NEW YORK - Like most freshmen, Zarinah Taylor considered banking an afterthought behind dorm and tuition fees. The West Palm Beach, Fla., native plans to enroll at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee this fall.
"It wasn't at the top of the priority list like it should've been, but I looked at several banks in the area and narrowed my choices to those that have things like not needing to keep a certain amount of money in the account," Taylor said.
Taylor, who plans to major in pharmacology, chose a local network of banks that offered everything she wanted, including checks printed with the school's Rattler logo.
Be the customer a Michigan Wolverine or a Louisiana State Fighting Tiger, banks and credit unions are slowly beefing up their checking accounts to meet the needs of college students.
For students, an array of perks are available, including no minimum deposit or balance required to open or maintain an account and no monthly service charges.
For banks, as well as credit unions, attracting student customers can be the tilling of fertile financial ground that may reap continued business after graduation.
Schools with strong community ties, such as Louisiana State University, recognize the importance of hometown banks, said Kyle Waters, regional president of Hibernia Bank in Baton Rouge
The bank's major marketing megaphone is sponsoring fraternity and sorority events during pledge week. Each fall, Hibernia provides food and entertainment for the week-long activities.
Hibernia's Baton Rouge branches pay special attention to LSU's students each year with the Student Thrifty Account. For $2 a month, students get the bare bones: Five free checks per month (each check after that is 35 cents), an ATM card and no fees charged during June, July and August when students typically move back home for the summer. The bank also has an ATM on campus and a branch two miles from the school gates.
"We used to send out material before school started but we've found that just being visible gets the word out," Waters says.
His own son is enrolled at LSU and relies heavily on the ATM/debit card. "I think in the past year, he wrote maybe one check," Waters said. The downside, he added, is that his son relies on an ATM or bank statement to tell him what the balance is in his account.
"Moving away from home and on to college is a major life event," Waters said. "We've found that students want something inexpensive and readily accessible; parents want to be able to get money to their child quickly."
Nationwide sampling of offers
Some financial centers try to get a jump on the fall rush and start promoting their wares during early orientation in July, with an additional push the first two weeks of school.
A random coast-to-coast sampling of banks found that many are tailoring checking accounts based on student feedback.
First Union's College Express Checking has been around for two years, but a meatier financial package is set for launch this fall at test sites at a number of colleges.
Chris Lee, team leader for First Union's college life event team, said it will include a credit card and allow for "a broader array of financial products" exclusively for students. First Union also plans to have a drawing for free laptop computers during the first week of school.
"College is a jumping off point
it's when most students get their first taste of money management," Lee said.
In college-rich Boston, students have to be 19 years old to open a Bank Boston Student Value Package account, which offers unlimited ATM transactions but requires $6 each month for eight checks.
Last month, NationsBank launched its "Outrageously Easy Banking" campaign nationwide. Among the amenities, one free incoming wire service and one free withdrawal, transfer or balance inquiry per month at a non-NationsBank. The kicker is that students must maintain a $500 balance in the account.
Free is the operative word when it comes to students, said Lisa Rossi at Wells Fargo Bank.
At the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Oregon, Wells Fargo branches try to meet the needs of these large student communities. They use incentives to attract student customers, from T-shirts, cups and key chains to last year's offer of a free four-week subscription to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Citicorp's Citibank is also joining the fray and plans to offer an identification/ATM card featuring free online banking to New York's Columbia University students in the near future.
--by Bank Rate Monitor for CNNfn