Is a credit card a must for college students?

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Parents across the country are having the talk with their young adult as he or she heads out the door to college. This year, however, the talk isn't about sex, drugs and rock and roll. Instead, it's about whether or not the student should apply for a credit card before the new regulations go into effect in February 2010. The recently passed CARD Act will require a person less than 21 years of age to either document their ability to repay the debt, or have a co-signer before being granted credit.

A recent Sallie Mae study revealed that college seniors carried an average credit card debt of $4,100 compared with $2,900 five years ago. Keep in mind that this segment of the population typically has no income and no credit history, but has nonetheless been extended credit.

We live in a credit-dominated society, with most of us dependent upon credit for major purchases. Ideally, while in school the student will build a thick credit file, and graduate with a positive credit report and high credit score, allowing them to then realize some of the financial dreams they'd put on hold until graduation.

When it comes to building a positive credit record, the student has some options. The experts at Money Management International (MMI), a National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) member agency, suggests that parents and young adults consider the following when deciding what would be best for their situation:

??Become an authorized user on the parent's card. The student is attached to the parent's card and has charging privileges, but no legal responsibility for payment since the card is not in his or her name. The activity on the account is reported to the credit bureau in both the parent's name and the student's name, thus the young adult builds a credit file of their own. This option allows the parents to monitor the student's spending, and remove them from the card if things get out of hand.

??Get a secured credit card. This type of credit card requires a cash collateral deposit which then becomes your line of credit, thus limiting any abuse. Consumers need to be very careful when applying for this type of card, as some charge high fees which can greatly diminish your spending power. Make sure that the issuer reports to the credit bureau. If they do, and if you pay responsibly, a secured card can not only be a safe way to build a credit file, but after a year or so will likely qualify you for an unsecured card.

??Obtain a card in the student's name. Since the clock is ticking on the availability of this option, it definitely merits a conversation between the student and the parent. If the young adult has some financial training and experience with credit, and has demonstrated that he or she can handle it responsibly, then having a card in their own name could be a good way to launch their own credit file. Student credit cards typically have low credit lines, thus somewhat limiting the amount of financial damage that can be done. However, an irregular payment history on even a small debt can damage a credit file, which defeats the purpose of having a card.

In addition to lenders, employers and landlords also review credit reports. Therefore, it is important to graduate from college, not only with a sheepskin in hand, but a positive credit file.