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Credit Unions In Grade Schools

cash, credit cards, school lesson book, pencil - for story on kids and credit cards
AP / CBS
Adults' finances are collapsing like a house of credit cards. College students are inundated with offers that get them deep into debt before their first real job, and graduates aren't paying their student loans.

So what's next? Credit union branches in elementary schools, exclusively for students, under a bill signed into law last week by New York Gov. George Pataki.

But rather than providing a new clientele to pile up more debt, schools and credit unions say the banking facilities will provide children credit to learn how to avoid being adult debtors.

Savings accounts have been in schools for decades. But credit unions that offer savings and checking accounts, debit cards, ATM cards, even credit cards and loans have cropped up in recent years.

The goal is for students to learn to build and protect credit and to budget. Students who seek to be the tellers and managers also learn to handle job interviews and others' money, the credit union officials said.

Credit cards are usually restricted to fifth graders and above and only with a co-signing parent. Loans also are co-signed and balances for credit cards and loans are kept low, usually to no more than $200 or $300.

The New York law allows branches in schools and prohibits teachers, administrators, parents and relatives of the students from joining or using the credit union, according to the law sponsored by state Sen. Stephen Saland, chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

"There has been a tenfold increase in young adults filing for bankruptcy over the past five years," said Saland, an attorney from Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "At times, poor judgment in early life cannot only follow you, but have devastating effects for years to come. My hope was that this legislation would provide rather practical education to avoid financial crisis."

No students have been ensnared in credit debt from the credit unions, according to financial officers in two long-standing programs in other states.

"Our experience has been wonderful," said Natalie McLaughlin, education partnership coordinator with the Community Federal Credit Union based in Plymouth, Mich. "With the rise of bankruptcy rates, financial institutions are very concerned about that with young people. We're hoping it sinks in."

About 1,200 students in 17 schools are members of the credit union. They can apply at 13 or 14 years old for a Visa credit card with parental permission, but that is rare, she said. Most students get the card when they are 15 or 16.

"Parents have really been requesting that students get credit cards so they can learn to use them before they go to college, so that allure of having multiple credit cards can be controlled by parents better," she said.

Students use credit to buy on the Internet and to secure cellular phones as well as for emergencies. One boy borrowed against his savings to buy printing supplies for brochures to advertise his own business of doing chores around the neighborhood. A girl borrowed for a new bike for a newspaper route and paid it off from her earnings.

In New York, the law will encourage credit unions in schools, although a few have operated under different legal agreements for years through visits rather than with a branch in the school.

"My kids used debit cards and they learned a lot," said Leni Hockman of Alternatives Federal Credit Union that has operated the Dollars and Dreams program in the Ithaca, N.Y.-area for 13 years.

"My son has been a great example of a kid who couldn't keep a quarter in his pocket," she said. "Somewhere along the way he learned the value of savings... so as a little one, wanting a Sega (computer game system), he saved enough money to do that and it sort of changed his whole way of thinking around, that 'I can do it by savings.' That's the point."

By Michael Gormley By Michael Gormley