How 19-year-old activist Zack Kopplin is making life hell for Louisiana’s creationists

George Dvorsky

For Zack Kopplin, it all started back in 2008 with the passing of the Louisiana Science Education Act. The bill made it considerably easier for teachers to introduce creationist textbooks into the classroom. Outraged, he wrote a research paper about it for a high school English class. Nearly five years later, the 19-year-old Kopplin has become one of the fiercest — and most feared — advocates for education reform in Louisiana. We recently spoke to him to learn more about how he’s making a difference.

Kopplin, who is studying history at Rice University, had good reason to be upset after the passing of the LSEA — an insidious piece of legislation that allows teachers to bring in their own supplemental materials when discussing politically controversial topics like evolution or climate change. Soon after the act was passed, some of his teachers began to not just supplement existing texts, but to rid the classroom of established science books altogether. It was during the process to adopt a new life science textbook in 2010 that creationists barraged Louisiana’s State Board of Education with complaints about the evidence-based science texts. Suddenly, it appeared that they were going to be successful in throwing out science textbooks.

A pivotal moment

“This was a pivotal moment for me,” Kopplin told io9. “I had always been a shy kid and had never spoken out before — I found myself speaking at a meeting of an advisory committee to the State Board of Education and urging them to adopt good science textbooks — and we won .” The LSEA still stood, but at least the science books could stay.

No one was more surprised of his becoming a science advocate than Kopplin himself. In fact, after writing his English paper in 2008 — when he was just 16-years-old — he assumed that someone else would publicly take on the law. But no one did.

“I didn’t expect it to be me,” he said. “By my senior year though, I realized that no one was going to take on the law, so for my high school senior project I decided to get a repeal bill.”

Indeed, it was the ensuing coverage of the science textbook adoption issue that launched Kopplin as an activist. It also gave him the confidence to start the campaign to repeal the LSEA.

Encouraged by Barbara Forrest, a philosophy professor at Southeastern Louisiana University — and a staunch critic of intelligent design and the Discovery Institute — Kopplin decided to write a letter that could be signed by Nobel laureate scientists in support of the repeal. To that end, he contacted Sir Harry Kroto, a British chemist who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Robert Curl and Richard Smalley. Kroto helped him to draft the letter — one that has now been signed by 78 Nobel laureates .

In addition, Kopplin has introduced two bills to repeal the LSEA, both of which have been sponsored by State Senator Karen Carter Peterson. He plans on producing a third bill later this spring. And along with the Nobel laureates, he has the support of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), New Orleans City Council, and many others.

But as the early results of his efforts have shown, it’s not going to be an easy battle.

“We’ve had gains over the last few years,” he says, “But our first attempt to repeal the LSEA was defeated 5-1 in committee, and in our second attempt we lost 2-1.” Kopplin is hoping to get out of committee this year.

He also has his eyes set on vouchers. After an Alternet story came out about a school in the Louisiana voucher program teaching that the Loch Ness Monster was real and disproved evolution , Kopplin looked deeper into the program and found that this wasn’t just one school, but at least 19 other schools, too.

School vouchers, he argues, unconstitutionally fund the teaching of creationism because many of the schools in these programs are private fundamentalist religious schools who are teaching creationism.

“These schools have every right to teach whatever they want — no matter how much I disagree with it — as long as they are fully private,” he says. “But when they take public money through vouchers, these schools need to be accountable to the public in the same way that public schools are and they must abide by the same rules.” Kopplin is hoping for more transparency in these programs so the public can see what is being taught with taxpayers’ money.

Facing opposition

His efforts, needless to say, have not gone unnoticed — particularly by his opponents. He’s been called the Anti-Christ, a stooge of “godless liberal college professors,” and was even accused of causing Hurricane Katrina. Kopplin cooly brushes these incidents aside, saying they’re just silly distractions.

But some of the most aggressive broadsides, he says, have come from state legislators.

“I’m not talking threats or name calling, but they were really something to experience,” he says. [In addition to the video at left, Kopplin provided other examples that can be seen and )

“I don’t enjoy upsetting people, but you have to brush the attacks off,” he says. “I know that I’m fighting for a good cause — and I would be neglecting my duty if I stopped my campaign just because I felt uncomfortable about opposition.”

And perhaps not surprisingly, a number of people have refused to take Kopplin seriously on account of his age. “Oh, for sure — there have absolutely been people who have dismissed me because I’m still a kid,” he told us. Some of his opponents have even suggested that his parents are really the ones behind the campaign — an accusation he flatly denies.

“They have their own lives to live, and certainly don’t have time to run a public issue campaign,” he says.

