Student credit, debit and prepaid card statistics

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credit card statistics

While the Credit CARD Act of 2009 has led to a drop in credit card use on college campuses, many students have turned to debit and prepaid cards to pick up the slack.

When it comes to monthly spending, college students in 2015 used debit or check cards for 42 percent of their purchases, cash for 40 percent, their own credit cards for 6 percent, their parents' credit cards for 4 percent, prepaid cards for 3 percent, school-issued campus cards for 3 percent and online peer-to-peer payment systems such as PayPal for 1 percent.1

Share of monthly spending by payment method
  Total % Male % Female % Freshman % Senior % On campus % Off campus %

ATM card/debit card/check card

42 39 44 30 40 48 49


40 43 37 50 39 36 36


1 1 1 1 1 1 1

Your credit card

6 7 6 6 7 6 6

Your parent's credit card

4 4 4 4 5 3 5

Online person-to-person payment system (PayPal)

1 1 1 0 1 1 1

School issued campus card

3 3 4 6 4 2 1

Prepaid card with Visa, MasterCard, Discover or American Express logo

3 3 3 4 3 3 1
Source: Student Monitor, Financial Services, spring 2015

Perhaps the reason students use debit so much more than credit is because they have more access to those cards. The CARD Act requires anyone under 21 who wants their own credit card to have an adult co-signer or show they have enough income to repay credit card debt.

In early 2015, a study by Student Monitor found that 23 percent of college students had a credit card in their own name, down from 46 percent in 2005. Of those students who didn’t have a credit card in their name in 2015, 38 percent had a debit card.1 

Similarly, in December 2015, research by Sallie Mae found 85 percent of college students owned debit cards, compared to 56 percent who had credit cards and 15 percent who said they used prepaid debit cards.2

Among college students who in 2015 used a debit card at least monthly, the average number of times they made purchases was 18 per month. Nineteen percent  used a debit card to make purchases daily, while 74 percent used a debit card to make purchases at least weekly.1 

The most popular debit card rewards among college students in 2015 were cash back (67 percent), gas purchase rebates (22 percent) and entertainment tickets (15 percent).1

When asked how much of their spending they’d shift to credit if they received their first credit card tomorrow, 24 percent of college students in 2015 said more than 25 percent. Not only that, but 40 percent of students said they would spend more than $100 per month on a credit card if they had one.1

The continuing case for credit

While the CARD Act has led to a decrease in the number of college students with access to credit, it in no way has eliminated the college market, especially among students concerned with building credit.

When researchers for Student Monitor asked college students in 2015 which payment card features they considered to be "very" or "somewhat" important, 62 percent said "being able to build a credit history," 59 percent said "having a rewards program" and 56 percent said "having budget controls."1

The Sallie Mae survey reveals similar factors at play among students who have credit cards. When asked why they got a credit card, 59 percent said to begin building credit history followed by 26 percent who said because parents or guardians suggested they do so. Twenty percent said they were interested in earning rewards.2

But college students with credit cards often had to jump through hoops to get them. Among students in 2015 with credit cards in their own name, 57 percent said they had secured credit cards, meaning they required a security deposit equal to the credit line. Likewise, 45 percent of students reported having a co-signer, up from only 37 percent in 2014.1

Fifty-four percent of cards in students' names in 2015 were Visa, 28 percent were MasterCard, 11 percent Discover and 7 percent American Express.1  


College students with a credit card in their own name had on average 1.5 credit cards in 2015. The average credit limit was $1,339 and 28 percent said their credit limit had increased in the previous year. The average credit limit for a first-time credit card was $807.1 

Average student credit limits
  All cards Visa MasterCard American Express Discover  
Source: Student Monitor, Financial Services, spring 2015


In 2015, students with credit cards in their name charged on average $141 monthly, up from $130 in 2014. They also reported using their cards a mean of 7.9 times monthly. Fifty-one percent used their cards at least weekly.1

An April 2016 survey by Experian found soon-to-be college graduates (those 18-25 years old likely to graduate within the next six months) charged more on their cards. Among the 58 percent of respondents who had a credit card, the average monthly charges were $531.9

