Details of deals between banks and colleges spur reaction

Student credit card story inspires a Congressman, a one-woman protest and some citizen journalism

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For nearly two decades, Princeton University has been able to count on Donna Riley — and her money.

Every year since she graduated, Riley has donated to her school’s annual alumni fundraising drive.

“I happen to have a perfect giving record 17 years out from graduation,” she said.

This year, she’s thinking differently. “I told them I won't give again until they stop this practice of making money off of student credit card debt.”

Riley was reacting to a report by the Huffington Post Investigative Fund, which identified some 800 colleges that stand to gain millions of dollars from selling the names and addresses of students and alumni to credit card companies such as Bank of America. The schools, including Princeton, are entitled to receive “royalty” payments that multiply the more students use their cards. Some colleges can receive bonuses when students incur debt.

The story touched a nerve, and readers responded. “It changes my whole image of the institution,” Riley said.

Princeton boosters repeatedly implored her to reconsider. They called her twice and sent at least four e-mails. “The scale of Princeton’s business operations (employer, purchaser, investor, etc.) involves enough complexity that there are almost sure to be practices each of us would like to see changed in some way,” one booster told Riley in an e-mail she shared with the Investigative Fund.

But such pleas failed to sway her. “I am sad to let you know that I cannot give money to Princeton until it terminates its agreement with Bank of America,” she wrote to a fundraising official last month. “I find it unconscionable that Princeton has apparently chosen to try to make money off of my personal information and off of the personal information and debts/credit activities of my fellow Tigers.”

Citizen journalists like Riley have volunteered to carry on our investigation of college credit card deals. We’re hearing from readers willing to track down credit card agreements at their alma maters, and from others who have sent tips or personal stories.

Samuel Franklin volunteered to track down Georgetown University’s contract. “Reading your article today about the substantial kick-backs colleges receive and how they sell my information to credit card companies really set me off,” Franklin said in an e-mail. “I won't ever update my contact information again with any school that turns around and sells it to a third-party, thereby pushing more junk mail to my home and e-mail.”

At least one member of Congress also might renew his attempts to crack down on such practices. “Disclosure of these credit card agreements was a first step,” said Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa., who in 2009 successfully sponsored legislation requiring colleges to disclose agreements with banks. Now he indicated a desire to do more than simply require disclosure so that “strong consumer protections are in place for students and their families.”

Some news outlets, meanwhile, have gone beyond our work as they dig into college credit card contracts we hadn’t obtained. Last month, the Iowa Independent took up our investigation and found that The University of Northern Iowa never amended its agreement with Bank of America to prohibit marketing to students, even though the school told state officials in 2007 that the practice was discontinued. We’ve also received inquires from newspapers across the country that want to investigate whether their local colleges have credit card agreements.

Now we want to build on this initial reaction.

Riley wants other alumni donors to follow her lead. “I think this could be over very quickly if other people withhold giving,” she said.

Although Riley estimates that her checks to Princeton have totaled less than $400 over 17 years, the school relies on small donations from a large volume of alumni.

Other than Riley, the school has not received many complaints from alumni about its credit card contract, a spokeswoman said.  “Many alumni appreciate the value that the program brings to the Alumni Association in helping to support alumni activities,” said school spokeswoman Emily Aronson. “We have approximately 84,000 living Princeton alumni, and have received only a few responses from individuals expressing concern.”

The school also posted an online statement about the deal this year. “We know that students’ accounts must be handled with particular care and we hold Bank of America accountable for doing so.” The notice went on to specify, “safeguards,” that Princeton had implemented, including “limits on marketing to students” and “providing credit education materials.”

The notice said that Princeton would remove potential customers from the contact list, if requested.

Princeton boosters also defended the credit card deal to Riley.

They directed Riley to page three of the contract, which says the bank “will not directly market this program to student members.”

Riley noted, however, that the contract also says the bank “may directly market to student members” through the campus store.

The contract, Riley observed, “is contradictory at best.”

The contract also states that Princeton “shall provide” to Bank of America “the initial mailing list, containing at least 4,000 nonduplicate names of student members (who are at least 18 years of age) with corresponding valid postal addresses as soon as possible.”

Yet Princeton boosters told Riley that the school no longer allows credit cards marketing to students.

She’s not buying it.

“Everything they tried to do to reassure me, just didn’t add up,” she said. “Even if they aren’t doing it now, they can do it at anytime.”

Columbia University, the Iowa State University alumni association and Michigan State University all recently amended their credit card contracts to prohibit any marketing to students. They did so within a week of receiving phone and e-mail inquires from the Investigative Fund. School officials said they had been working on the amendments for months.

Princeton’s contract is scheduled to end next March.

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