“What disturbs me though, is when other kids are the ones to dismiss me based on age,” he told io9. “They see a 19 year old kid and can’t believe that I can actually go out and change the world. Too many of my peers have this attitude that they need to dress nicely, sit quietly, and wait until we are adults to change things. This attitude must change. My generation needs to speak out for what we believe.”

It’s simply not science

And indeed, Kopplin is a passionate defender of scientific inquiry, and vociferously rejects the notion that creationism and evolution should be taught side-by-side.

“Creationism is not science, and shouldn’t be in a public school science class — it’s that simple,” he says. “Often though, creationists do not, or are unwilling, to recognize this.” Science, he argues, is observable, naturalistic, testable, falsifiable, and expandable — everything that creationism is not.

But what also drives Kopplin is the inherent danger he sees in teaching creationism.

“Creationism confuses students about the nature of science,” he says. “If students don’t understand the scientific method, and are taught that creationism is science, they will not be prepared to do work in genuine fields, especially not the biological sciences. We are hurting the chances of our students having jobs in science, and making discoveries that will change the world.”

He worries that, if Louisiana (and Tennessee, which also has a similar law) insists on teaching students creationism, students will not be the ones discover the cure to AIDS or cancer. “We won’t be the ones to repair our own damaged wetlands and protect ourselves from more hurricanes like Katrina,” he says.

Moreover, he’s also concerned that teaching creationism will harm economic development.

“Just search creationism on Monster Jobs or Career Builder and tell me how many creationist jobs you find,” he asks. Kopplin tells us about how this past Spring, Kevin Carman, the former Dean of LSU’s College School of Science (now the Executive Vice President and Provost for the University of Nevada, Reno) testified in the Louisiana Senate Education Committee about how he had lost researchers and scientists to other states because of the Louisiana Science Education Act.

“But it also violates the separation of church and state,” he says. “Teaching Biblical creationism is promoting one very specific fundamentalist version of Christianity, and violating the rights of every other American citizen who doesn’t subscribe to those beliefs. So it would be stomping on the rights of Catholics, Mainline Protestants, Buddhists, Humanists, Muslims, Hindus, and every other religious group in the country.

These creationists, he argues, would be horrified to see the Vedas being taught in science class. “And they would have every right to be,” he says, “That’s how the separation of church and state works and it’s the foundation of our country.”

Changes needed

Kopplin is also concerned about the future, and how unprepared the United States has become.

“We don’t just deny evolution,” he says, “We are denying climate change and vaccines and other mainstream science. I’m calling for a Second Giant Leap to change the perception of science in the world.”

To that end, Kopplin would like to see $1 trillion of new science funding and an end to denialist science legislation. He wants to see the American public become more aware and better educated about science.

“My generation is going to have to face major challenges to our way of living — and the way to overcome them is through rapid scientific advancement,” he says. “But as as of right now, America has a science problem.”

Images: Baton Rouge Advocate, The Moderate Voice.


Casio unveils next gen graphing calculator

Casio has unveiled its next generation graphing calculator – the PRIZM, designed to deliver graphs and statistical data as they appear in color textbooks

By Paul Ridden

A quarter of a century after introducing the world”s first graphing calculator, Casio has announced its next generation model that”s been designed to deliver graphs and statistical data as they appear in color textbooks. The PRIZM gets a new, modern body design, offers high resolution color graphics and gives students the opportunity to plot graphs over background image curves and then discover the math functions used to create them.

Casio”s new PRIZM (fx-CG10) graphing calculator”s outer shell now benefits from a more modern, mobile phone-like appearance. Above the rows of input buttons is a high resolution 82,944 dot, 3.7-inch color LCD screen that”s said to offer a textbook-like display. There”s 61,440 byte program and 16MB storage capacity and the power consumption of 0.6W is claimed to translate to 140 hours of use on four AAA-sized alkaline batteries.

Casio has included something called the Picture Plot function which enables “students to experiment by creating their own graphs over pictures of real-life scenes, and then understand the functions from the graphs that they created on their own.” Once the graph has been plotted over any one of 55 types of color images of real-life curved shapes such as the parabola of jets from a water fountain, the student can then perform regression calculations to help them understand what math functions were used to generate the graph overlay.

The PRIZM comes pre-loaded with 40 images which can be used in eight of the calculator”s 15 applications and also features a Color Link function that matches spreadsheet values to colors used in graphs to help students better understand changes in trends and values.

