus and we’ve kind of honored that,” said Viane Hoefs, regional manager of campus banking for TCF.

TCF does have credit cards available to students, Hoefs said, but the student must enter the bank and ask for a credit card application. The card is not a TCF card, she said.

Due to numerous reports linking college students and credit card debt, the University now offers a financial counseling service in conjunction with Lutheran Social Services. The program began in March.

Darryl Dahlheimer, one of two certified credit counselors, provides free financial counseling for students. He can be found in Boynton’s Mental Health Department on Fridays during normal business hours.

“Students want credit cards because it is a positive thing. They say, ‘I might need some (credit) when I run out of money, or if my student loan doesn’t come through.’ But it’s down the road where students see it more and more as ‘I wish I’d never had one,” Dahlheimer said.

“Sometimes the credit cards have been used for things that really are luxuries, but for students I’m seeing a lot of people that are charging the basic expenses: books, core clothing and core groceries,” Dahlheimer said.

Dahlheimer said he has only seen 20 students since the program began because most Americans are ashamed to be in debt.

“We try to tell people there’s nothing to be ashamed about. You make a mistake and you learn from it,” Dahlheimer said. “When we work with people, the most common student response is, ‘I didn’t know this help was there.'”

Oertel didn’t know the University provided financial counseling, and he doesn’t expect to use it either.

“I also have $25,000 in education debts from federal loans. Eventually (they) are going to come knocking on my door, wanting their money. The conclusion I came to is that I have to get my credit cards paid off before I get out of college or I’m not going to be able to survive paying my credit card debt and my college loans,” Oertel said.

Dahlheimer said because credit feels like free money, college students continue to be sucked into the scheme.

“It sounds pretty pathetic in retrospect,” Oertel said. “But you buy that stereo for your car, and you worry about paying it off tomorrow. Unfortunately, tomorrow is now, and I am broke.”

Anne Preller welcomes comments at [email protected]