When students returned to their college campuses this fall, I'm sure it never occurred to them that getting stuck in the slowest line at the campus bookstore or eating dorm food that tastes as if it were prepared by Chef Boyardee are trifling annoyances compared to a potential danger that stalked them upon their arrival.
Every autumn, marketers stack tables with cheap bling on campus quads and wait for the kids to show up. To snag a free T-shirt, towel or maybe even a sandwich, a student simply has to fill out an application. Once signed, the students walk away with a T-shirt made in China and their first credit cards. It's right here that you could insert an analogy about lambs and lions or babes and woods.
Young adults surely spend little or no time contemplating the sort of powers that their new pieces of plastic hold. What's particularly disquieting about this rite of financial passage is this reality: By the time the typical American teenager turns 18, he or she has seen more than 10 million ads. Combine young adults' easy credit with their craving to be "merchants of cool," a term used by a PBS documentary, and you've got the ingredient for a perfect credit storm. MySpace, Facebook and iPods will someday turn into quaint artifacts, but credit card debt will remain evergreen and ever a nuisance.
Debb Thorne, an assistant professor of sociology at Ohio University who teaches an aptly named class called Bling, Bling Blues, realizes that many students spend more time reading a Chinese takeout menu than they do perusing a credit card contract.
"The students are completely ignorant of the terms of contracts that they sign," says Thorne, who has had several of her upperclassmen tell her that credit-card debt forced them into bankruptcy. "Almost without exception, they have no idea what the APR is and they have never heard of universal default. They are shocked when they learn that a cash advance costs them more in interest than a card purchase."
I suspect that young adults are more likely to get mired in credit quicksand because they get introduced to temptation sooner. When I was in college, card issuers were as likely to hand a credit card to somebody like me, who was making minimum wage working in the student union cafeteria, as to a guy doing 25 years to life for armed robbery.
Even after graduating from the University of Missouri debt-free with a full-time newspaper job, I discovered that obtaining a credit card was nearly impossible. My father, commiserating with me after hearing of my serial rejections - even Sears snubbed me! - co-signed for a MasterCard at his bank. Those were the days.