Paul L. Caron

Friday, August 13, 2010

Students Betting on Their Grades

Inside Higher Ed, Bettor Grades:

Student affairs experts have said that gambling is an unhealthy habit among college students, especially in the age of online poker. But what about if instead of a virtual hands, the students were betting on their ability to meet or exceed a certain grade?

One company, called Ultrinsic, is offering students to chance to do just that. And it is arguing that such wager-making will be a healthful tool for students who might require an extra nudge to hit the books. But some in higher ed think the venture, whose sustainability depends on more students failing to reach their goals than succeeding, could create unintended ill effects and ultimately harm more students than it helps.

Ultrinsic, which is one year old and still in its beta phase, invites students to make bets on whether they can make or exceed a certain grade in a course. As a prerequisite, the company has non-freshmen fill out a list of courses they have taken since arriving at college and their corresponding grades (first-year students are treated equally in terms of assumed skill). Ultrinsic then uses a formula — taking into account that history (which it checks against an official transcript before any payout) along with other factors including any available data on grade distribution for various departments, courses, and professors — to calculate the odds that the student will be able to earn his expected grade. (There is a demo available on the company’s website.)

If a student makes the grade, Ultrinsic pays him according to the calculated handicap; if not, the student pays the company. The rub is that, as in most gambling arrangements, while students can certainly beat the house on a case-to-case basis, the formula is designed so that Ultrinsic wins more, on balance, than the students do (although one user's comments to the Associated Press suggest the formula might not be foolproof).

The company last year piloted its service at New York University and the University of Pennsylvania, drawing about 600 students in all. It has plans to expand to 34 new campuses this fall, including other high-profile institutions such as Princeton University, Duke University, and Stanford University. The universities are not involved in the deployment, though Ultrinsic says it welcomes offers of collaboration.

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