W. Dyer Vest, a senior at Virginia Tech, owns two T-shirts that he said cost him $2,500.
The shirts were free, actually, as long as Vest signed up for two Visa cards at the table display in the campus center. Credit in hand, he proceeded to update his wardrobe, outfit his girlfriend, eat well at restaurants and give generously at Christmas.
A year later, he owed $2,500 to credit-card companies and couldn't afford the minimum payments. "I was not responsible," Vest, 22, said of his freshman-year binge. "I was immature."
He later dropped out of school for a semester to pay off his credit cards and has remained debt-free for two years. But his is a lesson that many of his peers haven't learned.
An estimated 55 to 70 percent of all college students own at least one credit card, according to national studies, and experts say that percentage is growing. Between a third and half of the students with cards don't pay their monthly credit card bills in full, and their debt averages $580 to $725, surveys have found.
Alarmed by the trend, hundreds of colleges in recent years have forbidden credit card companies to solicit on their campuses, and Virginia lawmakers are thinking of imposing such a ban at all the state's colleges. Nine other states are considering similar measures, said Kelly Anders, a research analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.
Supporters of the restrictions say that marketing tactics such as the table display at Virginia Tech have fueled the credit card problem, and they worry that debt-ridden students may be distracted from their studies or even disqualified from some job opportunities.
"It seems like they're just giving cards away like hotcakes," said Virginia state Sen. John S. Edwards (D-Roanoke). "Bad credit affects their education and their future. It's going to affect them getting jobs."
The banking industry generally opposes such restrictions. Ray LaMura, a lobbyist for the Virginia Bankers Association, said that preventing students from applying for a credit card at a campus building hurts the majority of students, who know how to use credit cards wisely. And it won't stop less responsible youths from applying for a card through the Internet or elsewhere, LaMura said.
"That is not a measure that would resolve a lack of money-management skills," he said.
It's nearly impossible for today's college students to avoid credit card pitches. Applications are found inside plastic bags at the campus bookstore, hanging from a bulletin board in the student center, on the Web and in the mail. Many banks don't require a parental signature.
The temptations can be overwhelming to young adults given their first tastes of freedom and financial independence, college administrators said.
"Some of them have not yet learned to curb their desire for things or delay their gratification," said Dana Burnett, the dean of students at Old Dominion University in Norfolk.
Many students with credit cards reject that portrayal, saying they use the cards mostly for basic expenses and charge only what they can afford.
Gina Jove, a junior at American University, buys plane tickets home to Puerto Rico and pays for all school expenses with her credit card, which has a balance of about $5,000. Her parents help her pay the bill, she said, except when she uses it for shopping trips to Banana Republic and other personal items. She said she likes the convenience of not having to carry cash.
American University has not banned credit card marketers from its campus, but several other local universities, including Georgetown, the University of Maryland and Marymount, have done so.
"We share general societal concerns about young people with debt," said Donna M. Patchett, assistant to the vice president for student services at Marymount. Not only does the school prohibit card companies from sending representatives to campus but it no longer allows card applications to be slipped inside bags at the bookstore.
"We're doing what we can do," Patchett said. "We cannot control what goes on outside our campus. But this is the one thing we can control."
An estimated 430 colleges nationwide have banned the marketing of credit cards on their campus, said Dennis Meunier, vice president of United College Marketing Services, which offers low-rate credit cards to college students and sponsors free seminars in money management.
Banks and credit card companies have started Web sites and CD-ROM programs to help educate students about managing their credit wisely. Many others offer free workshops on campus that discuss creating a budget, learning to live within one's means and establishing a good credit history.
Eric Sas, the student government president at George Mason University, could have used that advice. He said he rang up $2,000 in credit card debt when he was a freshman. He worked extra hours at a computer store to pay his bills and now, as a senior, Sas is debt-free.
His biggest incentive to stay that way? The misery he felt when he owed money.
"I was really upset about it," he said. "It was just eating at me."
Tommy Smigiel, 21, a senior at Old Dominion, owes $2,900 on four credit cards. He said he applied for credit cards because he wanted to buy a car and had been denied a car loan for lack of a credit history. After he went through a few months of paying his credit card balance in full, the card companies increased his limits.
Then he upped his spending. He bought a computer, spent the summer studying in Costa Rica, and treated himself to two suits and other clothes. Two years later, a bank gave him an $11,000 loan for a late-model Honda Accord.
Now he tries to pay with cash as often as he can and is slowly reducing his credit card balances. He said he didn't realize how fast and how easy it was to become mired in debt.
Some students, wary of falling into debt, simply have avoided credit cards.
"I don't want to have to pay the interest charges, and I don't have any money anyway," said Stephanie Conner, 21, who is enrolled in a five-year program in international ethics at American. Instead of a credit card, she uses a bank debit card that deducts money from her checking account.
To prevent student credit card binges, parents must play a greater role in educating their children about fiscal management, said Sean Healy, a spokesman for Visa International.
Some Virginia lawmakers want high schools to start providing such lessons. They have proposed to add money management courses to the state's high school curriculum.
Financial management also could be taught to teenagers in a more informal way, such as in an after-school workshop, some college administrators said. They said that making changes to state curriculum guidelines could be time-consuming.
"Ultimately that's an ideal way to go," said Irene Leech, an associate professor at Virginia Tech and the director of the Virginia Consumer Education Council. "I'm not sure politically that's the fastest way."