ITHACA, N.Y. — To the staff of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, it’s two very different sides of the coin.

On the one hand, Tompkins County residents are some of the least likely to have financial credit of any kind in the state, second only to the Bronx. On the other hand, those who do have credit are remarkably good about managing it.

The results were released as part of a study by the Federal Reserve Bank earlier this week. The analysis examines key measures of credit, such as access to credit from traditional financial lenders (credit cards, car loans, mortgages), credit utilization, repayment histories and debt stress. The goal of the study is to help understand whether communities and individuals are adequately served by financial institutions, and to evaluate whether or not access to capital has improved or worsened over the past decade. In the ideal situation, people would have reasonably easy access to credit, and be responsible with it.

Real quick, let’s touch on the methodology. This is all consumer credit, no companies or institutions. 5% of the adult (18+) population was randomly sampled by credit analysis firm Equifax, and their credit information, made anonymous for all except location, was provided to the Federal Reserve Bank for analysis.

When the bank looked at Tompkins County, things got a little odd. On the one hand, Tompkins has a very low “inclusion rate” which is a record of adults (age 18+) who have credit file, or at least have credit histories. Just 70.6% of the adult population has a credit record of some kind. In New York State, the average is 84.8%, and nationwide, that value is 89.2%. Not only is Tompkins’ credit use low, the percent of adults with credit records has consistently declined over the past several years.

Now, why that be? Well, let’s give it some thought. This area has a lot of college students, who may have yet to open credit cards or have any kind of a credit history, and are increasingly likely to forego plastic in their pockets. Tompkins County has its share of lower-income households who may not have credit access, and there is a small but vocal number of anti-capitalist types who prefer to barter or use alternative currencies like Ithaca Hours or Ithacash.

It looks like that theory holds water when we compare to other semi-isolated college towns. Centre County, Pennsylvania, home to Penn State, has an inclusion rate of 67%. Hampshire County, Massachusetts, home to UMass Amherst and several other schools, has an inclusion rate of 76.3%.

Now let’s look at the credit quality. Here, Tompkins County shines. 89% of those with credit, have good credit, defined as those current or less than 60 days overdue on their payments. Nationally, that value is only 81%, and in New York State, just a little higher than that, at 83%. Even better, 64.5% have credit scores over 720, defined as “prime credit”. That compares to a U.S. average of 49.9%, and a state average of 54.0%. So for those who have credit, they tend to be responsible with it.

“It’s broad data, but it suggests that if you pair the inclusion rate, which is notably low, with credit participants, we can see those with credit access look remarkably healthy in many ways. Tompkins has a higher proportion of prime credit individuals. That tells me there’s a sizable portion of credit-holding individuals in the community with long histories and good histories. Tompkins can really be portrayed as a tale of two counties – the outsiders and the insiders, who borrow well and take advantage in a good way of their credit in a good way,” said Claire Kramer Mills, Assistant Vice President at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Just for the record, Centre County, PA had 90% good credit, and 64.6% with prime credit. Hampshire County, MA had 88%, with 63.9% with prime credit. So the northeast college towns all seem to have that streak of financial responsibility. College towns in the south and west generally did not fare as well – for example, Alachua County, Florida, home to Gainesville and the University of Florida, scored lower with 81% good credit and 47.6% with prime credit.

So, Tompkins County might be a bit unusual compared to the state or country, but fits in comfortably with its peers. The college students may be a drag the inclusion rate, but it looks like folks here are a fairly responsible bunch when it comes to loans and charge accounts.

“It was interesting to us to see how indicators cluster in different places,” said Kramer Mills. “Credit is a channel through which most people build their financial well-being, it’s extremely important. When you look at even bank account analysis, analysts are finding there’s a lot of volatility in consumers’ financial lives. People are trying to negotiate inflows and outflows, and credit is an important part of Americans’ financial lives.”

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.