Online survey targets students' credit card habits

October 10, 2003

Erie, Pa. -- When marketing professor Mary Beth Pinto's eight-year-old daughter received a credit card solicitation in the mail, Pinto was aghast. Complaining about the incident to her students at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, Pinto learned that a day seldom passes when a college student is not, by direct mail or personal contact, asked to apply for a credit card.

Once Pinto and several of her colleagues in the Sam and Irene Black School of Business at Penn State Erie realized the massive marketing push by the credit card companies to enlist college students, they began a stream of research that continues to explore college students' use and abuse of credit cards. Pinto, marketing professor Phylis Mansfield, and management professor Diane Parente have written a number of papers that explore credit behavior among college students.

"When we began this research five years ago, our first step was to develop a database," said Pinto. "We started with a survey of 1,000 area college students. Since that time we not only continued to collect data from Penn State Erie, but also expanded our project to include a sample of more than 1,100 students from eleven colleges and universities throughout the United States." Their sample continues to grow when students visit the researchers' online student credit awareness site at and complete the survey posted there. MIS professor Kathy Noce, another of Pinto's colleagues in the Black School of Business, created the site.

Using the Penn State Erie data set, the researchers explored self-control and credit card use among college students. In a paper titled "Self-control and Credit Card Use Among College Students," published in Psychological Reports, they found a significant difference in self-control among those who paid their cards off each month and those who carried a balance. There was also a significant difference between these two groups in the number of credit cards they held.

In "Credit Consciousness among College-age Consumers," the researchers explored both the positive and negative aspects of credit consciousness and found that there may be a significant difference between an individual's attitude about credit and his or her behavior. This paper, presented at the Spring 2003 Marketing Management Association Conference, introduces a scale for credit consciousness.

"Our research results provide valuable insight into the credit management personality of the college-aged student," said Mansfield. "The results suggest that college students with high credit consciousness are likely to exhibit lower levels of self-esteem, more external locus of control, and higher anxiety levels. They also have higher numbers of credit cards and higher average credit balances."

"We understand the role of the college experience in preparing students to be lifelong learners and contributing citizens," said Parente. "Our research has helped inform college administrators and student personnel professionals of the need for credit education programs and policies for the distribution of credit cards on campus." Parente also noted that a prior study by Palmer, Pinto, and Parente (2001) was cited recently in the Congressional Record regarding the advisability of parental cosigners on credit card applications for those under 21. The study showed a significantly higher balance on credit cards held by students who obtained their credit independently.

Using the national data set, Pinto and her colleagues have developed a conceptual model of consumer credit behavior that will be presented at the Association of Consumer Research meeting in October 2003. Their model considers the antecedents and outcomes of credit behavior and a variety of factors that contribute to credit consciousness.

In the classroom the researchers find clever ways to make students aware of the credit card trap. For example, Mansfield and Pinto ask their classes to keep their direct-mail solicitations for six weeks, then correlate the amount of mail to the students' credit usage patterns. They also use Penn State Erie's Student Credit Awareness Web site in the Black School of Business freshman seminar, not only educating students about credit but also getting their input on the site's credit survey.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 20, 2009