Despite tougher credit requirements, some college students still have multiple cards. In 2014, 12.1 percent of college students had two cards, 5.3 percent had three cards, 2.6 percent had four cards, 1.4 percent had five cards and 3.2 percent had six or more.3

Students at two-year colleges were more likely to have multiple cards than students at four-year colleges. In fact, 6.9 percent of students at two-year public colleges had six or more credit cards compared with 2.8 percent of students at four-year public colleges.3

Number of credit cards per student, by institution type 
Number of credit cards All Institutions 2-year public 4-year public 4-year private


43.5% 41.3% 43.7% 43.5%


31.9% 22% 33% 31.9%


12.1% 14.1% 12.1% 10.9%


5.3% 8.8% 4.9% 5.2%


2.6% 4% 2.4% 3%


1.4% 2.9% 1.2% 1.9%

6 or more

3.2% 6.9% 2.8% 3.6%
Source: National Student Financial Wellness Study

Choosing a credit card

When Student Monitor asked students in 2015 to pick five characteristics from a list of 53 they considered to be the most important in a credit card, the top answers were "no annual fee" (35 percent) and "low interest rate" (34 percent).1

Five most important credit card characteristics
No annual fee
Low interest rate
24 hour toll-free customer service
Can be used at ATM machines
Low annual fee
Card I can get in my name
Is from my bank
Accepts payment on the internet
High credit limit
A card for college students
Cash back rewards for purchases
Offers reward points
Widely accepted
Allows you to view account information online
Can view account information on internet
Offers text alerts
Good overall value
No liability for fraudulent use
Card just for students
Discounts on travel
Convenient access to cash
Automatic monthly payments from checking account
Airline frequent flier mileage for each dollar spent
Can use card as identification for check cashing
Discount at stores/restaurants with use of card
   Source: Student Monitor, Financial Services, spring 2015


Yet according to Sallie Mae, the top reasons college students in 2015 chose one particular credit card over another were rewards points (32 percent) and cash-back benefits (30 percent). Twenty-seven percent chose a card because it offered easy approval.2

Sixty-eight percent of students in 2015 said they were influenced by their parents when selecting their first credit card.2 

Students were also particular about the types of rewards they wanted. The most popular credit card rewards among college students in 2015 were cash back (63 percent), gas purchase rebates (14 percent) and restaurant discounts (13 percent).1

How students use credit cards

Forty-one percent of college students in 2015 said they use their credit cards for emergencies only, while 36 percent said they use them for recurring payments. Thirty-nine percent said credit cards let them manage their spending more responsibly than cash or checks.1

Of those college students who use credit cards, 46 percent use them on everyday purchases.2

Many college students use credit cards to help fund their education costs. In 2014, students with credit cards charged on average $2,150 to help finance their education.4

Concerns about credit cards

While 55 percent of college students in 2015 believed they were responsible enough to have a credit card in their own name, 52 percent believed credit cards encourage overspending.1

They had other apprehensions as well. In 2015, college students’ greatest concerns were:

  • identity theft (67 percent)1
  • being responsible for charges that they didn’t make (64 percent)1
  • getting into debt (60 percent)1
  • not being able to make monthly payments (58 percent).1

Eighty percent of students with credit cards in their own name in 2015 were responsible for the bill.1 


Many college students have reported using credit responsibly. In 2015:

  • 59 percent said they used credit cards to build credit.2
  • 66 percent said they review their credit report.2
  • 73 percent said they pay their credit card bills themselves.2
  • 69 percent said they keep their credit card balances below $500.2

Of students in 2015 with a credit card in their name, 14 percent said their parents weren't aware that they had a card.1 


But not all college students used credit cards responsibly. Only 66 percent in 2015 reported paying their credit card bills in full each month. Among the 34 percent that carried a balance, the average balance was $466. Twenty-seven percent in 2015 had been charged a late payment fee. Of those, 54 percent had been charged late fees more than once.1 

Among soon-to-be college graduates who had a credit card in April 2016, 33 percent had made a late payment, 31 percent had maxed out a card, 23 percent had had a card declined and 15 percent had missed a payment. Some 30 percent of grads-to-be had credit card debt, and the average balance among them was $2,573.9

