Put tuition, room and board, and a meal plan aside. What else do students have to buy to be ready for college? Books, a laptop, pens, pencils, notebooks, dorm décor, student activity fees: the list is long. Those books, that laptop and those supplies could cost close to $3,000, if not more. Many students and their families don’t have that kind of extra money in their checking and savings accounts, so they turn to credit cards.

Last year, eighty-four percent of undergraduates had at least one credit card and half of all college students had four or more cards, according to a report by student lending company, Sallie Mae. With all those credit cards, it’s no wonder that college seniors graduated in 2008 with average credit card debt of more than $4,100, up from $2,900 four years earlier.

So whose fault is all this debt? The students? As Scott Gamm reports in a piece for the Huffington Post, only 24 states require students to take personal finance classes in high school and a recent Capital One survey says that forty-five percent of high school seniors think they aren’t ready to manage their own money.

No, we should be pointing the finger at the credit card companies who lure unsuspecting students and parents with their promises of low-interest rates, no-hidden fees and free t-shirts. Fortunately, thanks to new credit card legislation that took effect in February 2010, credit card companies now have far less latitude to provide incentives for students to sign up for new cards.

But, even with these new regulations, banks still take advantage of this vulnerable, yet apparently profitable market. Students represent an important demographic as not only first-time cardholders hungry for credit, but also as potential loyal customers who typically stay for up to 15 years, according to a 2005 study by Ohio State University researchers.

So how does a student afford mandatory expenses for college without graduating $5,000 or more in the red? Gamm suggests looking to credit unions instead of credit card companies, which are not-for-profit financial institutions for members only. As he writes: “Any profit made by the credit union is directed back to members via higher interest rates on savings [and] checking accounts and lower interest rates on credit cards and loans, unlike a commercial bank, which constantly thinks of new ways to increase its revenue for shareholders via methods such as customer fees.”

Many colleges have their own credit unions with lower interest rates than those offered by corporate credit card companies. Gamm, for example, is a student at NYU’s Stern School of Business who uses the credit card offered by NYU Federal Credit Union. It has an interest rate of about seven percent, as opposed to twenty-five percent at a regular bank.

Since college is most often the first time a young adult is on her own financially, credit unions offer another valuable service: face-to-face meetings with representatives to ensure they understand the terms of their credit card, loan or bank account. This way, students don’t have to end up like Lisa Smith, now 28, who is still paying $500 monthly in credit card bills. "I know that I brought it on myself," said Smith, who attended High Point University in North Carolina. “I didn’t understand how long it was really going to take to pay them back.”

Just because a particular student isn’t financially savvy, that doesn’t mean they should become the victim of a credit card company. To find the best credit unions in your area, go to creditcardconnection.org.