The 0.81 x 3.52 x 7.42-inch (20.57 x 89.4 x 188.46mm) graphing calculator has a USB 2.0 port for hooking up to Casio”s GREEN SLIM data projectors for display to the whole class or direct connection to a computer to allow students to share calculations using Casio”s manager software.

Casio says that the PRIZM will be available from January 2011 for a suggested retail price of US$129.

Can You Analyze Me Now? Cell Phones Bring Spectroscopy to the Classroom

A few basic, inexpensive components and a cellular pone are all high school students need to build a spectrometer, a widely used analytical chemistry instrument. (Credit: Photo by L. Brian Stauffer)

University of Illinois chemistry professor Alexander Scheeline wants to see high school students using their cell phones in class. Not for texting or surfing the Web, but as an analytical chemistry instrument.

Scheeline developed a method using a few basic, inexpensive supplies and a digital camera to build a spectrometer, an important basic chemistry instrument. Spectrophotometry is one of the most widely used means for identifying and quantifying materials in both physical and biological sciences.

“If we want to measure the amount of protein in meat, or water in grain, or iron in blood, it”s done by spectrophotometry,” Scheeline said.

Many schools have a very limited budget for instruments and supplies, making spectrometers cost-prohibitive for science classrooms. Even when a device is available, students fail to learn the analytical chemistry principles inherent in the instrument because most commercially available devices are enclosed boxes. Students simply insert samples and record the numbers the box outputs without learning the context or thinking critically about the process.

“Science is basically about using your senses to see things — it”s just that we”ve got so much technology that now it”s all hidden,” Scheeline said.

“The student gets the impression that a measurement is something that goes on inside a box and it”s completely inaccessible, not understandable — the purview of expert engineers,” he said. “That”s not what you want them to learn. In order to get across the idea, ”I can do it, and I can see it, and I can understand it,” they”ve go to build the instrument themselves. “

So Scheeline set out to build a basic spectrometer that was not only simple and inexpensive but also open so that students could see its workings and play with its components, encouraging critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. It wouldn”t have to be the most sensitive or accurate instrument — in fact, he hoped that obvious shortcomings of the device would reinforce students” understanding of its workings.

“If you”re trying to teach someone an instrument”s limitations, it”s a lot easier to teach them when they”re blatant than when they”re subtle. Everything goes wrong out in the open,” he said.

In a spectrometer, white light shines through a sample solution. The solution absorbs certain wavelengths of light. A diffraction grating then spreads the light into its color spectrum like a prism. Analyzing that spectrum can tell chemists about the properties of the sample.

For a light source, Scheeline used a single light-emitting diode (LED) powered by a 3-volt battery, the kind used in key fobs to remotely unlock a car. Diffraction gratings and cuvettes, the small, clear repositories to hold sample solutions, are readily available from scientific supply companies for a few cents each. The entire setup cost less than $3. The limiting factor seemed to be in the light sensor, or photodetector, to capture the spectrum for analysis.

“All of a sudden this light bulb went off in my head: a photodetector that everybody already has! Almost everybody has a cell phone, and almost all phones have a camera,” Scheeline said. “I realized, if you can get the picture into the computer, it”s only software that keeps you from building a cheap spectrophotometer.”

To remove that obstacle, he wrote a software program to analyze spectra captured in JPEG photo files and made it freely accessible online, along with its source code and instructions to students and teachers for assembling and using the cell-phone spectrometer. It can be accessed through the Analytical Sciences Digital Library.

Scheeline has used his cell-phone spectrometers in several classroom settings. His first classroom trial was with students in Hanoi, Vietnam, as part of a 2009 exchange teaching program Scheeline and several other U. of I. chemistry professors participated in. Although the students had no prior instrumentation experience, they greeted the cell-phone spectrometers with enthusiasm.

In the United States, Scheeline used cell-phone spectrometers in an Atlanta high school science program in the summers of 2009 and 2010. By the end of the 45-minute class, Scheeline was delighted to find students grasping chemistry concepts that seemed to elude students in similar programs using only textbooks. For example, one student inquired about the camera”s sensitivity to light in the room and how that might affect its ability to read the spectrum.

“And I said, ”You”ve discovered a problem inherent in all spectrometers: stray light.” I have been struggling ever since I started teaching to get across to university students the concept of stray light and what a problem it is, and here was a high school kid who picked it right up because it was in front of her face!” Scheeline said.

Scheeline has also shared his low-cost instrument with those most likely to benefit: high school teachers. Teachers participating in the U. of I. EnLiST program, a two-week summer workshop for high school chemistry and physics teachers in Illinois, built and played with cell-phone spectrometers during the 2009 and 2010 sessions. Those teachers now bring their experience — and assembly instructions — to their classrooms.

