TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: What's in your wallet? Maybe your college's sticky fingers!



If you left college with a shelf full of Visa drink Koozies, Visa beach towels and Visa visors, there's an excellent chance you also took a load of Visa credit-card debt with you.

A 2009 study found that the average U.S. undergraduate carried $3,173 in credit card debt, much of it blamed on rising college costs, which induced loan-strapped students to put textbooks and fees on plastic instead of writing a check.

Those debt statistics prompted Congress to enact the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009, a consumer-protection statute with some nifty public disclosure requirements that college journalists should know about and take advantage of.

Under the CARD Act, issuers of credit cards must file an annual disclosure report with the Federal Reserve that includes copies of any "affinity" agreement between the issuer and any college. This includes private colleges, and it also includes the private affiliates of public colleges, including foundations, alumni associations and Greek houses -- which means those organization can't hide behind their "private" status to conceal their marketing deals.

The Fed has helpfully placed its collection of agreements online, both in searchable database form and in a spreadsheet. Each July, the agency compiles an annual report to Congress giving a snapshot of the state of college credit card agreements nationally, including which companies have the most college tie-ins and account-holders, and which college organizations have the most "affinity" card-holders. (Far-and-away the biggest as of July 2011? The Penn State Alumni Association, with 70,000 outstanding accounts, twice the next-highest number.)

Using CARD Act disclosures, journalists have been able to document some questionable practices that reward colleges based not just on how many students (or graduates) they are able to sign up, but how much debt those card-holders run up. It's worth asking whether every price hike in tuition, books, rent and fees means a little unseen cha-ching for your university's coffers.

Tagged: public records, Transparency Tuesday