College students are piling on debt to create the illusion of success. But they'll find themselves financial failures unless they wise up and get real. By Janet Bodnar, Editor-at-Large March 12, 2008 Thanks to my son Peter for inspiring today's column. A freshman at the University of Michigan, Peter e-mailed me a story from the Michigan Daily. Called "The High Cost of Success," the story began by lampooning (or so I thought) the credit-card spending habits of college students. "As long as I'm pre-approved for a credit card, I'll never spend another Saturday night sitting around the house," writes the author. But then I realized she wasn't joking. She really believes that it's inevitable -- even essential -- for college students to spend big bucks. To succeed in college, she writes, "you have to look like you've already succeeded.". As a result, "many of us find ourselves living above our means for the sake of maintaining a certain image." Furthermore, "if you want to be involved on campus and marketable to companies, you'd better take out another loan just to pay for landing an internship with a major corporation." Some students, including the author, "find ourselves struggling to keep up with our rich friends. No one wants to be the tacky buddy who's always borrowing clothes or the hermit friend who can never go out because they are always broke." Advertisement Her conclusion: "Being involved, driven and competitive causes many of us to slowly dig ourselves into a hole of debt." And what did I think of that? Peter wondered. I think this young woman needs different priorities, not to mention new friends. My two older children have graduated from major universities in big cities, and I can testify that their success in college -- and their marketability in the real world -- had nothing to do with money they spent to keep up with the campus Joneses. No one is twisting the arms of college students to reach into their wallets for their (or their parents') credit cards. They have a choice -- and those who elect to set healthier priorities and graduate free of credit-card debt are the real success stories (see Lessons I've Learned from Being Broke). Advertisement As for those rich friends: Why continue to hang out with people who make you feel frustrated and jealous? Hang with someone like Peter, whose idea of a fancy meal in Ann Arbor is a burrito at Chipotle. My older son, John, said his college friends solved the money problem by making it a habit to divvy up a dinner bill according to how much each person actually ordered. If you were short on cash, you ordered a burger, water and no dessert. No shame in that (and think of the calories you save). Turning the tables on Peter, I asked him what he thought of the Michigan Daily story. "I think it's pretty dumb," he replied.