Scheeline wrote a detailed account of the cell-phone spectrometer and its potential for chemistry education in an article published in the journal Applied Spectroscopy. He hopes that the free availability of the educational modules and software source code will inspire programmers to develop smart-phone applications so that the analyses can be performed in-phone, eliminating the need to transfer photo files to a computer and turning cell phones into invaluable classroom tools.

“The potential is here to make analytical chemistry a subject for the masses rather than something that is only done by specialists,” Scheeline said. “There”s no doubt that getting the cost of equipment down to the point where more people can afford them in the education system is a boon for everybody.”

Story Source:

The above story is reprinted (with editorial adaptations by ScienceDaily staff) from materials provided by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

FTC ''Green Guides'' Revised To Clear Up Misleading Environmental Claims On Products


NEW YORK — It”s an inconvenient truth: Many of the environmental claims in advertisements and packaging are more about raking in the green than being green.

Aiming to clear up confusion for consumers about what various terms mean, the Federal Trade Commission has revised its guidelines for businesses that make claims about so-called “eco-friendly” products.

The proposed new version of the agency”s Green Guides was released Wednesday, with recommendations for when to use words like “degradable” and “carbon offset,” in advertisements and packaging, and warnings about using certifications and seals of approval that send misleading messages.

“In recent years, businesses have increasingly used ”green” marketing to capture consumers” attention,” said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz in a statement. “But what companies think green claims mean and what consumers really understand are sometimes two different things.”

The last update to the Green Guides was in 1998, so the existing guidelines don”t address environmental claims that are common today such as “renewable materials” and “renewable energy.” The proposed update says companies should provide specifics about the materials and energy used in manufacturing, to make sure customers aren”t confused.

The agency noted that consumers can also be misled by broad generic terms like “environmentally friendly,” which are often interpreted to mean the product has specific environmental benefits. So the new guide cautions against making claims with such terms.

Likewise for certifications and seals of approval, which make up a whole section of the proposed revision, versus one page in the older version. Companies should only use these if there”s a specific list of criteria used for the certification, the new guidelines say.

The new Green Guides generally advise companies that they will need “competent and reliable scientific evidence” to back up their claims. While the Green Guides are not enforceable as law, the FTC can take action if it deems a particular company”s marketing unfair or deceptive.

The lack of specific rules for how companies should make environmental claims shows how complicated some of these issues can be, said Lew Rose, an advertising and marketing attorney with Kelley Drye & Warren in Washington. “There”s very, very little area in which there”s a lot of concrete guidance,” he said, adding that can be viewed as a positive from an industry standpoint. “In a perfect world, they would prefer a clear set of rules, but in this area, what I think these guides reflect is a recognition by the FTC that it”s impossible to do that, without creating more problems than you”re resolving.”

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But while the new Green Guides will discourage companies from making thoroughly misleading claims, one concern is that by directing companies to stick with specifics that can be backed up, consumers could become even more confused, said Tom Lyon, director of the Erb Institute for Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan.

“They”re trying to be very clear about what”s ”greenwash” and what”s not,” he said. But it will be hard for individuals to make sense out of multiple environmental claims on a product.

“It”s going to be too complicated for the average consumer to work through,” if there are a dozen different environmental claims on a single package, he said. “What we need is to build trust at the consumer level with well-documented labels.” He pointed to the Energy Star label used for appliances as an example that”s easier for consumers to understand.

Some relief might come from retailers, who can build reputations for offering green products that their customers can count on, Lyon suggested. “Consumers are just not going to take the time to do the research.”

Recent cases in which the FTC took action included three companies charged with making false claims that their products were biodegradable and clothing companies charged with deceptively labeling and advertising products as made of bamboo fiber using an environmentally friendly process.

The three biodegradable cases had to do with companies making claims about paper plates. While a single plate left outside might degrade, the FTC requires such claims reflect normal use, a spokeswoman said. Since most paper plates would end up in trash that is sent to a landfill – where nothing degrades quickly – the agency said companies shouldn”t make the claim. Likewise, for the textiles made from bamboo – bamboo can be used to make rayon, the fabric in question – but the manufacturing process is far from environmentally friendly, the spokeswoman said.

In general, the FTC issues a cease and desist order when it takes action against a company, and can step up to levying fines if violations continue. The enforcement action taken varies by case, the spokeswoman said.

The proposed guides were put together after a lengthy process that included public input from workshops and surveys, but consumers and others have another chance to submit comments through Dec. 10. Comments can be submitted electronically at: .


