Enterprising US students are sold on university life

August 10, 2001

Two teenagers have convinced an American bank to sponsor their way through the first year of university, to the tune of $40,000 each (£28,000), in return for becoming corporate "student ambassadors".

After Chris Barrett and Luke McCabe, both from New Jersey, visited prospective universities in California, they realised it would cost about $35,000 in tuition fees and living expenses to finish their degrees.

Mr Barrett told The THES that he and Mr McCabe saw how sports players reaped hundreds of thousands in corporate sponsorship and decided to follow suit. They set up a website with a series of pictures depicting possible sponsorship opportunities such as "Advertise here" on the back of T-shirts and promises to "eat your cereal even if we're not hungry".

The 18-year-olds' efforts caught the attention of Yahoo editors, who made it their site of the day. Some 15 to 20 companies contacted the pair,Mr Barrett said, and three or four made serious proposals.

They chose First USA, a subsidiary of the Bank One Corporation and the world's largest issuer of Visa credit cards, mainly because the firm "did not want us to sell credit cards", Mr Barrett said.

They will help to promote the company's new student fiscal responsibility campaign, reminding students that spending money with a credit card also means paying the bill at the end of the month. Their duties will include making campus appearances, publishing financial tips on their website and serving on the bank's student advisory board.

Doug Filak, senior vice-president of marketing strategy for First USA, said the firm sponsored Mr Barrett and Mr McCabe because it believed the best way of communicating with students was through other students, and that the pair offered "a very innovative way" of doing so.

"They allow us to break through the clutter of the messages that students are receiving," he said.

First USA wanted to establish "long-term relationships" with students, Mr Filak said, by helping them to manage their money effectively and use their credit cards responsibly.

The company, which provides cards to the alumni and staff of about 250 US universities and colleges, recently decided to target the fiercely contested student credit card market. Some 40 per cent of American higher education students have a credit card.

Mr Barrett will start his freshman year at Pepperdine University later this month, while Mr McCabe will attend the University of Southern California.

The sponsorship is for 12 months, although Mr Filak said First USA would continue the relationship with the students for the remaining three years, so long as they kept helping the company to promote its message and maintained good grades.

Mr Barrett and Mr McCabe stand to graduate debt-free, as well as greatly enhancing their employability. Meanwhile, their appearance on US network television and in newspapers such as The New York Times and USA Today has generated positive publicity for First USA, worth much more than the $80,000 given to the pair.

However, Andrew Hagelshaw, executive director of the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education, criticised what the sponsorship meant. He said: "We've got to the point where students don't mind being used. They don't see anything wrong with using themselves to advertise for their sponsors."

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