While 59 percent of college students never or rarely charge a purchase unless they already have the money to pay the bill, 25 percent said they sometimes charge purchases when they don’t have the money to pay for them and 15 percent said they frequently do.2


While 25 percent of college students with credit cards in 2015 worried their debt was out of control, 28 percent expected to have credit card debt for the rest of their lives and 27 percent said they didn’t mind having credit card debt.2

Students who paid their own credit card bills in 2015 had an average balance of $779, while students whose families paid the bill had an average balance of $1,461.2


Among students at four-year institutions in 2015, 76 percent had a credit balance of less than $1,000; 13 percent had a balance between $1,000 and $2,499; 5 percent had a balance between $2,500 and $4,999; 3 percent had a balance between $5,000 and $9,999 and 3 percent had a balance of $10,000 or more.5

Among students at community colleges or two-year-institutions, 54 percent had credit card balances of less than $1,000; 19 percent owed between $1,000 and $2,499; 12 percent owed between $2,500 and $4,999; 9 percent owed between $5,000 and $9,999; and 6 percent owed $10,000 or more.5

Failing to pay the entire balance could be costly. In 2014, a student getting his or her first credit card had an average APR of 21.4 percent. Students who took out cash advances were likely to pay on average 24.1 percent.6 

When asked about the APR for the card they used most often, 72 percent  of college students said they didn’t know, followed by 8 percent of students who said their APR was 10 to 15 percent, 7 percent who said it was 1 to 5 percent and 7 percent who said it was 16 to 20 percent.1

Of the 44 percent of college students that did not have credit cards in 2015, 51 percent said they didn’t need one now and 47 percent said they wanted to avoid debt.2

Applying for credit

Despite the fact that it’s more challenging for students to qualify for credit, card issuers are still courting the college demographic. In a typical month, college students in 2015 said they received 1.9 credit card offers via mail, 0.6 offers from telemarketers, and 2.1 email solicitations. Yet, the most common way college students obtained a credit card in 2015 was by applying in person at a bank (36 percent).1

While the vast majority of college students (86 percent) in 2015 had not applied for credit in the previous year, 7 percent had applied for one card, 4 percent had applied for two to three cards and 2 percent had applied for more than three cards. Among students who had applied in the previous year, 9 percent were approved for one or more cards.1 

Fifty-eight percent of college students with a credit card believed they could qualify for a credit limit of $1,000 or greater, compared to 27 percent without a credit card. Twenty-two percent of college students said they didn’t know how much credit they would qualify for; 4 percent said they would not qualify for a credit card.2

Some 40 percent of college students said that if they were denied credit, they would turn to a debit card.1

Student reaction to being declined or receiving insufficient credit line
Use debit card, apply for a credit card after graduation
Apply for a different credit card
Apply for a credit card co-signed by your parent
Obtain a credit card as authorized user of parent's card
Apply for a secured credit card
   Source: Student Monitor, Financial Services, spring 2015


Student credit scores and credit reports

While many students apply for credit to build their credit history, only 23 percent of college students said in 2015 that they were aware of their credit scores, compared with 26 percent in 2014.1 

In 2015, students with a credit card in their name reported a mean credit score of 674 compared with a mean score of 652 for students without a credit card in their name. Students with credit cards also place a higher importance on credit scores. In 2015, 83 percent of students with credit cards said credit scores were very important or somewhat important, compared to 70 percent of college students who did not have a credit card.1

When asked to describe their credit scores, more than half (52 percent) of college students in 2015 said they didn’t know. Among the other respondents, even if they didn't know their exact score 6 percent thought they could characterize their scores as being "excellent," 12 percent described them as being "above average," 24 percent said "average," 4 percent said "below average" and 2 percent said "poor."1 

Student description of credit score
Above average
Below average
Don't know
    Source: Student Monitor, Financial Services, spring 2015

Forty-nine percent of college students had viewed their credit reports in 2015. Among students with a credit card, 66 percent had viewed their credit reports while only 27 percent of students without credit cards had viewed their credit reports.2 