Pre-Exercise Stretching Is Killing Your Workout

By Jeremy Repanich

Seems that most everything your high school gym teacher told you is wrong. Well, at least when it comes to all that start-of-the-class stretching.

A recent spate of studies shows that when it comes to warming up before exercising, phys ed instructors didn’t do us any favors by having us to go through a series of calf extensions, hurdler’s stretches and the like.

The latest salvo against stretching comes from a study published in the September issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, which found that static stretching before a workout lowered runners’ endurance and made their body less efficient. While previous studies have illustrated the effects of stretching on anaerobic activities, this was the first one to show the effects on runners.

The study took 10 fit middle- and long-distance runners (all male) and had each of them do the same run on two separate days with a 72-hour recovery period in between. The researchers divided the run into two 30-minute parts, with the first testing for caloric expenditure and the second assessing endurance. One day a participant did a stretching routine before running; on the other, he simply sat quietly prior to his workout.

During the first interval, participants ran at 65 percent of their VO2 max, keeping a constant pace. The researchers found that when the runners stretched before the workout, they burned, on average, 5 percent more calories during the run than when they didn’t stretch. Because they burned more energy to run the same distance it indicates their bodies performed less efficiently after stretching. For the second half, participants were told to run as far as they could on the treadmill for 30 minutes. When the runners didn’t stretch, they went 3.4 percent farther than when they did.


Despite the rising tide of evidence that discredits the benefits of static stretching, the perception remains that it’s necessary to do prior to working out. “Just asking runners, they seem to think stretching would enhance performance,” said study co-author Jacob Wilson, an assistant professor of exercise science and sports studies at the University of Tampa. “The thought is that if you can loosen up and you feel looser, you can perform better.”

But looser isn’t better. “When you’re lifting a weight, most of the damage comes when you’re lengthening the muscle, and it’s similar when you’re stretching,” Wilson said. “You’re stretching the muscle and you do get microtearing and you’re making the muscle less stiff too, so you’re not able to store and utilize energy as well.”

We’ve grown up believing stretching wasn’t just about improving performance, but about injury prevention as well. However a 2005 meta-analysis of past stretching studies found that it didn’t meaningfully reduce soreness or injury.

Yet the effects of stretching go beyond muscles, tendons and ligaments. When we do our toe touches or hurdler’s stretches, “we lose neural control, and that’s important because neurologically, before an event we want the muscles and nervous system to be able to fire the muscle in a smooth sequence,” said Phil Wharton, a leading strength and flexibility trainer whose roster of athletes includes Lopez Lomong and 2004 Olympic silver medal-winning marathoner Meb Keflezgighi. “That diminishes when you’re holding position.”

Wharton has forsaken static stretching altogether for the athletes he trains. Instead, he uses active stretches, which are range-of-motion exercises designed to warm up the muscles and joints prior to a workout and improve flexibility when used after exercise. But he cautions that people should proceed carefully when working the active stretches into their routines.
“People think a little bit is good and so maybe a lot is better, but with range of motion it’s not the case,” Wharton said. “You need to use a progression and build into it slowly as your body warms up.”

Photo: Flickr/mikebaird, CC

Banks Paying Colleges For Students Who Rack Up Credit Card Debt

By Ben Protess and Jeannette Neumann

Some of the nation’s largest and most elite universities stand to gain millions of dollars from selling the names and addresses of students and alumni to credit card companies while granting the companies special access to school events, the Huffington Post Investigative Fund has found.

The schools and their alumni associations are entitled to receive payments that multiply as students use their cards. Some colleges can receive bonuses when students incur debt.

The little-known agreements have enriched schools and some banks at a time when young women and men already are borrowing at record levels, raising questions about whether such collegiate and corporate alliances are in the best interests of students.

“The fact that schools are getting paid for students to rack up debt is a disgrace,” said congressman Patrick Murphy, a Pennsylvania Democrat and former professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He said that banks’ payments to schools amount to “kickbacks.”


    Our examination of affinity agreements involving some of the nation’s largest and most prestigious colleges revealed that schools and alumni associations:
  • Sell students’ personal information. Many are contractually obligated to share students’ names, phone numbers and addresses with banks.
  • Earn royalties: Banks typically pay schools $1 for each student who keeps a credit card open for 90 days. When students carry a balance, some schools can collect up to $3 more per card.
  • Cash in each time a student uses plastic: Many schools are entitled to receive 0.4 percent of all retail purchases made with student cards.
  • Benefit from marketing incentives: When a university or alumni association agrees to market cards to students itself, the payoff is greater — sometimes up to $60 for each card opened through a school’s own marketing.
  • Offer special perks: Banks sometimes gain special access to athletic events. Cornell University must provide Chase Bank with tickets and “priority” parking passes at football, basketball, hockey and lacrosse games.
  • Landmark credit card legislation signed by President Obama one year ago curbed some marketing tactics on campuses but didn’t prohibit the arrangements between colleges and banks, known as “affinity” agreements.

