Schools rely on college-linked card revenue

— -- Credit cards bearing university logos helped generate more than $73.3 million for universities, alumni associations, fraternities and sororities in 2010, according to the Federal Reserve Board.

While that was down from 2009, when the cards generated more than $84.5 million, the revenue remains huge and crucial.

"It is a big chunk of what we do," said Roger Williams, executive director of the Penn State Alumni Association. "It basically pays for approximately (20% to 25%) of our operating budget in a given year."

Which college is ranked highest in the nation?

Like most college rankings, it depends.

On pure revenue, Penn State was tops at $2.6 million in 2010. Williams said the association received $2.25 million, with the rest going to the university itself. Penn State's program has generated between $25 million and $30 million through the years, Williams said.

On that basis, cards affiliated with the universities of Texas, Michigan, Southern California and Tennessee rounded out the top five revenue producers, according to the Federal Reserve report.

The rankings change when calculated by revenue per card account.

By that measure, Boston College is No. 1, earning, on average, $1,837 from its agreement with GE Money Bank, which had 597 cards in circulation at the end of 2010, according to the report.

Cards affiliated with Northwestern and the universities of Cincinnati, Memphis and Minnesota round out the top five by revenue per card.

Credit card issuers note that students represent a small fraction of card holders; most go to alumni.

New banking regulations limit the marketing of cards to students. But some consumer activists say new laws should have gone further.

"The new laws regulate marketing to students, but the special card offers still need to be monitored," said Edmund Mierzwinski, consumer program director for U.S. PIRG, a non-profit consumer watchdog organization. "While some schools have converted their contracts to simply allow card access to alumni, undergrad students remain a holy grail for card companies."

Most card holders say they're glad to contribute.

"It's a good chance to show off my school pride, and it helps out the alumni association, so that's good to me," said Mike Cole, a Chicago-area alumnus of the University of Michigan, one of 35,840 Michigan alumni and students who carried a U-M-branded Bank of America card last year.

Wisely, USA TODAY's Michigan correspondent, also reports for the Detroit Free Press.