And now a word from our sponsor

October 12, 2001

How do you get a company to pick up the tab for a $40,000-a-year education in sun-kissed California? Stephen Phillips meets entrepreneurial teenagers Chris Barrett and Luke McCabe.

Chris Barrett and Luke McCabe remember watching Tiger Woods on television last summer. The golf superstar was fielding questions from the media after his latest tournament victory. But it was not what was coming out of Woods's mouth that struck the high-school students from suburban Philadelphia. Rather it was what was sitting on his head. "We realised he was getting millions of dollars to sit there with a Nike hat on his head," McCabe recalls.

The spectacle planted a seed for the duo, who were just a year away from the expensive financial commitment of university. "If we could get a company interested in [our] advertising their logo, then we could get money for tuition without [having to] go the scholarship route or go into debt for the next 20 years," McCabe says.

The parents of both students were wealthy enough to afford a local college education for their children. But financial aid was at a premium if the students were to realise their dream of studying thousands of miles away from their native New Jersey - in sun-kissed southern California. Moreover, after touring West Coast institutions, the pair had set their heart not on the Golden State's reputable and relatively inexpensive public university system, but the pricey private campuses of Pepperdine and the University of Southern California.

Thus was born a marketing phenomenon. Within weeks the two put together a snappy website dubbed to solicit sponsors. They then enlisted the help of local publicist Karen Ammond, for whom both had worked as interns on previous school holidays. The ensuing media campaign spanned interviews with USA Today , People magazine and sundry other print, television and radio outlets. Their efforts catapulted them onto the New York Post 's list of 2001 "up-and-comers," alongside promising entertainment and sports stars.

Juggling a hectic round of interview commitments with their final-year coursework, the self-promotion paid off. Today, 19-year-old Barrett is settling into his place at Pepperdine's beachfront campus in exclusive Malibu while 18-year-old McCabe is finding his feet at USC, plumb in the heart of Los Angeles - the tab for both is being picked up by a credit-card company.

This is no free lunch, however. In return for paying their tuition and accommodation expenses - $35,000 to $40,000 a year each - the students are expected to be college "spokesguys" for First USA, which wants to market its credit cards to students.

For Barrett and McCabe, the sponsorship deal entails giving interviews in the media, making personal appearances at campuses, promoting First USA-related money-management tips on their website and wearing the company logo.

The business case for paying Barrett and McCabe to endorse its products is clear-cut for First USA. "The best way to talk to college students is to use others," explains Doug Filak, senior vice-president of marketing for the Delaware-based company.

And who better to use than the telegenic duo sporting trendy bleach-blond locks and boy-band good looks?

For their part, Barrett and McCabe say they are treating the sponsorship deal as a job. "Instead of working at the store for minimum wage, this is like an internship - but it's getting us through school," Barrett says.

McCabe, the lead singer of a punk ska outfit called Big Fat Huge, hopes the media appearances that come with the job will advance his budding music career.

Meanwhile, both are touting for more sponsors on their website, and they recently auditioned to host a show on MTV. "We can relate to teens," Barrett says.

The pair say they plumped for First USA over more than 20 other potential sponsors because the firm assured them that it would put their education first and not allow promotional duties to interfere with study commitments. The students say that those they turned down include a clutch of now-defunct dotcoms and a caffeinated mint company, whose product they did not like.

Both universities pronounce themselves satisfied with the arrangement and hail the students' entrepreneurial spirit, which fits nicely with their courses: Barrett is studying communications, McCabe business.

Nevertheless, the transaction bothers David Breneman, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and a specialist in the economics of higher education - not least because of the product being promoted. "Students are getting besieged with credit cards and do not know how to use them. They get into trouble and their parents have to bail them out."

Responding to such qualms, First USA and Barrett and McCabe stress that their promotion will be a soft sell. "They are helping us promote the message of financial responsibilities," Filak says.

Catherine Thomas, USC's associate dean of admissions, says the university has elicited assurances from McCabe and First USA that they will not "encourage students to get more credit cards". She says: "We support the tone of managing credit responsively."

First USA, which supplies branded credit cards to US universities such as Cornell and Notre Dame, has previously only targeted alumni. Students were a secondary consideration, Filak says.

But the company is now "moving into the student market", Filak says, eyeing lucrative sales. By its own reckoning, 40 per cent of US students enter university with a credit card and the usage rate soars to 80 per cent by the end of their second year.

Alongside Barrett and McCabe's activities, Filak says First USA also plans to assemble "ten to 20" students drawn from a cross-section of US universities to serve as a focus group providing feedback on students concerns. They will receive a "small stipend" for their troubles, according to Filak.

Such commercial involvement with students raises disquieting issues for David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, the umbrella group for Washington DC higher education lobbyists.

"Autonomy is one of the most fundamental values (for universities), and autonomy is not just financial. It's about having a space that is occupied neutrally by everyone," says Ward, former chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

"Promotion is obviously happening with (student) athletes and buildings, but these are just names. This is a daily encounter with a corporate entity."

Acknowledging such opposition, McCabe says the sponsorship is not about "companies taking over the classroom".

"First USA is helping us get a better education than we could otherwise, and we are working with it to relay a powerful message about money management that is not (otherwise) taught."

Certainly other students may have to reach for similarly ingenious ploys to get the higher education they want amid the spiralling cost of attending US universities. "College prices have been going up at two to three points above consumer price inflation for some time now," Breneman says. "College looms as a financial commitment second only to home purchase."

As far as Barrett and McCabe are concerned, they hope the First USA contract will bankroll them through their four-year undergraduate careers. The arrangement is up for review at the end of their first year and will be extended only one year at a time. In the meantime, they are expected to resist campus temptations, maintain certain standards of conduct and hold at least a C grade average in their studies.

First USA's interest in Barrett and McCabe is guaranteed only as long as it is good for business. Filak says: "We would like to have a long-term relationshipI (but) we will re-evaluate - (asking) 'are they helping us or are there other ways to get our message out' - every year."

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