    The substance of these deals had been secret. A provision in the law, authored by Murphy, requires their disclosure. But even now, few schools post the contracts online or publicize their existence. Obtaining a copy can take two weeks or more.

    Thus it’s unclear how many of the nation’s 2,700 four-year colleges have such agreements, or how many allow credit card companies to target students in addition to graduates. Bank of America, which dominates the market, said it has affinity contracts with some 700 schools and alumni associations, where marketing practices vary. At least 100 schools are believed to have affinity agreements with other financial institutions.

    Seventeen contracts obtained by the Investigative Fund from schools and their alumni associations detail the special access granted to banks, such as allowing them to set up booths at football games. All of the agreements call for colleges to provide students’ names, phone numbers and addresses.

    For granting such access and information, schools can receive royalty payments based on the number of students opening accounts and the amount they spend, the contracts show.

    Most of the schools are entitled to earn more whenever a student carries a balance from year to year.

    Some consumer advocates question whether colleges participating in affinity agreements are failing to safeguard the young people in their care.

    “Universities should place the welfare of their students as their highest priority and shouldn’t sell them off for profit,” said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for the federation of state Public Interest Research Groups, or PIRG.

    Three schools, after being contacted by the Investigative Fund, stopped allowing banks to market to students.  Seven other schools and alumni associations, including alumni organizations at Brown University and the University of Michigan, said they have abandoned the practice, even though their contracts appear to require it.

    The contracts call for a range of minimum payments by banks.  At Brown, Bank of America agreed in 2006 to pay $2.3 million over seven years. At Michigan, the bank in 2003 agreed to pay $25.5 million over 11 years.

    The bank says it’s not taking advantage of students; it’s amassing new customers whose loyalties can span a decade or more.

    “Our objective in serving the student market is to create the foundation for a long-term banking relationship,” Bank of America spokeswoman Betty Riess said in an email, adding that the bank offers reasonable rates and low credit limits on student cards, and that it primarily solicits graduates and sports fans.

    Many schools have renegotiated contracts with the bank to limit marketing to students, she said.

    Schools still engaging in the practice defend selling access to students and their contact information. Colleges say the money helps them plug holes in budget shortfalls and shrinking endowments. Some say they use the money to grant more scholarships to students.

    Some colleges and alumni organizations also argue that students need to learn fiscal responsibility–and how better to do that than by having a credit card?

    The University of Michigan alumni association, facing growing scrutiny from consumer groups, says it reached an agreement with Bank of America to stop marketing to students in early 2008. Jerry Sigler, chief financial officer of the alumni association, said he made the decision begrudgingly.

    “Managing credit is as much a part of education and maturation as anything else going on campus,” he said. “Credit isn’t bad, it’s a reality.”

    The benefits are not always so obvious for students whose families already face soaring tuition costs and hefty loan payments. College seniors graduated in 2008 with average credit card debt of more than $4,100, up from $2,900 four years earlier, according to data compiled by student lending company Sallie Mae.

    On their own for the first time, young credit card users can quickly fall behind on payments.

    Despite not having a full-time job or much in savings, Lisa Smith easily found her first credit card on campus–from bank marketers stationed outside her freshman dormitory. Once she racked up charges, new card applications poured in from other companies.

    By the time she graduated in 2005, she had the average number of credit cards for a college student – four – as well as $15,000 in credit card debt. Now 28, Smith is still paying $500 monthly in credit card bills, some dating back to purchases from her college days.

    “I know that I brought it on myself,” said Smith, who attended High Point University in North Carolina, which says it now prohibits on-campus marketing. “But I really felt like I was preyed on. I didn’t understand how long it was really going to take to pay them back.”

    Students ‘Hugely Important’

    On May 22, 2009, President Obama signed sweeping new consumer credit card protections into law. All too often, Obama noted at the time, Americans used credit cards as an anchor rather than a lifeline. Students were no exception.

    The Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act prohibited banks from using some of their most aggressive marketing practices on students. For instance, banks can no longer require students to apply for a card to receive promotional gifts such as pizza or sweatshirts.

    Nor can banks supply credit cards to anyone under age 21–most college underclassmen–unless the customer has a cosigner. The law requires only that the co-signer be over 21. The co-signer needn’t be a parent or guardian.

