Finding Help on Campus: Credit Counseling
Keep your debt in check
Before Hibbert Hill left for a study-abroad program in Australia last spring, he signed up for another credit card. One more wouldn't hurt, thought Hill, then a sophomore at Iowa State University. "I didn't plan on using [the card]," says Hill. "But Australia was a blast." The price tag? Over $10,000.
Luckily for Hill and others in his predicament--the average college student carries $2,327 in credit card debt--some schools are providing credit counseling to their students. Montana State University in Bozeman, for example, operates Student Advocates for Financial Education. During a typical session at the busy office, counselors help students map out a budget, track expenditures, and find ways to cut back on expenses. "Tuition has gone up, the cost of living has gone up, and student wages have not kept pace," says Deborah Haynes, an associate professor at the school who oversees the program.
Payback. Students up to their ears in debt can also turn to nonprofit credit counseling firms. These organizations can work out repayment plans directly with creditors or consolidate bills into one monthly statement, something on-campus centers may not be able to do. But be wary of scams. Counseling should be free or nearly so, and debt-management plans shouldn't cost more than $50 to set up and $35 in monthly charges, says Travis Plunkett, legislative director with the Consumer Federation of America.
Back at Iowa State, Hill struggled to make ends meet, barely affording the monthly minimum charge on four credit cards and a line of credit. He went to the Financial Counseling Clinic at Iowa State, which offers to work with creditors to lower interest rates, but quickly realized he needed a more disciplined approach. He left school to move in with his parents in Minnesota and is now taking classes at a local community college. And he signed up with Lutheran Social Services, a nonprofit group in Duluth, Minn., that offers credit counseling and debt management.
Hill is now on a tight budget. Two thirds of what he earns each month working at a bank goes toward his credit card debt: He pays $65 to Lutheran Social Services each month--the organization keeps $5 and disperses the rest to two credit card companies--and coughs up an additional $420 to pay off his other cards and the line of credit. "It's a big burden," he says. "But it's going to be solved."
This story appears in the April 18, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.