Male students use credit more

Men and women in college use credit differently. In 2015, 60 percent  of college men had a credit card compared with 53 percent of college women. Men also carried more credit card debt, with an average balance of $1,190 compared to $642 for college women.2

While 66 percent of women said they would never spend more on a credit card than they have to pay the bill, only 52 percent of men said the same thing. College men were more confident than college women about their money management skills, and 55 percent of college men had viewed their credit report compared with 44 percent of college women.2 

College men in 2015 were more likely than women to get a rewards credit card (23 percent versus 17 percent), while college women were more likely to get a credit card as a way to build credit (68 percent versus 50 percent).2

Profile of a typical student credit card user
  • Older than 21
  • Male
  • Lives in the Northeast or South
  • Comes from a high-income family
  • Employed
  • Says he is good or excellent at managing his money
   Source: Student Monitor, Financial Services, spring 2015


The promise of prepaid

College students in 2015 used prepaid cards for 3 percent of their monthly spending.1 

While that might seem low, millennials in general were more likely than other age groups to use prepaid cards. In 2015, 33 percent of millennials had used a reloadable prepaid card in the previous two to three years compared with 25 percent of the general population. Among millennials who didn’t currently use a reloadable prepaid card, 60 percent said they would consider one compared with 49 percent of the general population.7

Certain features would make prepaid cards even more popular among young people. Thirty percent of college students in 2013 said they were more likely to use the cards if they had additional rewards, 24 percent said they’d be more likely to use a prepaid card that fell under a major brand such as Visa or MasterCard, and 20 percent said they would be more likely to use prepaid cards if there were fewer card-related fees.8 

In 2013, college students were most likely to use prepaid cards for groceries (57 percent), gas/fuel (48 percent) and entertainment purchases (32 percent).8

Campus cards fill gaps

On many college campuses, a multipurpose card has transformed the financial landscape. The campus card serves as a jack-of-all-trades, giving students the ability to unlock campus doors, check out books at the library and even make purchases by serving as either a debit or prepaid card.

In 2015, 57 percent of college students had a campus card, down from 60 percent the year before. Sixty-eight percent of those students said their campus card worked as a payment card, and 20 percent said their card included a bank name or logo.1 

Of those college students in 2015 that had payment-capable campus cards, 33 percent made purchases daily. Students without a credit card reported making 66 percent more purchases with campus cards than students with credit cards.1

Frequency of using campus card to make purchases
Base = Students with a school issued, stored value campus card.
  Total % Male % Female % Public % Private % Have credit card % Don't have credit card %


33 31 34 30 37 17 36

Several times a week

22 21 23 25 17 25 21

About once a week

8 10 7 9 8 14 7

A few times a month

4 3 4 3 5 7 3

Less than once a month

6 7 5 6 7 11 5


21 19 24 24 18 21 22

Don't know

6 9 4 5 9 4 7
Source: Student Monitor, Financial Services, spring 2015

When college students were asked in 2015 to name the greatest benefit of using campus cards as a payment tool, 64 percent said convenience, 57 percent said not having to carry cash, 56 percent said being able to handle most campus needs, 56 percent said having access to prepaid funds, and 53 percent said only needing to carry one card.1

Between debit cards, campus cards and credit cards, plastic seems destined to dominate the college payment landscape for years to come.

  1. Student Monitor Financial Services, spring 2015
  2. Sallie Mae and Ipsos: Majoring in Money: How American College Students Manage Their Finances, 2016
  3. The Ohio State University National Student Financial Wellness Study published July 1, 2015
  4. Sallie Mae: How America Pays for College 2014
  5. Money Matters on Campus: How College Students Behave Financially and Plan for the Future
  6. Study: College Students Face High Interest Rates on Student Credit Cards
  7. TD Bank survey
  8. Javelin Strategy & Research: Managing the Potential Regulatory Landscape of Prepaid Cards on College Campuses
  9. Experian College Graduate Survey Report, April 2016

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See related: Credit card statistics, Payment method statistics, Credit card demographic trend statistics


Published: June 15, 2016

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