    The law does not prevent credit card companies from paying schools for special access to students.

    Chase Card Services, a division of JPMorgan Chase & Co., has a handful of such agreements, but Bank of America dominates. It became the market leader in 2006 when it acquired credit card giant MBNA, a pioneer in affinity agreements that often involved pro sports teams and professional associations.

    Soon after the acquisition, Bank of America set its sights on colleges. At a March 2006 conference hosted by Goldman Sachs, Bank of America executive John Cochran described students as “an emerging market that we could really capitalize on,” according to a transcript.

    From a bank’s perspective, students represent an important demographic: Not only do many first-time cardholders hunger for credit; they are likely to stay customers for quite some time – up to 15 years, according to a 2005 study by Ohio State University researchers.

    “Student credit cards are hugely important to a bank,” said Kerry Policy Groth, who negotiated collegiate affinity agreements as an MBNA account executive from 1998 to 2005. “Your first credit card is usually the one you keep.”

    Although Bank of America does not disclose how many student accounts it has or what it earns from student credit cards, Cochran, at the 2006 conference, characterized the collegiate affinity market – students, faculty, alumni and sports fans – as “an over $6 billion portfolio.” The portfolio may have declined in recent months as the bank’s entire credit card business has suffered from rising default rates.

    Bank of America spokeswoman Riess emphasized that the bank primarily targets alumni and fans as prospective customers, with students accounting for about 2 percent of all open collegiate accounts – likely representing thousands of young consumers.

    ‘Students as Commodities’

    Affinity agreements vary from school to school.

    The University of Pennsylvania’s agreement with Bank of America required the school to compile an initial list of 233,000 potential customers, including students, alumni, faculty and staff, to offer the bank. If requested, the school removes potential customers from the contact list.

    When Princeton University signed its affinity agreement with Bank of America in 2004, it agreed to provide the names of at least 4,000 students and 75,000 graduates.

    After a bank obtains the information, it can send an agreed-upon number of solicitation letters and emails. A 2008 PIRG survey of more than 1,500 undergraduate students found that about 80 percent received mailings from credit card companies.

    Some affinity agreements also permit banks to advertise at school sporting events. Banks often have booths at football and basketball games where students 21 or older, alumni and fans can sign up for a card.

    Colleges and alumni associations are entitled to rewards for providing special access and information. Bank of America typically pays schools $1 for each student who opens a credit card account and keeps it open for 90 days, according to contracts reviewed by the Investigative Fund.

    Some schools also can earn more as students rack up charges–and debt.  The University of Oklahoma, among other schools, is entitled to receive 0.4 percent of all retail purchases made with student cards. Most of the 17 contracts obtained by the Investigative Fund entitle schools to extra compensation–up to $3 a card–when students carry a balance from year to year.

    “Essentially, contracts with credit card companies are using students as commodities to earn revenue for the universities from companies who don’t necessarily have the students’ best interest in mind,” said PIRG’s Mierzwinski.

    As part of many agreements, banks also pay for rights to use school trademarks -mascots, logos and emblems – on their advertisements.

    Banks often brand their cards with the familiar images.  This marketing tool, known as co-branding, has its critics. Irene Leech, associate professor of consumer studies at Virginia Tech, said the practice leads some to believe that universities have negotiated favorable credit card rates for their students.

    “Alumni and students both think that it’s the best deal out there that [the school] could get for me,” an assumption that is not always correct, she said.

    Nor do students necessarily get the lowest rates. At Princeton, alumni cards carry an annual percentage rate of 11.9 percent, compared to 14.9 percent for student cards, according to the school’s seven-year affinity agreement, signed in 2004. Rates may have changed since then.

    Bank of America currently charges a 14.24 annual percentage rate on its Student Visa Platinum Card, the primary product it markets to students. Students are not locked in; the rate varies depending on the market’s prime rate. The bank said it doesn’t increase rates on students for reasons such as falling behind on their payments. Nor does it impose an annual fee.

    “We take a conservative approach to lending to young adults,” Bank of America’s Riess said, noting that the bank limits a student’s exposure to debt. The bank offers credit lines for students that “typically” start at $500 and are capped at $2,500, she said.

    The bank, Riess said, also seeks to educate students. “We also provide a number of tools to help young adults better manage their finances,” she added, including free identity theft protection, a student financial handbook and an online educational brochure about building good credit, called “The Essentials.”

    “Building a future customer–that was really the goal” of affinity agreements, said former MBNA executive Groth. “You’re not out to gouge them; you want a positive experience.”

