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Plastic Rules on University Campus With Growing Use of Prepaid Cards


HARTFORD, Conn. — As a young graduate in the 1967 movie "The Graduate," Dustin Hoffman is advised to go into plastics. These days, plastics precede graduation by at least four years.

This fall, University of Connecticut students have been able to swipe their student IDs at vending machines to buy Cokes or Doritos or to make photocopies in the library. Students already can use their IDs in the campus laundry machines, libraries and dining halls or even to buy food at any one of the campus coffee shops. In a year, they'll be able to swipe off-campus for groceries, haircuts, even time in a tanning bed.

"I get so used to having the card for everything that when I am home, I have to remind myself to bring money when I go out," said Hillary Orr of Simsbury, Conn., who just started her second year at UConn.

That kind of comment makes Matty Simmons smile.

"This is the future of plastic," said Simmons, author of "The Credit Card Catastrophe" and co-founder of Diners Club, the first credit card.

"The prepaid card will soon spread out into many areas, and they will all keep a record of what you like and don't like," Simmons said. "I think it's the best thing that could possibly happen. People are spending what they have and not what they don't have."

Parents who want to school their children early in the wise use of plastics can sign up anyone age 13 or older for the new Citi Cash Card. The prepaid card can be used at ATMs or wherever MasterCard is accepted.

"Parents can track where their kids spend their money and even set up an automatic allowance," said Citi spokeswoman Gina Doynow.

It's not a big step from such a card to a campus card or debit card once they are out on their own making spending decisions.

For example, the UConn card will be accepted at a new co-op, expected to open at the end of the month across from the university's Gampel sports pavilion. It will include a late-night convenience store where students can use their IDs to swipe essentials when the co-op is closed.

Money for this account is separate from the meal plan points, which can only be used at the school's dozen dining halls and the student union's Papa Gino's.

At Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., students can swipe their "Q-cards," which also are their school IDs.

Senior Betsy Cobb of Walpole, Maine, says the card has taught her a lot about budgeting.

On every receipt she signs (like a credit card receipt), Cobb can check the bottom to see how much is left in her account.

"When you first get here, it's like monopoly money to you, and you don't think about what you're spending," she said. "I used to always run out of money by the end of the semester." But she has learned to check her balances.

Cobb said students can use their cards to do laundry, order pizza or even eat at nearby T.G.I. Fridays and Applebee's off campus.

This year, the university expanded its card program to the town surrounding the school.

"I've gone out to the stores in town more because I know I can use my card there," said sophomore Reshma Boloor of Bombay, India. Boloor said she can use a single card to get into the new dorms, get lunch in the cafeteria or even buy beer at Action Sports Bar in town. "But the card says if you're 21 or not," she adds, "and it won't let you buy alcohol with it if you're not."

Where a pay phone once stood next to an ATM, the university has installed a Value Transfer Station, or what the students call a "black box." Three other boxes are in the library, law library and near the dorms. Here, card users can check their balances and add money to their accounts, which are managed by Black Board Inc.

"Students don't part well with cash," said Tom Bell, Black Board's vice president of Industry Relations. "Setting aside a separate amount for food and other necessities makes it easier for them to budget the $10 in their pockets."

Bell said that having one card eliminates the need for separate cards for dining halls, health centers, laboratories, athletic facilities and libraries. "The record holder was the University of Chicago," he said. "At one time, students there could have carried as many as 44 cards."


Brendan Sullivan writes for the Hartford Courant, a Tribune company.

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