Students who don't control card use can leave school with heavy debt.
Dave Welber has a bit of advice for fellow college students thinking about charging their way through school using credit cards.
"I would say that if you don't have money in the bank, don't use them," said the 26-year-old student at the University of Toledo.
"I'm not quite living by it all the time yet, but I'm trying," said Mr. Welber, who was bailed out by his mother when he racked up nearly $4,000 in credit card debt.
As thousands of students pick up their diplomas this month, nearly a quarter of those who carry credit cards have a lasting legacy from their college years: debt that averages $2,500 a student.
The amount of debt and the numbers burdened by it are growing causes for concern, especially because more students are using the cards to finance their education.
"Students with credit-card debt are starting out swimming upstream," said Richard Call, regional vice president of the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of the Midwest Inc.
"It's not the ideal way to start out a work career, and they're not able to really start looking at putting money aside."
As the mother of three, Jill Carr can attest to the aggressive approach of credit card companies.
"I have two college students of my own, and those offers just keep coming in the mail with pre-approved amounts on them," said the dean of students at Bowling Green State University.
Credit card companies either solicit students using lists from major lenders such as Washington Mutual (formerly Providian) or by setting up tables on college campuses.
Those tables, and their offers of free T-shirts or candy bars just for signing up, still lure students, despite growing efforts in education about the proper use of credit, said Kathleen Fitzpatrick, assistant professor of business technology at UT.
"It's almost like everything's free. They hand over the plastic and get what they want and don't think about the future of it," she said. She is adviser to UT's Students in Free Enterprise, which tries to inform students about the danger of credit card debt.
The problem, said Angela Lyons, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is that traditional financial aid packages aren't keeping up with the rising costs of college.
"So students who aren't savvy are racking up credit card debt for school-related expenses," said the author of studies on the topic.Those most likely to do that are "at-risk students" who have taken out steep loans to pay for their education, she said.
Sara Jennings, a UT business student who will graduate next year, doesn't want credit card stress.
"Why spend something I don't have?" asked the native of McClure in Henry County.
With no credit card to her name, she said she's "the lone exception" among her friends. "If that's what they want to do, that's fine. But in five years, I'm hoping I'll be sitting a little better than they might be."
Mr. Welber said, "I used them [credit cards] as a crutch. I pretty much used them for gas, food, anything to entertain myself."
Janet Bodnar, deputy editor of Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine, said students should learn to pay their bills, including their rent and food, with the cash they've earned at summer and school jobs before taking on a credit card.
She said a debit cards work just as well, without the downsides of credit cards, for students who might need cash in emergencies.
Contact Mary-Beth McLaughlin at