    Shifting Practices

    This spring, Columbia University, the Iowa State University alumni association and Michigan State University all amended their affinity agreements to prohibit any marketing to students. They did so within a week of receiving phone and email inquires from the Investigative Fund. School officials said they had been working on the amendments for months.

    The Investigative Fund requested Columbia’s contract on March 22. Columbia officials signed the school’s amended agreement two days later. The timing was “mostly coincidental,” according to Michael Griffin, executive director of Columbia’s alumni association. He said that the school had never allowed marketing directly to students.

    Seven other schools contacted by the Investigative Fund said they no longer allow marketing to students, even though their affinity contracts would appear to obligate them to. School officials said they had no documentation backing up their assertions.

    “A lot of schools have student access in their agreements” – but don’t necessarily allow it anymore, said Peter Osborne, who managed the collegiate credit card business at Bank of America until 2007. Schools sometimes informally “just request that marketing stop rather than reopening their entire contract.”

    For instance, according to an affinity agreement between the University of Texas alumni association and Bank of America, the association is expected to provide the bank with students’ names and addresses. But the alumni association says it has abandoned that practice.

    “We are not marketing to students at this time and we haven’t for some time,” said Bill McCausland, chief operating officer for Texas Exes, the ex-students’ association. “Whether the contract allows us to or not, we are not doing so.”

    He acknowledged that students could still sign up for credit cards without the school’s involvement. Bank of America, he said, is “still marketing our card and they are doing a very good job of it.”

    At Harvard, the alumni association is supposed to provide a subsidiary of Barclays PLC with “as complete a list as possible of all Harvard alumni and students,” according to the association’s affinity contract. But Harvard spokesman Kevin Galvin said the card was never marketed to students. “We view this card as a service to alumni,” he said.

    Other schools acknowledged to the Investigative Fund that they release students’ contact information. These schools staunchly defend their affinity agreements as important sources of revenue. And some royalties benefit students, according to school and bank officials.

    “The revenues from this go to vital services that otherwise might not be free and otherwise might not be offered,” said Osborne, the former bank official who now advises universities as they negotiate affinity agreements.  Osborne said the revenues “support alumni programs, student scholarships and preserve jobs within alumni associations.”

    Some of the royalties from Penn’s contract go to scholarships and helped pay for the development of Campus Express, an online system where students can order textbooks and manage their dining plans, according to university spokesman Ron Ozio.

    Princeton uses its profits “to support alumni activities,” school spokeswoman Emily Aronson wrote in an email.

    Catherine Bishop, vice president of public affairs at the University of Oklahoma, said affinity agreements are beneficial because they limit the amount of marketing that goes on. “The contract that we have in place,” she said, “is designed to keep multiple companies from soliciting on campus.”

    This story was reported in partnership with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University. Protess is a staff reporter with the Investigative Fund. Neumann graduated from the Stabile program in May. Amanda Zamora, Lauryn Smith and Joseph Frye also contributed to this story.

    Help Us Investigate
    Help us track down credit card contracts

    We’re assembling a team of citizen journalists to help us obtain and analyze credit card agreements at the largest schools in the country. With  your help, and the help of volunteer’s recruited through Campus Progress and the Huffington Post College page, we’ll be compiling contract details for as many schools as possible. To help investigate, simply pick a school from our Top 50 list.

    Just for Textbooks: An Insanely Large Dual-Screen Tablet

    By Barb Dybwad

    A company called Kno, Inc. has announced its flagship product, simply dubbed the Kno. The device joins two 14-inch touchscreens joined with a hinge, and it specifically targets the education sector.

    Earlier we dinged the Dell Streak for being a bit on the small side, but the Kno tablet seems to suffer from the opposite problem. Announced at D8, the Kno weighs in at 5.5 pounds and more than an inch thick, rendering it comparable to a laptop but with two screens instead of a screen and keyboard.

    The company refers to the device as a “digital textbook platform” and has partnered with publishers Cengage Learning, McGraw-Hill, and Pearson and Wiley to produce content for the Kno in a beta program that will kick off at major U.S. colleges and universities this fall.

    Based on Linux, the Kno also boasts support for Adobe Flash — a hot topic right now since that’s something the iPad doesn’t include. Developers are encouraged to participate in building out a third-party App Store for the device.

    As for pricing, all we know is that it will be “under $1000,” which already sounds suspiciously too high. Check out a demo video of the Kno and a few more screenshots below, then let us know what you think: Will students be interested in picking up a device like this? If so, would it be in place of or in addition to a laptop or desktop?

    More pictures and a video ->